Social Media: Are you a hunter-gatherer or farmer?
2011 July 31
by Ted Sapountzis
Humans have been hunter-gatherers for 95% of our existence, but yet in social media, everyone wants to be a farmer before we have learned how to forage
Approximate centers of origin of agriculture and its spread, courtesy of Wikipedia
What can anthropology teach us about social media that we don’t already know? I believe it can. Most of us trying to leverage social media in a corporate context are so fixated on farming (i.e., building our own communities), before we have learned how to forage (i.e., going where the conversations are), and there are a few lessons we can learn if we look at the evolution of our species.
But first a brief introduction to anthropology…
Homo sapiens emerged some 200,000 years ago in Africa, and our ancestors lived as hunters-gatherers until 10,000 years ago. While there are many theories as to what actually drove the Neolithic Revolution that led the transition to an agricultural society, most anthropologists today agree that it was a combination of various factors:
An increasingly stable climate: Recent research has revealed that the climate started to get more wet and stable at the beginning of the Pleistocene, which likely contributed to favorable conditions for agriculture
Migratory patterns eventually drove populations to discover more fertile grounds: The transition evolved over a period of 3,000 years across six independent locales
Technological advances which eventually drove higher efficiencies that led to over-population and subsequently depleted the natural resources. To quote Frank Marlowe, a leading anthropologist: “ The bow was such a technological leap forward that it could have led to an increase in meat consumption and population growth rates, eventually reducing game populations in certain areas and hastening the adoption of agriculture.”
Why is this relevant to the use of social media by corporations today?
Given the embryonic stage of social media, I do not believe anyone would argue that there is no stability in the social ‘climate’ today, we have not yet found any fertile grounds (hence the ongoing proliferation), or despite the amazing degree of innovation taking place, we have note depleted our resources.
My premise is that given the stage we are in, we should pay more attention to where our audience is already since (i) they are already having these conversations, whether it is on LinkedIn groups, Quora, or Twitter and, (ii) despite what we believe, we still do not know what they care about, so what better way than to engage and learn.
So, why are we then farming before having learned how to forage?
I believe there are three reasons:
False sense of control: You are read can an earlier post of mine here, or this recent post by Tom Forenski . We all believe it is easier to control the conversation if we ‘own’ the community.
Perceived ease of managing: It is of course always easier to manage your channel / community rather than participate in others. As an added bonus, you can easily show your boss how many followers / fans / views you have, which always helps in the next budget cycle.
Difficulty of rising above the noise: With the myriad of new communities and social networks appearing every day, and the fairly low signal-to-noise ratio in most, it is much easier to start yours. I would still argue however that this is an important first step, especially if you are trying to engage an audience that is not familiar with your brand.
What do you think? Have we really discovered the ‘bow’ of social media or is my analogy way off? As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.