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We have witnessed social media playing a major role in mobilizing events of historic proportions, such as the Arab Spring protests in the Middle East and the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States. Digital social media platforms, particularly Facebook and Twitter, are often cited as the facilitators of these mobilizations.
But most big social media-generated events seem to burst upon the scene, capture our attention for a few days, and then fade into oblivion with nothing substantial accomplished. No one — be they a charismatic leader or a raucous crowd — seems able to move people into action for extended periods of time using social media. This is especially ironic at a time when the online, crowdsourced society has reached maturity and is now widespread. Given all we have learned about social mobilization, why isn’t it a more reliable channel for constructive social and long-term business change?
We argue that the rise of both social media and what author Moisés Naím has termed “the end of power” is anything but a coincidence. In fact, we view the confluence of these factors as a techno-social paradox of the 21st century.
We have studied why social media has provided the fuel for unpredictable, temporary mobilization, rather than steady, thoughtful, and sustainable change. In business, this may play out when a new product, company, or service — from phones to startups to games — grabs people’s attention for a single announcement and then flames out.
How can businesses and others reverse this trend and reap more enduring benefits from social media? For starters, it will take a fundamental change in focus.
The Need for Incentives
We find that there is insufficient attention on the underlying incentive structures — the hidden network of interpersonal motivations and leadership — that provide the engine for collective decision making and actions.
A number of large-scale social mobilization experiments bear out the importance of incentive structures. Consider our own experience with the scientific scavenger hunt, the 2009 Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Network Challenge. Our MIT Red Balloon Challenge Team competed with 57 other teams across the country to locate 10 weather balloons tethered at random locations all over the continental United States.