The World Economic Forum (WEF) is arguably the only forum today where the private sector meets the public sector on an equal footing. There is no political agenda as the forum is not governed or designed to set any political goals regionally or otherwise, and perhaps where Heads of States sit across from CEOs in rare candid discussions.
Being at the WEF is a paradigm-changing event. It is clearly a walk along the corridors of power in the economic sense of the word. I have stated earlier that today’s wars are fought in the field of economics long before they are concluded on the battlefield. And here at the forum is where the second nexus of power outside the UN exists.
In summits like the WEF, development and changing paradigms of the global society become known. And this is precisely why discussions particularly on aspects such as social media spur much interest as it serves, aside from acknowledgment as to the importance of the social media platform, as being an early warning system of the nature of things yet to come.
I had the privilege of being a panellist at the WEF’s East Asia Summit in Jakarta, Indonesia in mid-June. Almost every session in some form of mention, be it panel discussion, workshop, keynote or plenary session, addressed the growing impact of social media in every sphere of today’s world from business, to politics or governance.
The fact that social media has gripped the world by storm is now passé. The impact of its reverberation and continuous after-effect on the fabric of society is yet to be clearly analysed or defined.
Thus, it was with great interest that I accepted the role of a panellist at a session titled ‘Social Media in Asia: From Shaping Norms to Influencing Policy’ at this East Asia Summit.
I shared the panel with an executive from Google’s AsiaPac office in Singapore, the editor of Jakarta Globe, the co-designer of Yahoo Indonesia, the head of Globis Institute of Management in Japan, the CEO of a communications consultancy firm India and the founder of one of Indonesia’s largest online communities.
It became evident to the capacity audience, shortly into the lively debate which ensued, that the diverse panel was going to be as much fun as it was interesting and heated at certain junctures.
Some very interesting points were raised at this session and I would like to share some of the key findings here:
Compressing the degrees of separation
Social media is compressing the degrees of separation between companies and their customers. It has revolutionised the way companies market products and engage with their customers.
Especially in a crisis, social media is far more effective in conveying a message to stakeholders than traditional media and companies are slowly beginning to realise that. While many Western companies have recognised this, Asian companies are resisting a move into social media, fearing that they will lose control.
My contribution on this subject was to elaborate from personal experience, why social media must be an inherent part of every company’s PR and crisis communication strategy.
QI Group has one of the fastest growing e-commerce companies in Asia with arguably the most active e-commerce portal in the region. Our 13 years of experience in the arena of e-commerce establishes us as one of the pioneers in the field and I was able to use this platform to address a predominant problem that plagues the industry, that of Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks. It has become the favourite weapon of the guerrilla-warriors out there.
A few months ago, our site was the target of repeated DDoS attacks that blocked public access to our site effectively bringing our e-commerce business to a halt and bringing down our main channel of communication. While we worked on a solution to provide our customers with an alternate platform and combat the attacks, social media channels came in extremely handy for us to communicate what was happening with our customers. We were able to successfully contain and mitigate any panic among customers, even providing them with 24×7 online support through Facebook and Twitter!
Companies must recognise that social media is here to stay and it will only grow further. If you do not get involved, you’ll just get left behind.
Favourite modality of expressing oneself
Social media has also become the favourite modality of expressing oneself to the planet at large and in particular dissension to various governments, the classic case in point being the recent Arab uprising. Naturally, it was a hot topic of discussion since social media has come to represent the face of the revolution in the Middle East in recent times.
My views are that the word ‘social’ in social media has proved disarming to the authorities that generally are control centric. Many of these countries have one point of entry for the internet. And therefore they felt reasonably confident that they would be able to control content and distribution.
What they failed to recognise has been a subset of growth within the social media sphere itself but with a variant change of technology, i.e., mobile phones. A simple $ 50 cell phone loaded with social media apps has taken citizen journalism to a whole new level, whose statistical coverage and control are far more difficult, if not impossible to ascertain.
Most importantly, the cloak of anonymity has proven to be the fundamental aspect as to the success of this media in the movement of information throughout the region. Thereby, it has created a platform for the growing dissension in the Arab region.
The rather controversial topic of online privacy provided some interesting insights into the cultural and generational differences among users. It seems to be more of a problem in developed economies in the West, than in Asia, as one panellist pointed out. Most users, particularly in Asia, seem unperturbed.
One panellist from India explained that with a population of 1.2 billion, Indian people understand the word privacy differently! Privacy in the Asian context does not have a great level of sensitivity as to personal details.
It is in Asian culture to actually propagate personal affairs as opposed to a need to hide it. A baby being born is big news in the community, with the need to communicate pictures and videos to a cousin five times removed 2,000 miles away!
My own take is that in Asia, the best-kept secrets are those that are left out in the open!
Effectiveness in rescue operations
My fellow panellist Yoshito Hori from Japan highlighted the effectiveness of social media in the rescue operations in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in March this year. As both mobile phones and landline services were hit, Twitter became a lifesaving method for relaying the location of those in dire need of rescue and the whereabouts of those who had survived.
At the opening ceremony of the East Asia Summit, Prime Minister of Singapore Lee HsienLoong was asked about the role played by social media in the recent elections in Singapore. While he acknowledged that it did impact the way people voted in the election, it is something his government is still getting used to, since “we didn’t grow up with something like this”.
Governments and bureaucracies that have been reluctant to change and adapt to this rapidly evolving platform as a key influencer in people’s minds are already experiencing the results.
The Government of Iceland has recently turned to crowd sourcing suggestions for the changes it is making to its Constitution for the first time since 1944, when it gained independence from Denmark. The draft constitution is up on various social media platforms and the citizens are invited to provide their input, comments and suggestions online.
Social media goes to the heart of the most profound revolution in the last 100 years. The digital revolution has empowered people, challenged boundaries, redefined the term friend (one now has to distinguish between Facebook friends and real life friends), sells products and makes or breaks governments. Social media has already arrived and made its presence felt, but now it has to evolve as a fundamental paradigm shift that needs to be accepted by governments and people at large.
(The writer is a leading Asian businessman, bestselling author and speaker. He is also a major investor in the Colombo Stock Exchange.)
Read it on Daily FT: http://www.ft.lk/2011/07/15/the-social-media-revolution/