Digital Centership | Why Lead Online?
“People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.”
– Lewis Rothschild, The American President
The opening quote was taken from the movie The American President, in which Michael Douglas plays an incumbent President Shepard, preparing to run for a second term against a politically cutthroat opponent. His rival, played by Richard Dreyfuss, has been leading a campaign against President Shepard that includes attacks on his character, using all kinds of accusations, innuendo and misinformation.
President Shepard had decided to ‘take the high road’ and not respond to his opponent, but his silence was damning. Speculation was running rampant and people weren’t sure exactly why he was being silent in the face of these accusations. Shepard didn’t want to give more credence to his opponent by engaging with him; as a result, his reputation had been damaged and approval polls began plummeting. That’s when his trusted domestic policy advisor, Lewis Rothschild (played by Michael J. Fox) gave him a good talking to including the above quote.
Why Some Leaders Don’t Engage Online
There are a few reasons why qualified leaders shy away from online engagement, particularly on social media platforms. First, many who have achieved higher levels of success in their careers worry that engaging on social media may detract from their professionalism and weaken their authority in their areas of expertise. Certainly there are some professionals (doctors, lawyers, politicians, etc.) who, for legal reasons, must be careful about making both their personal and professional opinions accessible to everyone on the world wide web. It goes beyond credibility for these folks—it can actually end up in a lawsuit or worse, damaging the people they serve or represent.
However, the majority of professionals have no problem interacting in a blend of professional & personal ways at conferences, happy hours or other social situations where everyone is aware of who they are and what they do for a living. No one goes to a networking happy hour event and just hands out business cards or corners people to ‘talk shop’ the whole time. It’s not uncommon to see people from all sectors publicly drinking an adult beverage, telling jokes, discussing sports or fashion, and even dancing without damaging their professional persona. In fact, these are opportunities to make deeper connections with co-workers, existing and potential clients, voters, donors and other people who can help you in your mission.
Social media is first and foremost a social environment. To log on and try to be only who you are in the workplace is counterproductive. Not only is it ok to loosen up and be social on social media, it’s actually required if you intend to have any kind of influence on these platforms. It’s up to each person to share what is comfortable for them, but I always advise my clients to bring as much of themselves to the medium as they can without jeopardizing their safety or hurting others.
Engaging on social media in a social way that reveals your humor, hobbies or unique personality is not going to damage your professional reputation. If anything, it will make you relatable and draw people to you, which can be a boon when you’re able to reach people you may not have had access to simply by engaging in offline forums.
The second reason leaders may not want to engage online has to do with the discomfort from being in an environment where people feel freer to say things without normal social conventions. On the internet, random strangers will challenge your statements; someone may abuse you simply because of your race or religion, which they’ve noted in your profile; you may see things you strongly disagree with from people you never suspected held those beliefs; and everyone feels comfortable criticizing things with only the bare minimum of information. In fact, in my own experience, I find people often respond to linked articles or blog posts at length without ever even reading them.
The online world is absurd. It can make you feel like Alice in Wonderland – wandering around unfamiliar territory where the rules of space and time do not apply, having people say and do the strangest (and meanest!) things, and then acting as if you were the odd one for being confused by it all. Alice actually spent a lot of her time in Wonderland arguing with it’s strange inhabitants and trying to convince them that they were, in fact, the strange ones.
It’s understandable that we want to avoid uncomfortable situations, but part of learning how to use social media effectively is knowing how to ‘read’ people, and frankly, it’s about building up callouses and not being easily hurt or offended. Wires get crossed all the time online because we are deprived of the very cues we have evolved to rely on in our communications. You don’t get facial expressions or body language; you have no idea where that person is at the moment they are engaging with you. All you have to go on are the black-and-white words on a screen and maybe an emoticon or an LOL.
