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Social semantics

Andrew McAfee asks if the word “social” has so many negative connotations that it’s a potentially harmful word to use when trying to persuade managers that web 2.0 tools are worth investigating:

“It’s technically accurate… [but] I have rarely come across a word that has more negative connotations to busy, pragmatic line managers inside organizations. The best thing it is is neutral… the worst thing it is is a sign that we’re going to use these tools to waste time, to goof off, to plan happy hour, to do all these social activities. The impression I get from people who make decisions… is ‘I’m not running a social club. I’m trying to run a business here.’ ” (I accompanied this monologue with a picture intended to convey what flashes through an executive’s mind when he hears the word ‘social.’)

I discussed the baggage that comes with “social” last year:

Is ‘social’ the problem with social software? Certainly in the UK, ‘social’ has some rather negative connotations: Social workers are often despised and derided as interfering, and often incompetent, busybodies. Social housing is where you put people at the bottom of the socioeconomic heap. Social sciences are the humanities trying to sound important by putting on sciency airs. Social climbers are people who know how to suck their way up the ladder. Social engineering is getting your way deviously, by using people’s weaknesses against them. Social security is money you give people who can’t be bother work for themselves. Socialism is an inherently flawed system that is prone to corruption. Social disease is venereal.

Whether or not you agree with all of those descriptions – and for the record, I don’t – you have to admit that the word ‘social’ does have a bit of a bad rap. I wonder how much that influences people – in business and elsewhere – to dismiss ‘social media’, ‘social networks’ and ‘social tools’ before they have even found out what they are and what they’re good for.

I still think that the word “social” is a problem. But I’m not sure that it either can or should be replaced. If a company balks at the word “social” before even looking at how social tools can be used to help their people get stuff done, then they have deeper problems than those that social tools can help with.

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