In praise of uncertainty (I think)

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I recently had an email exchange with a few colleagues, sparked by a news columnist's disdain for how two local public figures are using Twitter. And Darren Barefoot, after offering some solid advice, weighed in with this:

I get frustrated by all of the prescriptive behaviour around new technology. The early adopters (again, guilty) like to tell everybody how they should use a tool. I wrote about this recently (, and generally encourage people to do what seems right for them, as opposed to what the herd demands.

Michael Lewkowitz added,

[Twitter] changes with usage (how you use it and the tools you use to interface with it). It 'responds' to the individual more than any other of the tools.

They're both touching on something crucial: how certainty bumps up against emergence.

Proclamations made with absolute certainty about social media are easy to find online. You have to use Twitter this way, never that way. You have to have a blogroll. You must read these three blogs or you'll never understand YouTube, or SEO, or....

But the key ingredient of social media is people: diverse, divergent, idiosyncratic people. And there are likely to be differences large and small between how a tool works for me and how it works for you.

This is an emerging space, where the constantly-shifting landscape whirls (or Twhirls) around you, it's tempting to cling to some hard-and-fast rule for dear life. But last week's absolute certainty is this week's laughable myth... and may be destined to rise again as next week's hot new thing. (Push is it! Oh, wait, push is dead! Hang on, push is actually RSS and is it! Brands can never succeed in blogging! Brands that don't blog will die a fiery death! Blogging itself is dead!)

And even the risk of wearing a little egg on your face is nothing next to the real price of Misplaced Certainty Syndrome: you don't get to learn.

I like certainty as much as anyone. And there are many recommendations that I'll make with confidence, in good faith, and which I'll stand behind with no qualms. After all, the social media space may be young, but there's a lot we can learn: from what's worked (and hasn't) so far, from the trajectory things are on, and from older means of communication and collaboration that have analogies in this brave new field. We can examine case studies, pore over metrics, draw the best from successes and learn from failures.

But some of the most satisfying, even mind-blowing experiences I've had in social media have come when I approach it with a spirit inquiry. That's easy enough with a relatively new tool (like Twitter, oh those many months ago), but potentially a lot harder when it comes to technologies that are a little longer in the tooth. With them, the trick is to hold both confidence in the lessons we've already learned, and enough humility to recognize that everything is still on the table.

That's what leaves us open to delightful surprises, to learning... and to the hierarchy-flattening, preconception-busting excitement that helps make social media such a great space to work in, and such a promising frontier for change.

And I'm confident of that. Not certain. Just confident.


Jason Mogus says

February 9, 2009 - 9:26pm

Nice post and insight Rob. Humility and behaviours that support emergence appear to be (ARE ABSOLUTELY TOTALLY) what makes social media and web projects succeed. Its cool that we have a President that also values humility (he mentioned it 3 times in his inaug speech). Its refreshing to hear consultants have this attitude too.

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