Control Freaks Need Not Apply

If you’re a control freak, you might want to think twice about a career in social media.  After all,  some of the most successful social networks have flourished precisely because the control freaks got out of the way and, in their own words, let the lunatics run the asylum.

Ceding control to the participants is so counter-intuitive for many managers, yet time and time again we see the impressive results of this approach.  Take Craigslist, for example.  It’s  a revolutionary online community that has changed the way regular folks think about matching supply and demand.  In a recent report by ReadWriteWeb of the keynote address by Craig Newmark (founder of Craigslist) at the User Generated Content Conference, we find the following statements that are guaranteed to send a control freak through the roof:

  • “Getting out of the way is really important…”
  • “We didn’t care that the site wasn’t being used how we had imagined…”

Now, imagine a member of a law firm knowledge management department uttering either of those statements.


In the words of Jeff Jarvis:

As Google built the most powerful tool imaginable–the entire world of digital knowledge revealed behind a simple search box–so did Craig build a simple tool that changed society (and newspapers and real estate and more) without prescribing how we should use it. They create platforms to enable us to do what we want to do and then, instead of giving us rules about their use, then they stand back and put us in charge. [emphasis added]

The clear message in all of this is that if you try to control or constrain a social network too tightly, you will choke it.  Far better to set in place the minimum precautions necessary to ensure nothing blows up or melts down, and then let the participants work their magic.  If you start obsessing too much about policies governing access to or use of social media tools, chances are you’ve missed the whole point of social media and may well end up being a hurdle on the path to success for your Enterprise 2.0 initiative.

[Photo Credit:  H4cks, Creative Commons license]

9 thoughts on “Control Freaks Need Not Apply

  1. Mary,

    I think there is a difference between systems outside the firewall and those inside it. I agree that control freakery is inappropriate wherever you are, but more care needs to be take to nurture effective use inside the firewall — “build it and they will come” is not a sensible approach.


    1. Mark –

      “Control freakery” is a great expression! I agree that life inside the firewall is quite different than life outside. However, our basic social and cooperative impulses as humans don’t change as a result of where we are in relation to the firewall. If anything, knowing that we’re operating behind the firewall tends to make us more circumspect in our online interactions at the office. As a result, I’m not sure it is entirely necessary to tightly circumscribe how employees should use social media tools at work based on managerial worries about risk exposure or abuse. On the other hand, I would use my resources to ensure users have the chance to exploit those tools. The philosophy behind this is that restrictive rules set early in the process tend to limit the use of the tools to the vision of the project sponsor and limit the ability of users to stretch the tools in creative ways. While we may never achieve the freewheeling approach of Craigslist, it would be a shame to cut ourselves off from the opportunity to allow our use of social tools to evolve in a way that truly responds to the needs to users.

      This is not meant to promote a “build it and they will come” approach. But, it does acknowledge the power of social media tools to change users as those users in turn change their use of the tools. If you have a group within your firm that really wants the power of a social media tool to meet particular work goals, you’re no longer foisting technology on them, but using technology to meet a real need. When that technology is social, the users can be more creative. We shouldn’t get in the way of this creativity unnecessarily.

      – Mary

  2. This, perhaps, helps to explain why governments are having such trouble with social media.

    1. Wendy –

      The term “control freak” may be excessively harsh. However, the pattern of behavior (trying to limit manner of use based on worries about risk and abuse) is prevalent in many workplaces. It might be helpful to identify what the real worries are and see if the social media tools really are the issue or if proper education of the user population might deal with the problem.

      – Mary

  3. Nice post, Mary. Very true. What I also see happening in the company I work for is this. I’m thinking of all kinds of things in the social media landscape I would like to set up for my colleagues. But then you hear it’s already happening somewhere! What I also see is: it is nice to have one person or a group of people (KM department, K-manager) to keep track of these initiatives to learn from them and roll them out to general public. Yes, no or less control. But help with cultivating and general adoption.

    1. Samuel –

      KM definitely has a role to play in social media deployments, but I’d characterize it (like you did) as a coordinating role rather than a controlling role. We get into trouble when we forget this basic distinction.

      – Mary

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