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Social Media: Are you a hunter-gatherer or farmer?

Humans have been hunter-gatherers for 95% of our existence, but yet in social media, everyone wants to be a farmer before we have learned how to forage

Approximate centers of origin of agriculture and its spread, courtesy of Wikipedia

Approximate centers of origin of agriculture and its spread, courtesy of Wikipedia

What can anthropology teach us about social media that we don’t already know? I believe it can.  Most of us trying to leverage social media in a corporate context are so fixated on farming (i.e., building our own communities), before we have learned how to forage (i.e., going where the conversations are), and there are a few lessons we can learn if we look at the evolution of our species.

But first a brief introduction to anthropology…

Homo sapiens emerged some 200,000 years ago in Africa, and our ancestors lived as hunters-gatherers until 10,000 years ago.  While there are many theories as to what actually drove the Neolithic Revolution that led the transition to an agricultural society, most anthropologists today agree that it was a combination of various factors:

  • An increasingly stable climate: Recent research has revealed that the climate started to get more wet and stable at the beginning of the Pleistocene, which likely contributed to favorable conditions for agriculture
  • Migratory patterns eventually drove populations to discover more fertile grounds: The transition evolved over a period of 3,000 years across six independent locales
  • Technological advances which eventually drove higher efficiencies that led to over-population and subsequently depleted the natural resources.  To quote Frank Marlowe, a leading anthropologist: “ The bow was such a technological leap forward that it could have led to an increase in meat consumption and population growth rates, eventually  reducing game populations in certain areas and hastening the adoption of agriculture.”

Why is this relevant to the use of social media by corporations today?

Given the embryonic stage of social media, I do not believe anyone would argue that there is no stability in the social ‘climate’ today, we have not yet found any fertile grounds (hence the ongoing proliferation), or despite the amazing degree of innovation taking place, we have note depleted our resources.

My premise is that given the stage we are in, we should pay more attention to where our audience is already since (i) they are already having these conversations, whether it is on LinkedIn groups, Quora, or Twitter and, (ii) despite what we believe, we still do not know what they care about, so what better way than to engage and learn.

So, why are we then farming before having learned how to forage?

I believe there are three reasons:

  • False sense of control:  You are read can an earlier post of mine here, or this recent post by Tom Forenski .  We all believe it is easier to control the conversation if we ‘own’ the community.
  • Perceived ease of managing:  It is of course always easier to manage your channel / community rather than participate in others.  As an added bonus, you can easily show your boss how many followers  / fans / views you have, which always helps in the next budget cycle.
  • Difficulty of rising above the noise:  With the myriad of new communities and social networks appearing every day, and the fairly low signal-to-noise ratio in most, it is much easier to start yours.  I would still argue however that this is an important first step, especially if you are trying to engage an audience that is not familiar with your brand.

What do you think?  Have we really discovered the ‘bow’ of social media or is my analogy way off?  As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.

Approximate centers of origin of agriculture and its spread, courtesy of Wikipedia
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  • Hello Ted

    I would answer I'm both. While you can engage persons on the platform they are already on, no one is stopping you to create your own platform or specific content on a platform and bring people to that platform.

    I think often people are afraid to start something and it holds them back. In real life as well as in Social Media.

    In my opinion there wasn't enough SAP system administration content so together with Martin English I voiced to have a sapadmin community space and created the #sapadmin hashtag to be used on twitter.

    Social Media is still very new and I think we are all still exploring what works best.

    Kind regards


    • Tom,

      Thank you for your comments.

      You are correct in that there is nobody stopping you from experimenting in both, other than time:-)

      My point is, what better way to find what your audience is talking about and experiment with content to see what resonates with them before launching your own?

      Your #sapadmin example is a good one, and I presume your 'research' showed that while people were eager to engage, there was no 'community' to do so.

  • So, why are we then farming before having learned how to forage?

    Is it the chicken or the egg?  If we don't plant some content, then we will never be able to forage.  In Social Media - it will not grow without people participating.   So without participation = no place to forage.  People will forage in the spots where they find the best food source!  So I'm going for a large base of data where I can apply it to something I'm working on, it's just plain fun, or something that interests me.

    To me - a farmer:

    I add to different crops.  BUT here's where the problem comes in.  I learn from people consuming my crop - blogs, posts, etc.  So I pick some of my crop but not all.  I would consider the people that respond the ones that actually get the value of my crop.  Not me - so can I be a farmer if I don't eat my own crop? 

