Attending a Chamber of Commerce and Industry breakfast talk on social media in the workplace, the slant unexpectedly focused on the true issue in a country like South Africa, namely the deep-rooted underlying racism that makes itself known in a million different ways in our private and professional lives seemingly every day of the week. Racism being defined as the belief that the human species are divided into race groups, this is coincidentally a phenomenon you’ll encounter all over our planet, as it is known to rear its Us vs Them head irrespective of the racial or subcultural groups involved.
The talk hit home, no doubt sparked by the Penny Sparrow debacle which saw a racial Facebook comment by a small-town estate agent go national and mushrooming into the dismissal and suspension of, and lawsuits against, celebrities, public officers, and corporations alike.
The presentation appealed to businesses to focus on what is truly important in SA, namely
- address racism,
- improve quality of life for employees by turning the workplace into a safe haven, and
- provide thought leadership that has caring for staff as an undercurrent as opposed to exclusive strategic thinking into profit margins.
All highly valid and valuable points that cut to the heart of the matter.
However, in doing so it illuminated an even more pressing reality: The misunderstanding and misrepresentation of social media in our society, and especially so in the workplace.
Social media is very wrongfully perceived as a trend certain people partake in because, perhaps, they’ve nothing better to do, or are “those” type of people. Or, equally bad, a business tool used by marketers to get more likes, more inbound leads, more sales, more more more. Indeed it can be all of this and more. It can be seen as an instrument for hate speech, which echoes the flavour of said presentation, the presenter of which was of the opinion that the problem with social media is that “it allows us to say what we think.”
Now, while this could be seen as a valid philosophical or socio-political discussion when in company of one’s choosing, the record has to be straight when we take a purely sociological approach by studying society and its social behaviours, making no value judgements but instead observing how humankind makes its way through the maze of modern life.
If the world we live in today is the labyrinth that has to be navigated in order to capture our own unique minotaur – whatever we consider it to be – then social media is the golden thread that allows us to get in and out alive; at an extreme end, think the role of social media in Egypt’s Arab Spring, or in a day-to-day setting the power it has to
- combat loneliness, or create a feeling of exclusion
- contribute to global, regional, and/or local awareness, support, and action
- depression and suicide outreach
- craft friendships
- make or break relationships.
This is not merely my opinion, but a historical and current reflection of the role social media can and does play in the world we live and breathe in.
Social media is also, and even more notably, the scribe recording our living history. Social media isn’t Facebook. It’s not Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram. It’s not a social network worth x amount of billions, and it’s not the best-selling ‘Grow your fan base to grow your profit’ guides internet marketers have you buy at “only $9 for the next 24 hours”. Social media is an evolution of human behaviour, and it evolves us by handing us a mirror that reflects to us who we are and who we are or might want to become. The fact that it offers us a recording of our every recorded move or thought happens to make future historians’ day jobs a whole lot less puzzling.
Does social media fuel racism? Not if there was no racism to begin with. Whatever is officially left unspoken will be highlighted and brought into the light by people’s use of a tool for self-expression.
What relevance does social media have in the workplace? Simply put, employees, clients, customers, and business stakeholders alike are guaranteed to voice their opinion of and experience with any one company at some stage or other. As a business, you will either be prepared and able to accept the accolades or fight the fires, or you’ll be caught unawares as you’re thrown into the deep end, with spectators cheering on for you to drown.