The individual and the social on the social web

December 26, 2009

There are two distinctly different approaches to understanding the individual and the social on the social web. Mainstream thinking sees the social as a platform or a community, on a different level from the individuals who form it. The social is separate from the individuals. A totally different approach to social media sees individuals as social. Both the individual and the social are then about interaction, where the individual is interaction “inside” and the social is interaction “outside”. The interaction inside is silent and private, while the interaction outside is vocal and more public. The main difference from the first approach is that the inside and outside cannot be separated or understood separately. Here I repeat my friend, Professor Ralph Stacey, and his work which builds on that of Norbert Elias and George Herbert Mead: here both the individual and the social are sides of the same process of communication.

The individual is the singular of interdependence while the social is the plural.

Identities form in interaction

If we subscribe to the second approach, the main importance of social media is in the formation of who we are. An individual recognizes herself, as a self, in the recognition of those she follows and who follow her on Twitter, who like her updates on Facebook etc. In this way of thinking, we leave behind the notion of the self-governing, independent individual for a different notion, of interdependent people whose identities are established in interaction with each other as Professor Doug Griffin, my close friend and teacher has put it. From this perspective, individual change cannot be separated from changes in the groups to which an individual belongs. And changes in the groups don’t take place without the individuals changing. We form our groups and our followerships and they form us at the same time, all the time.

Identity is a pattern in time.

Patterns of communication predict viability

People in companies are often stuck in narrow, repetitive patterns of conversation that provide them with numbing, repressive and even neurotic experiences. We should look at communication as the most predictive group activity there is in forecasting viability and agility. The opportunity provided by social media lies in the widening and deepening of communication leading to new voices taking part and to new conversations that cross siloed organizational units and stale process charts. A key management challenge today is to understand that the only way to guarantee agility and resilience is to actively and widely participate in the conversations that matter.

Richer, more challenging, more exploratory conversations leave people feeling more alive, more inspired and capable of far more creative action.


Thank you Doug Griffin and Ralph Stacey.

4 Responses to “The individual and the social on the social web”

  1. alain ruche Says:

    This positive contribution reminds two things :
    – I attended several teachings on mediation and one session was about intrapsychic mediation which means how to reconciliate the main part of us (mind and body) with some part (of body or mind) which is ailing/not funcioning well;
    – you get very close to the buddhist concept of no self which means the self does not exist per se but only in relation with others and its environment
    – when looking at a glass: is it the glass which defines the space of the space which defines the glass?

  2. You might find this recent post on TechCrunch also interesting, in that the default really is increasingly “public” — and that which we opt out from “publicity” (our intentional secrets and hidden truths) has a different kind of quality to it now:

    If we make most of our communications and ideas public, and reserve fewer items for private enjoyment, appreciation, or consumption, one wonders how the economics of abundance might change or shift our institutional behaviors which largely evolved in response to various kinds of scarcity.

  3. Chris Mowles Says:

    Hi Esko,
    Ralph and Doug have told me about their work with you in Finland. You have an interesting blog.

    However, I think you make something of a leap here into valorising participation in communication and conversation, as though to do so can only guarantee the good. Of course, the CMC is making an argument that participation is important, but not that doing so is necessarily easy, or that it will necessarily bring about the good. Sometimes participating in conversation is difficult, negative and destructive.

    To suggest otherwise tends towards instrumentalising insights from the complexity sciences as another ‘tool’ of management.


  4. eskokilpi Says:

    Hi Chris,

    Thank you for the comment. I totally agree with you what comes to the difficulty.

    Best regards,


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