Monday, June 20, 2011

Could the fear of adopting social media be due to a fear of death?

Dr Travis Kemp of the Teleran Group presented at the National Stakeholder Engagement and Community Relations Officers' Forum 2011 in Melbourne a couple of weeks ago.

He provided an interesting view on how people identify for or against certain policies and worldviews, how bad humans are at accessing risks, and illustrated how it was possible to for someone to move from a position of 'this is new and different' to 'It will kill me' in less than ten steps.

He discussed how this type of powerful fear can dramatically influence how willing people are to consider new ideas, accept change or adopt new approaches, as well as how it distorts risk management processes, greatly exaggerating the risks of the 'new and different' and underrating the risks of the 'tried and true'.

One of his points was that the resistance to the use of social media may be due to a fear of death.

Here's an example of how a typical thought process for a senior official in a government agency might go...
  1. Social media channels are new and different
  2. I don't understand these channels well enough to understand the risks and pitfalls
  3. As I don't understand the risks and pitfalls, I could make mistakes, or allow mistakes to be made
  4. Mistakes could embarrass or diminish the reputation of the agency or the Minister
  5. If the agency or Minister are negatively impacted by use of social media in my area, I will be held responsible
  6. If I am held responsible for a social media mistake I will lose the respect of my manager and confidence of my agency and Minister
  7. If I lose the respect and confidence of my manager, agency and Minister, I could lose my job
  8. If I lose my job I could lose my house, family and friends
  9. If I am left homeless and friendless, I am likely to die.
  10. Therefore, if I use or allow the use of social media channels I am likely to die.

What do you think - is this a far-fetched or realistic explanation for fear of social media?

And what is really at the root of this fear?

By the way - I also presented at the forum (not on as dramatic a topic) and you can see my presentation on Slideshare here.


  1. I've heard variations on this though process from public servants - it certainly fits with those who have fears of social media.

    I also heard and talked about similar thought processes in the 90s - when the fear was about the whole of the internet.

    Perhaps, in ten years, similar thought processes will be about only a particular social media site?

  2. IANAP* but, I am concerned that this analysis assumes that senior officials are unable to understand and mange risks. In my experience, this is not generally the case. Interestingly, nor does it reflect risk taking behaviour in the wider community. For example, the causal links between smoking and death or speeding and death seem much closer and yet people still speed and smoke, sometimes simultaneously (and, worse if one is to believe press reports, while also using social media on their smartphones!).

    Risk is a function of likelihood and consequence. If, for the sake of argument, one does accept that death is the outcome of social media mistakes (and I don't), it would be reasonable that individuals would see this as being an extreme consequence. However, the likelihood of this outcome is extremely rare. I don't know of any mistakes made by senior officials that have directly led to their death - and this analysis implies such a direct link. The consequent risk is very low; the sort of risk that is normally managed by 'acceptance', perhaps with a heightened awareness.

    Rather than focussing on the negative, I suspect many senior officials consider a range of other factors, such as:
    - what will I stop doing to give me time to consider social media?
    - how will I get the facts on social media?
    - how will the use of social media improve my organisation's ability to achieve its outcomes?
    - where is the evidence that social media is specifically an advantage (NB: as opposed to a good thing generally)?

    There are many more. Resources are available to address these questions but the issue of finding time to review them is very real.

    The thought process described is not typical. Senior officials, like most public servants, do worry about making mistakes - because they are professionals, care about their work and want to do the best that they can - not because they are afraid of death. IMHO, it is much easier to cast stereotypical aspersions from outside the APS than it is to manage complex issues within it - but now I'm getting defensive.

    Thanks Craig for the thought provoking opportunity this article as provided.



    * - I am not a psychologist

    PS - these are my personal opinions only.

  3. Craig - Read Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organization. Chapter 7 looks at organisations as "psychic prisons" and he explores this kind of issue.


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