The geography of narcissism on social networks

I remember the old days when looking for a telex number on a company’s brochure or advertisement showed that they were probably doing international business.

If you wanted to sell overseas, you’d have to take a trip to that country to explore the market and interview for distribution channels. The more sophisticated marketers would take time to read books about the do’s and taboos of doing business in those markets. But many of us learned the hard way, through embarrassment.

I’ve been very fortunate to teach how to minimize cross-cultural mishaps to thousands of students and business executives over the years. I must admit that there is never a shortage of vivid examples of cross-cultural failures, whether in print, broadcast and now in digital format. I’ve documented many of the most humorous on my Pinterest page.

But something happened that made things a bit more complicated for those businesses engaging in international commerce and dialogue. Whereas traditional marketing communications hinged largely on copy and imagery, the era of social media introduced the notion of the conversational aspects of massive online platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

As we know, each of these platforms has its own interactive nuances, but what they have in common is varying degrees of narcissism among subscribers.

Now narcissism carries many connotations, good and bad, starting with the word’s genesis with the mythological Narcissus staring at the reflection of his own beautiful image in a pond till he died.

While this definition has not been lost on many using social media today, the medium tends to “reflect” much more subtle and healthy forms of narcissism. After all, brands — whether companies or personal — must carry a degree of narcissistic bravado simply to position themselves above competitors. But it’s all a matter of degree. Too much narcissism and it becomes increasingly difficult to deliver on the promise; too little and you become a “me too.”

As businesses and individuals go about building brands across borders on social media, the “geography of narcissism” becomes an important area of study. There can be a wide variance between what is considered “healthy narcissism” in one place versus another, based on culture.

(If you’re wondering how this applies to enterprise IT, think about the social enterprise implications of narcissism related to inspiring cross-cultural communication with tools such as Chatter or Yammer.)

For example, humility is woven into the fabric of many Asian cultures. This goes hand in hand with the concept of “face” or as we might call it “saving face.” When applied to a social media setting, we can see some interesting paradoxes. In some cases, it can be difficult to pressure these cultures into the degree of narcissism necessary for product or personal branding through social media.

On the other hand, there have been findings that social media provides an outlet for the “possible self” versus the “actual self” in many humility-based cultures. In essence, social media provides a degree of anonymity for more narcissistic communications than would be normal in face-to-face interactions.

The next challenge is that the variety and character of social media networks make a one-size-fits-all approach to strategy virtually impossible. While in America and Europe, we tend to use four or five core platforms, an enormous market like China will have a dozen platforms that cross-fertilize the functionalities of many of our social networks.

For example, the incredibly popular Sina Weibo incorporates the microblogging features of Twitter with long-form content as well as feeds for public services and transportation. As it relates to the geography of narcissism, Weibo would require the ability to promote products or oneself in a variety of formats that would have to maintain a consistent persona across the same platform.

Many social marketing newcomers to these countries make the mistake of underestimating the extreme segmentation of the networks. Narcissistic media in these countries is more similar to the variety of channels one would find on cable than in the Top 5 channels we see in our social media landscape.

The key to success in leveraging narcissistic and conversational media across borders is to rely on locals who understand the platforms and can compare and contrast the nuances. Both marketers and CIOs looking to leverage the “brand called IT” on a global scale can benefit from the experience.

How does your enterprise handle cross-cultural social enterprise challenges ?


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