    A hunter-gatherer

    I do find great information in different areas of the Net.  So I am a hunter-gatherer.  But I couldn't be one of these if there were not farmers out there.  So people better be farming out there.  Or I would starve.  We can't forage without something to forage from.  Hunt?  There has to be something to hunt.  Again there has to already be information out there.


    I don't think we will ever be stable.  Technology, the web will always be growing.  Is that stable?  Not as a definition of stable.   We will always be on a rope wobbling back and forth over a fall of about 1000 feet.  On one side good information - on the other bad information.  The rope is somewhere in between.

    So to this blog - that has made me think!  Yes on a Monday morning I'm thinking.

    I would reply there better be farmers.  We need them even before we learn to forage.  We need wild animals to hunt down.  Those grains of information that we find in a little known place.  Those ones that contain great information.  Sometimes when we think we are hunting a bear, we are really hunting a small fly. 

    So combine your knowledge, the knowledge out there, and come up with a practical answer.

    What does that make me?  Neither hunter, forager, farmer, or crop buyer.  I am that a small tree that bends when the wind blows.  That will use things like water, air, and good soil to survive.  I will grow still be able to give a crop by having a small amount of fruit on my branches.   Some people will find it sour and some will like it.

    So I guess farmer, hunter-gather they both apply to me. Forage prior to farming?  You have to have the wild fruits, trees, animals available before you can learn to farm.  So the internet is a wild thing.  I can't see it ever stopping changing or being stable.

    False sense of control - I don't believe anyone feels they control any part of the net.  I write blogs meant to challenge, inform, or engage in debate.  Never do I think that makes me in control.

    Ease of managing?  NEVER.  I don't think it will ever be managed.  So ease of management - well who can manage all the farms in all the countries?  What person can control all the wild animals?

    Difficulty of rising above the noise?  I like it noisy.   That way there is a lot to choose from.   Searches, communities where like people come together, forums, and more... I want to be able to find them all.  Some have information like rotten fruit.  And so I don't go to them.  I think that's OK.  You can't stop rotten fruit, you can't stop animals from dying.  It's a natural cycle.

    See - I did write a huge, long reply.  And maybe it is rotten fruit, but it is great that I get the chance to write this reply.  It's wonderful that you have the chance to write this blog that makes me think.  Did we learn to forage first?  Up to debate.  Who knows all the things that are not poisons in the world.

    BR - and loved the blog,


    • Michelle,

      WOW!, thank you for your very thoughtful comments.  Your response has actually got me thinking about this topic more, and I think your response is a blog post in itself.  A few further thoughts:

      - I realize that my analogy might not be very clear.  When I talked about foraging, I did not imply you do NOT have to have relevant content, my point was where to 'plant' this, i.e., in existing communities where conversations are already taking place, vs. trying to build your own.

      - I was actually trying to paint a very 'black and white' picture, and obviously the truth lies somewhere in the middle. My premise however is targeted more towards people / companies that are just starting to experiment with social

      - In regards to your thoughts around noise, please see this very recent post from John Battelle on Twitter's problem - this is exactly where i believe the issue (and opportunity) lies:

      Thank you again for your thoughtful comments, you have given me quite a bit to think about.


      • Very cool you made it to the end of my comments.  I'm thinking too.   I liked the additions here.

        Where to plant?  That's a great question.  I wonder who knows the answer.  I think it is grey.  The person themselves decide.  They have always decided.  Some didn't make good choices and their farm never produced any fruit.  A person will decide based upon personal tastes, experience... and more.

        Back to posting, adding content.  To me it's very simple.  SAP stuff SCN.  Personal stuff Facebook.  (I don't even remember my facebook password.)  Professional stuff LinkedIn.  So what about all you "other" people, where do you post? I just read a blog that a summary was posted on SCN.  The entire blog was posted in worldpress.   So I know someone else sees things differently. 

        I think we are too diverse to ever agree upon where to settle to create our farm.  That's OK too.  If we all created our farm in the same place, it wouldn't work.

        I'm one of those strange people who really don't post much on Twitter.  OK - at all.  I think I have 2 posts. 

        But if you are thinking Twitter, no wonder you are thinking about how much noise is out there.  Twitter - oh my goodness - trying to get the data in some sort of searchable, manageable way.  What data is actually meaningful?  What is meaningful to me is useless to you.  This can get really interesting.  Something like Google or yahoo could be applied.  But would it address some of the concerns in this blog?  I'm not so sure.

        Thank you for the reply.  You have me thinking, and that's a good thing.