Social Media: Stick to the Beat – or a Stick to Beat You With?

Social media is now the established channel for the “wisdom of crowds,” or pathway for popular democracy – often in defiance of established authority. The Cairo uprising and ongoing Arab spring was tweeted, rather than televised.

In Europe, the widespread use of Twitter to break the “super-injunction” from the UK courts banning established media outlets from reporting on the extra-marital affairs of Manchester United soccer player Ryan Giggs, certainly looks like a victory for the ordinary man’s right to know what highly-paid celebrities are secretly getting up to with reality TV starlets.

As reported in the Guardian, the decision by London-based celebrity law firm Schillings, representing Giggs, to sue Twitter to force disclosure of the names of thousands of leakers, now looks like a spectacular own goal for the unlucky player and his team.

The full-time score for Giggs’ Manchester United team in the European Cup match against Barcelona was 1-3. Meanwhile the half time score in the emerging Twitter Championship Cup for free speech is: Right to Know 1: Celebrities 0.

And though a municipal authority (South Tyneside Council) in the UK seemingly struck a blow for the status quo’s power to enforce by going to the California courts to force Twitter to reveal the names of tweeters who have allegedly been libelling legislators, nobody’s holding their breath that the world’s tweeters will suddenly stop gossiping online, or retreat into anodyne personal status reports.

But the bigger story is that the same drama of ‘public interest vs. business interest’ is playing out across a much wider stage. No large business can afford to look like Ryan Giggs and his elite but now floundering legal team.

So corporate interests are busily shaping and moulding social media to their needs. As it becomes a power channel, the social media revolution is growing up and getting sophisticated. It seems an Ice Age ago, but it was as recently as 2006 that corporate giants like Dell and Walmart first realised that this space had become mission-critical.

Active opinion formation by corporates using social media is now the rule. Knowing how to create, tell and deliver the story matters more than trying to stop it.

In finance, activist investors are using social media to bend the will of companies and CEOs they plan to influence or even take over.  Tech site Mashable reports companies are increasingly anxious to form opinions in this sector:

Last summer, a report issued by Q4 Web Systems found that companies are beginning to understand that they can no longer cede control of the digital conversation to activist investors. According to the data, 93% of public companies are using LinkedIn to conduct shareholder outreach; 65% are using Twitter; 37% are using Facebook; 29% are using YouTube; and 10% make use of a corporate blog for investor relations (IR).”

Governments are getting in on the act too: France’s President Nicholas Sarkozy – who recently addressed a conference of 1,000 internet executives – is trying to win consensus to regulate the internet.  But he will fail.

The lessons from the growing power of social media are that you can’t hold back the tide of public opinion – but you can still shape which way the story flows. Knowing what to say, how to say it – and above all who to be, counts more than any legal injunction in today’s cross-border social media climate.

By Richard House


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