It can’t be harnessed

Reading Jeremiah Owyang’s post on phrases he overhears when people talk about social media reminds me of another one that I hear all too frequently:

“Let’s harness the power of social media.”

‘Harness’ is one of the words many communicators and marketers have loved since the dawn of time. You see and hear it often in connection with almost any communication or marketing activity.

It’s a euphemism for control. Just look at this dictionary definition of the verb:

  1. (transitive) to place a harness on something; to tie up or restrain
    They harnessed the horse to the post.
  2. (transitive) to capture, control or put to use
    Imagine what might happen if it were possible to harness solar energy fully.

Perhaps some people don’t think of control when they say ‘harness,’ instead thinking more of ‘put to use.’ Yet that’s still about control.

As Jeremiah asks in his post, what’s in a word?

Plenty, as a word like this suggests the sayer of it still has to make the mindset jump to considering social media as tools for engagement, not control.

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Jonathan

    Great post Neville – completely agree. I call it web participation as I think that brands should acknowledge the fact that they are always taking part in something created by a community of real human beings. Yes, REAL human beings ;)

  2. Jeremiah Owyang

    I’m not religious or emotional about it like some social media purists. But purely from an objective standpoint, brands that use that type of language are not understanding the medium (which is people) and will have more challenges externally than companies that figure it out.

    On the flip side, companies that do approach social media from the conversational approach often have more challenges internally.

  3. Shel Holtz

    While I am in complete agreement, another definition in this context is to “direct” rather than “control.” Do companies try to direct the power of social media to achieve specific goals? You bet, and some even succeed without violating the principles of the communities at which their efforts are aimed. Still, why not use the word “direct” instead of “harness” and avoid the confusion?

  4. neville

    ‘Web participation,’ not a bad phrase, Jonathan.

    That’s precisely it, Jeremiah: they don’t understand. It is about the mindset shift that so many people still have to make. I think that’s the biggest hurdle to jump. Once it is jumped, then it becomes much more about people and connections rather than simply marketing channels to be harnessed.

    Another example, Shel, of euphemism. Why don’t people be more direct? You’re asking about the human condition :)

  5. Chris

    Good stuff, Neville.

    The confusion is that YES niche tribes can be marketed to, easily, as the members of a niche tribe are already converted, they have bought into the tribal mentality (Apple fans for example, or Christianity).

    But “power”, “harness”, that’s just mystical nonsense.. targeted marketing, segmentation is what it is.

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