With the new social media, many, especially those of us of the baby boomer generation, experience nothing short of paralyzing fear when we think about meshing our public and private lives. We ask ourselves questions such as, “What if my students access my Facebook (FB) page? What if my boss catches a compromising tweet?” More appositely for nonprofit organizations, “What if a client or volunteer starts to trash the organization?” No longer can organizations control outgoing public messages. The official spokesperson becomes whoever decides to tweet, text or FB.

Is the new social media a paradigm shift? Must we have fear? Have we lost control of the who, what, where, when, why and how a message becomes public? I thought so. Then I began to think about Robert Putman and his piece entitled, Bowling Alone. In it, he hypothesizes and presents some analytical data that attempts to explain why baby boomers (and some include generation Xers) became a society of non-joiners. Reflecting on his writings and the one element I found missing from his analysis led me to the conclusion that we are not experiencing a paradigm shift. We are again becoming joiners, just in new and different ways. We are returning to the historical era of pre air-conditioning (AC) and pre-urban sprawl (US).

Before AC and US, folks lived side-by-side with windows wide open during the hot summer months. Conversations, arguments, meetings, and trysts were nearly impossible to conceal. People were unable to hide behind closed up car windows shaded with a dark tint. We heard everyone’s dog bark and everyone’s toilet flush. As Dr. Terrie Temkin described it–everyone knew everyone else’s dirty little secrets. Public and private lives were impossible to separate. As much as we may try to remain isolated in our own homes, cars, and offices, and as much as we try to separate our professional and personal lives, our conversations once heard only by our neighbors pre AC and US are now amplified throughout cyberspace by those unseen and perhaps unknown. As Margaret J. Wheatley writes in Leadership and the New Science, “The invisible is more of an active player in our lives than ever before” (2006, p. 53). Privacy and communication control for nonprofit organizations is a thing of the past. Whereas in the 40s and 50s chatter and gossip was limited to neighbors, friends, and co-workers, today its reach is limited only by the speed and sophistication of the technology employed.

As Heather Gowdy, et.al. write in Convergence (see previous blog), successful nonprofits, among other things, will, “Expand their reach and deepen their impact through networks and coalitions…” and they will strategically use new technology as part of an overall communication plan. The key to overcoming the new social media fear is to remember that it is a conversation and not a monologue. Engage wisely, listen sincerely and attentively, and ensure your responses are in line with the vision and values of your organization.

By Patti Hansen