The Science of Social Media

 There’s no doubt that social media has captured just about everyone’s imagination recently. Marketing channels are currently packed with the promise of higher productivity, shorter life-cycles, reduced coordination costs and peer-to-peer engagement. Whether all this ever happens, or not, have you ever wondered why social media caught on ? Or, are you asking yourself whether social media is just another fad like pet rocks and mood rings ? The good news is there’s a science behind social media and that’s why it works.

Social media is grounded in a new science called complexity. The science of complexity is an interdisciplinary study of the dynamics of the structure and behavior among the parts as well as the relationships between the parts and the whole that make up a system. The most notable research has been conducted in and around the Santa Fe Institute within the past twenty-five years. During this time, the science of complexity has produced a few surprising and important discoveries. First, we now know that between order and chaos is self organization. Social media and social networks are just one example of self organization. Bees and ants self organize, as do many chemical and biological systems. Second, we self organize as a network instead of a hierarchy. Networks are more efficient because they allow us to skip levels in the hierarchy. Of course the Internet is the most recognizable example of a network, but if we drew a picture of the links on the internet and all the friend links on Facebook, we’d find they take the same general shape.

There’s much more to say about networks, self organization and complexity, but what does this mean to Federal agencies ? I think we’d all acknowledge the Federal government is a complex system, as are Federal agencies. Our planning and governance activities help us better organize and work together more productively. And social dynamics are a large part of how productively we work together. We saw how well President-elect Obama’s campaign used social media to mobilize their constituents. Federal agencies can do that too. So in 2009 my team and I plan to take a closer look at the power of social media as a mechanism to encourage stakeholder engagement.