Language shapes our world and relationships. Yet we talk, write, and think without attending to language itself—it is like the air we breathe without noticing.
How we speak and think frames the way we conceptualize experience and relationships. The idea of social swarming, which Dr. Nancy Southern discussed in her most recent post, is an intriguing exploration of a new, conceptual frame for social behavior that is facilitated through social media.
Dr. Southern explored the implications of social swarming drawing upon Leland Russel’s article in the blog, Fast-Time Leadership:
Social swarming is like the behavior of flocking birds and schooling fish and it is turbocharged by social media. It is an emergent behavior with no central coordination. It appears to be the result of three unconscious patterns: 1) Intuitively and fluidly moving in the same direction, 2) staying close together, but avoiding collisions, [and] 3) rising above the surrounding circumstances.
What does the language of social swarming convey? It draws on biological phenomena to describe patterns of behavior and relates these patterns to human behavior. Bees, wasps, ants as well as birds or fish “swarm,” rising above surrounding circumstances. Humans use social media to turbocharge swarming behaviors—intensifying them and expanding their reach.
Social media technology invite people to participate in things they are interested in. People swarm around issues, becoming informed and involved as language is disseminated through social technologies. A new kind of leadership evolves intuitively and fluidly to help shape the activities of the swarming crowds. This leadership is unlike the hierarchical leadership we are familiar with—it is shared and collaborative, arising spontaneously to meet the needs of the circumstances.
As disparate people act together, moving in the same direction, they collide with entrenched systems that attempt to minimize the effects of the swarming behavior and diminish its momentum. Systems seek homeostasis and reject change. But change is continual and increases in intensity as communications speed up and expand their reach through smart phones and apps that connect people and inspire action.
Swarming through social media is a new phenomenon and it is not at all like carefully designed and orchestrated change. As Dr. Southern noted, “Swarming is quite different from an organizational development process that consciously explores the contextual reality of the current situation, envisions a desired future and develops a roadmap to support change that is systemic and paced in a way that protects the fabric of an organization, community, or society.”
It is challenging trying to balance the need to protect societal and organizational fabrics with the need for radical change and transformation. Sometimes chaos and order exist together as something new is emerging. Although swarming behavior seems chaotic and uncontrolled, it can be purposeful and values-driven, helping to change entrenched systems in needed ways. It is very difficult to manage chaos within an organization or anywhere. Yet the edge of chaos can bring new things to life. There can be risk or danger when chaos moves rapidly and unpredictably in unproductive or harmful directions with the slightest nudge. But the edge of chaos is also the space of creativity and innovation.
In organizations, the move toward models of shared leadership may feel threatening and chaotic. How we use language can develop shared understanding that coordinates activities throughout the system and across its boundaries, bringing evolutionary change into the fabric. Metaphors and stories reach across boundaries and bring positive futures to life.
Social media has changed our language and has expanded exponentially how far our ideas reach. Language helps us create the world we want to live in and social swarming is an example of an opportunity that is arising—an opportunity to engage new technologies with language that gives life to our aspirations for a sustainable future.