I was having a casual chat yesterday about the impact of social media. Something that’s often spread around is that it ‘flattens traditional hierarchies’. I think that’s in a lot of the ‘literature’ that’s all in fashion at the moment. You know, having a twitter account gives you access to ‘thought leaders’ and ‘power’. All you have to do is tweet and you’ll have the world at your feet. Feedback is public and trackable. We have created a new world where all can have equal access to ‘power’. Empowerment in action. Let’s turn those ‘traditional hierarchies on their head’.
Having observed for a while, and dabbling a fair bit, I don’t quite see it that way. There are, without doubt, more voices to hear which is a massive positive. We are becoming open to broader and more diverse views. Some people are finding ways to be heard that haven’t previously been available to them. That’s not flattening traditional hierarchies though. Flattened hierarchies are within the gift of those with power. They can choose who they listen to and they can favour the kinds of voices that challenge (oh, look, see how ‘open’, we are – we how very ‘modern’, we are) in the way they want to be heard.
I like to observe those with power on open social media channels. The ‘broadcasters’ who share platitudes about how great either they or their organisation (of course, by proxy being a preening exercise about their own incredible influence on the fantastic nature of the organisations they lead) and who choose carefully who they engage with on the basis of who they are and how it looks. You’ll see a scrap of fish heads thrown to the masses, like a pack of braying dogs – just to prove they do listen to ‘the public’. That’s not a flattened hierarchy.
Then there are the more human, more engaging sorts who actually interact with people ‘below’ them. It’s the human touch and the move away from the obsession with appearance that makes this a more approachable group. The views are listened to, appreciated and learnt from – but does this flatten the actual hierarchies of power and the social structures in the world away from keyboard warriors.
When we think about ‘flattening hierarchies’, I’m sure we can point to the isolated example of those few who have been able to wield the influence social media can bring and used it to garner power and influence but what this agenda of ‘flattened hierarchies’ ignores – are the new hierarchies arising. They can be equally rigid.
I often think of the people I worked with as a social worker in older people’s services – as an example. How would the user group I worked with benefit from these so-called ‘flattened hierarchies’? Maybe it’s different skills that can move people up hierarchical structures in different ways than was previously the case. I’ll use myself as an example – on the basis, purely of my social media output, I have met with ministers and professional leaders – I have contributed to books and have been invited to conferences. I am a beneficiary of these so-called changing structures. But that doesn’t mean that path is open to all. It doesn’t mean that hierarchies no longer exist because a few people have challenged them.
If we blind ourselves to the levels of our influence because we have x thousand Twitter followers or x thousand Facebook likes (or friends), it can be easier to blind ourselves to the lack of change in power and the subtle differences between power and influence.
Being content with having influence alone is what those with power are happy with. They can pat us on the head and we’ll bring the crowds. The real tests of flattened hierarchies is whether they go beyond ‘listening to diverse voices’, whether they go beyond creating their own meetings inviting those who can shout loudly and whether we ever arrive at real changes in power structures and organisations at levels beyond the odd case study. I’m yet to see that.
The ‘flattened hierarchy’ narrative is one that suits leaders and those with power. They can tell us that our voices matter. The indication of change though is that dispersal of power and a flattened hierarchy needs to do more than listen – it needs to change.