The interesting thing about online engagement, however, is that you actually can notice the unique idiosyncrasies and tones that people use when you regularly engage with the same people. A single word or the lack of/addition of punctuation can make all the difference in how people express themselves. But this means you have to be engaging with the same people, and have an ongoing relationship with them to really ‘get’ what they are saying. It’s not so different from ‘real life’ communications in that way; but the additional challenge by lack of in-person mannerisms means you have to pay closer attention and it may take a little longer to ‘get to know’ people online.
All of this to say, online environments are different – the rules of social interaction don’t always apply in the same way. Which leads some people to forget that they are actually dealing with real people on the other end of the screen. Leaders who are able to read the humanity of others on social media, understand the limitations of the medium, and adjust their own responses accordingly will set themselves apart and have greater influence online.
We Need YOU
I have the privilege of knowing some truly outstanding people, many of whom are real subject-matter experts with a wealth of knowledge and experience. The internet, and specifically social media, would be a perfect place for these individuals to share what they know with people who are struggling in all kinds of valuable endeavors. Yet many of these brilliant-minded folks flat-out refuse to participate in online discussions or engage in anything but superficial conversations.
Meanwhile, there are entire sections of the internet devoted to the economy, foreign policy, health & medicine, systemic injustice, mental illness and criminal justice wherein the vast majority of those engaging have no formal education or practical experience with these subjects, yet are speaking authoritatively and leading the conversations on these matters. Many of these self-appointed leaders simply have the loudest, most aggressive ‘voice’ online.
It might be all well and good to shrug and say, “if you believe what you read on the internet from some random fool, you deserve to be misinformed.” But I’m afraid the implications of this kind of unmoderated discussion, void of legitimate knowledge and rife with logical fallacies, is not harmless. Particularly in a society where all citizens have some say over public policy and the direction we will take collectively through the political process.
In a 2014 Pew Research Center article entitled How Social Media is Reshaping the News, analyst Monica Anderson reports:
“Roughly two-thirds (64%) of U.S. adults use the site, and half of those users get news there — amounting to 30% of the general population.
YouTube is the next biggest social news pathway — about half of Americans use the site, and a fifth of them get news there, which translates to 10% of the adult population and puts the site on par with Twitter. Twitter reaches 16% of Americans and half of those users say they get news there, or 8% of Americans. And although only 3% of the U.S. population use reddit, for those that do, getting news there is a major draw–62% have gotten news from the site.”
She also notes that half of social media users have shared news stories on their own social accounts, and up to 46% of social media users have participated in discussions around a news issue or event.
In another Pew Research Center Study from 2014 entitled “Social Media and the Spiral of Silence,” researchers found that “those who think they hold minority opinions often self-censor, failing to speak out for fear of ostracism or ridicule.”
What these statistics tell us is that there are millions of people looking to Facebook and Twitter for news, and that at the same time, few people feel comfortable having robust discussions or debates about important issues, particularly when they feel like they hold an unpopular opinion. The result is an environment where the loudest voices can rally support for their point of view on the most important issues facing our society. The likelihood of real, critical, intelligent discussion on issues is low; and false information can be spread simply by remaining unchallenged.
All of this is compounded by the well-documented fact that people self-select their circle of influence on social media, and algorithms take their cues from who we block, mute or hide. Without thinking about it, we create bubbles in which we end up engaging with only people who are most likely to agree with us or with whom we have a lot in common. It takes conscious effort to not end up with an echo chamber on social media.
The internet is a fact of life now, and millions of people are logging on every day looking for answers. They are meeting a void of authentic leadership, which has been filled with every manner of propaganda and quackery. Long gone are the days of cheesy websites made by amateurs that call into question the legitimacy of the information they hold. Now, anyone can create a perfectly legitimate looking website, and call it a “news organization.” Bloggers have become “journalists” without any credentials or training, writing opinion as fact; Scientific “studies” that do not adhere to any proper academic standards are used to promote ideas that can impact public health; Political campaigns rely on the ‘might makes right’ style of organizing where trending hashtags are considered a true reflection of the Will of the People.
Into this void, we need real leaders. Critical thinkers and clear visionaries who can not only question misinformation in public forums, but offer alternative information and explanations based in real knowledge. We need YOU.