Skepticism: I run across it occasionally as I discuss the absolute importance of social media adoption to the future of Cooperative Extension.
A few Extension educators steadfastly maintain that the learning curve required to master social media is not only too time consuming but also that social media have the potential of eroding personal contacts with their clients.
I think they’re wrong. They’re wrong because the old way of doing things is untenable. It’s untenable because a new platform is being built on the older 20th century outreach platform that our forebears first began building a century ago to serve our clients. Yes, face-to-face contacts will continue to play an integral part in this new platform, though part of something even bigger.
Note that I use the term platform instead of more common terms such as models and networks. I think it more accurately describes what we’re dealing with today. Platform is a more apt term to describe the open, highly fluid ecosystems of knowledge that form the basis for present and future innovation, many of which are being built — or stacked — on older ones.
That’s precisely what’s happening within Extension: a new outreach platform is being built on the old one. This fact holds some disturbing implications for those in our ranks who have not adjusted the new platform — it means that, professionally speaking, they in the basement.
This explains why social media adoption is more than simply a professional add-on or option. It’s critical to our survival. We’ve got to acquire the skills to operate effectively within this new outreach platform.
If we don’t acquire the skills — if we don’t become fully engaged, fully networked professionals — we will not survive the future.
A Fatal Illusion
As I see it, the people who resist social media adoption suffer from a kind of fatal illusion. They mistakenly assume that the old 20th century communications order will carry over into the future or, at least, that enough of it will remain to ensure their survival.
Things are not working out that way. Granted, some elements of the old outreach platform will comprise parts of the new one. Even so, the new platform that is emerging bears scant resemblance to the old one and operates on several entirely new premises and expectations.
Also, the old platform was seriously hampered by bandwidth limitations— bandwidth essentially defined as the amount of data that can be carried from one point to another in a given period of time.
Because of these limitations, the old approach required information brokers. The task fell to people like us to plan and push educational programs down to our clients through this relatively narrow bandwidth — small wonder why plan-and-push delivery methods comprised the cornerstone of our 20th century outreach platform.
However, “that was then and this is now. “ The Internet and, more recently, social media, have all but swept away this old information order.
Something remarkable has followed: liberation. The people we once knew as clients are liberating themselves from Extension educators and other information brokers.
They are liberating themselves by learning how to seek and retrieve information on their own. They are no longer routinely turning to us and other traditional information brokers, such as reference librarians, for essential knowledge.
Think about it: These liberated audiences are no longer clients in any conventional sense. They are no longer passive subjects waiting to be enlightened by professional educators. They are developing their own venues for intellectual exchange with or without professional educators.
As futurists and social critics Steven Johnson and Matt Ridley have stressed time and again in their writings, the wellspring of human progress stems from fluid, open environments — the places where ideas in the course of meeting, mating and morphing produce new insights and innovations.
That is precisely what is taking place among these newly liberated clients: They’re building their own platforms: fluid networks where they are engaging, discussing, sharing serendipitous insights and providing valuable feedback.
Like it or not — and, frankly some of us don’t — these liberated clients are creating their own highly fluid, open-source learning environments. New media are enabling them to carry on open, highly generative, highly rewarding exchanges without us.
This new reality should drive home a hard truth to all of us: By turning our backs on these open, highly generative discussions, some of us are depriving our ourselves of many of the critical insights that will influence our professions in the future.
Here’s another way of looking at it: Ignoring these emerging social networks is like exiting off a six-lane, high-speed Interstate onto a two-lane service road and driving at a snail’s pace.
We’re behaving like tortoises instead of hares. And forget all the endearing folklore associated with tortoises: Within this new communications environment, hares will always trump tortoises.
The hares shall inherit the earth.