Protesters were still occupying Zuccotti Park in downtown Manhattan when I was writing a guest column for PR Week that was published recently. Just a few weeks later, following their eviction by Mayor Bloomberg, the Occupy protests in New York seem to have lost much of their steam.
Perhaps the short attention span of the media would have moved on by now anyway, but I think the vitality of the protests depended in part on the daily human interaction of the protesters with each other. Having been denied a campsite and a natural meeting place, the disparate group of activists may be having trouble keeping their focus.
I'm not at all saying that the Occupy movement is dead; there are still active campers in some places, including Washington, where the health and safety of the gathering in McPherson Square has led Mayor Gray to call for the park to be cleared, and there are plans to Occupy Congress next week.
Further, I think the core ideas behind Occupy are a major factor in the presidential campaign and I don't doubt the power of organizers find ways to use social media to revive their energy. Also, the barricades at Zuccotti came down this week and a few protesters have begun to filter back in, albeit without camping privileges.
But I am intrigued by this idea that the in-person human contact is still important in this time of social media. There's no doubt that social media is transforming the way we live, work and play. People with no previous affinity find each other online, coalesce around mutual interests, and become a recognizable force that impacts existing institutions, including businesses. But much of the value of social media is in making it easier for people who already share a personal human connection to stay connected virtually.
I was struck by this idea when reading David Brooks' recent column, “Going Home Again," which tells the story of a wandering blogger named Rod Dreher who feels called to return to the home of his youth in the wake of his sister's death. I'm sure Dreher is not abandoning his online existence, but he was drawn to live closer to people who knew him and cared about him and his family.
I doubt that most of us will make Dreher's choice to return to our small town roots, if indeed we have any in the wake of the previous generation's wanderlust. (I grew up several states away from my grandparents and spent my teenage years in Europe, where my father was an expatriate executive with Procter & Gamble.) But I am convinced that the need for community remains a driving force in our lives.
What about the communities that we join through social media where we don't actually know each other personally? Are these as important and vibrant to us as more personal connections? Certainly, an online presence is important to presidential campaigns, but Rick Santorum has shown the value of actually spending face-to-face time with real people.
In the face of globalization, the social media revolution is providing connectivity. I think digital connections are not a full substitute for personal ones, but they can enhance personal connections and provide a feeling of belonging, even when the connection is to total strangers or even to enterprises.
As businesses think about how to build deep, meaningful and lasting relationships with key stakeholders, there's no doubt that social media should play a central role. But I believe those efforts will be more successful if they build upon and reinforce actual face-to-face interaction. And that has to be built the old fashioned way, with people meeting, talking and listening face-to-face with other people.
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