To increase serendipity you have to make yourself more vulnerable

By February 7, 2012 2 Comments


This quote from John Hagel has kept coming back to me since I saw this Tweet a month or so back. I posted it on my Tumblog at the time but I’m coming back to it today because it captures the essence of both the potential and peril of social media. Sharing gives you the chance to get lucky and serendipitously kickstart new learning and new relationships, but at the same time opens you up to ridicule. I think that many people’s concerns with privacy on social media are rooted in a fear of doing something wrong or looking stupid in a highly visible environment.

Hagel’s quote is brilliant because it makes plain that serendipity and vulnerability are two sides of the same coin. You can’t have one without the other.

Anyone who has started a blog will have felt both sides of this intensely. Writing the first posts is a nervous process, and the mind fills with questions like “Will anyone read it?”, “Will they be interested?” and  “Will my thoughts seem trite, or ridiculous?”. In short, starting a blog makes you feel vulnerable. However, when the first comments arrive, meaningful discussions occur and business relationships are formed you know you have got lucky. You have put yourself out there, taken a chance, and got a result.

The same logic applies at a smaller scale to using Twitter and Facebook for business purposes. It also applies to using those sites in your personal life, although in this situation the stakes can be higher, particularly for teenagers whose sense of identity and self-esteem is often highly linked to how they think other people perceive them. There was a Panorama documentary on BBC1 last night about cyber bullying which featured one particularly horrible story about an American girl who was reduced to a wreck by trolls who criticised a video she had posted and then really went to town when she posted an emotional response to their abuse. The vulnerabilities are very real, but at the same time there are very real benefits to be had from reaching for wider social relationships and making existing relationships deeper via more contact.

Businesses also have to deal with this tension. For many the vulnerability that comes with embracing social media is still the first thing they think of. They have all heard stories about brands damaging themselves with ill-advised Tweets or Facebook status updates, yet at the same time they want to get involved and expose themselves to serendipitous brand endorsements from happy customers.

Social media has its advantages and disadvantages but setting them against each other like this helps people to understand the trade-offs and make better decisions about the extent of their involvement. To my mind, the risks are real, but the potential benefits are greater. Moreover as the world changes at an ever faster rate it becomes harder and harder to plan exhaustively and increasing serendipity gets more important, and the upside from social media increases.

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