“The edge of chaos. Where a frozen order and an ethereal disorder meet in a fluid equilibrium. Where life is in endless flux. Where a system is so adaptive that it is only a breath away from spinning out of control.”
This quote was used over a decade ago to describe the Linux development community (Linux: A Bazaar at the Edge of Chaos). Because it paints such a vivid, even gripping mental image, it’s a line I’ve been enamored with for over a decade* and used in countless presentations.
The term “edge of chaos,” and this quote in particular, beautifully and perfectly describes the world I work in: that chaotic realm where traditional marketing intersects with the social media and online communities. It’s where traditional corporate messaging norms centered on control and proscription run headlong into the wild, free-thinking, uncontrollable and unpredictable whims of the massive online community made up of all types of customers, employees, fans and foes.
For anyone working in social media marketing, the edge of chaos likely describes your daily existence, and possibly conjures up something negative: A world where well-crafted campaigns or perfectly “on strategy” posts routinely get lampooned or even slaughtered. Where a single dumb tweet or a community manager in a sarcastic mood can trigger a massive firestorm of protests that does real and lasting damage to your company, in time measured in minutes and hours rather than the weeks or even months of just a few years ago.
However it also describes a remarkably positive and inspiring side of chaos: A highly fluid, radically adaptive reality that can see a few simple seeds (of an idea, a comment, a campaign) quickly grow and evolve in amazing and unpredictable new directions.
To survive in the former and thrive in the latter requires a mindset – and a skill set and organization – that is highly adaptive itself and sees fit to embrace the loss of control it requires. Unfortunately so much of the social media management industry (the term itself a false promise, really) is focused on trying to control that chaos, to restore a semblance of order to a community that naturally resists or even actively defies it.
As people and brands of all kind have discovered, often the hard way, is that operating on the edge of chaos – which all companies now do regardless of whether they think they are “doing” social media or not – requires a active willingness to embrace the chaos and its crazy, organic, uncontrollable community-driven creative process.
It’s an exciting time to be in this business, doing everything we all can to focus on the opportunity inherent in the chaos – however uncontrollable and unpredictable – without running in terror from the risk.
“Where a system is so adaptive that it is only a breath away from spinning out of control.”
Photo via CC License by Cory Doctorow