Are you a Purist or a Corporatist?

Last night, at the Blogger dinner in SF (see pics tagged ‘groundswell’), there were several discussions among the attendees from Josh, Shel, Debbie and others around their ideology and stance when it comes to the impacts of social media to companies.

Josh created a scale to help identify where peoples beliefs are, he describes it from his post as:


10 = The groundswell is such a powerful force, the people in it will always prevail. All companies can do is watch and listen. Their employees can participate, but only as independent people. Corporate efforts are doomed to fail.

9 =

8 =

7 = The groundswell is powerful, but companies have a role in it. Groups of people inside of enterprises can get together and make themselves heard. Even so, the groundswell will always prevail over their interests.

6 =

5 = Companies belong in the groundswell. They have interests just as the people do. They will set up corporate efforts — presences in places like Facebook or their own corporate blogs — and connect with their customers. They can’t shut down or co-opt people in the groundswell, but they can form meaningful relationships with them. And they can accomplish goals like marketing or collaborative innovation, if they respect that they’re not in charge.

4 =

3 =

2 = Corporations and other major institutions are powerful and will always be powerful. This so-called “groundswell” is similar to any other medium — people are there consuming it, and corporations can reach them within that medium. Flare-ups of negative publicity can be contained or at least “handled” so they cause minimal damage.

1 =

0 = Corporations have power because they have money. This groundswell thing is a flash in the pan and it doesn’t matter. If it gets too far out of hand we’ll buy it and make sure we control it.


To me, the industry shifts over time: there was a lot of purist talk from 2005-2006, books, presentations and blogs came in with strong cluetrain values. Then, we started to see monetization of social media, social media optimization, and agencies, pr, and marketers getting on board.

I fall in the 5-7 range, you’ll often hear me say that companies need to let go to gain more, and that the power (trust) is in the hands of the participants, so employees should participate.

How about you? But really think it through and explain why this is your belief.

Josh has responded to some of the comments he’s already received.

46 Replies to “Are you a Purist or a Corporatist?”

  1. It is an interesting one… I think we’ll have to accept that blogging, and social media, are tools. And like all tools, they’ll get used in lots of different ways. They are a new element in the communications mix. For personal use, they extend our reach far beyond anything we had access to before. For business use, they open up a two way channel with customers, competitors and suppliers – for better or for worse.

    I guess I am with you at 5-7…

  2. I’m at about a 6.

    Some purists I’ve heard seem to forget that corporations (a) have LOTS of money, (b) have a HUGE base of entrenched EFFECTIVE knowledge about how to operated and make even more money, and (c) are NOT populated by mindless drones who do everything like it was done when Ike was President, dammit!

    On the other side, there are are corporatists who seems suspicious of basically every innovation in the world since . . . oh, maybe since Lou Gerstner joined IBM. They WILL be left behind like Charlie Chaplin (“Who would want to hear actors talk?”).

    My hypothesis is that the corporatists are a little more likely to adapt and co-opt purist-leaning views – ‘cuz there’s money to be made the groundswell way, after all – so that in the long run they’ll move farther along this spectrum than the purists will need to.

    But just a LITTLE more. Ergo a 6.

  3. Definitely 5-7 range as well.

    There are benefits for the conversation if a corporation becomes respectfully involved. For example, if I vent about my bank, it might ease my anger/gain sympathy/lead to more support over time…

    If someone from the bank pops up and helps me solve my problem and also prevents it affecting others, then suddenly that conversation has become a major motivator for change.

    At some point in my life, I want to see an advert for a great deal on a product I want to buy at that time. And to be able to get involved in recommending that to my friends quickly and easily. And corporations can either aid that process, stifle it, or ignore it. I’d much rather have corporations helping me, even if I know that all corporations are essentially doing it for their own self interest in the end…

  4. Great question. I put myself at “moderate purist” (probably 7). I think corporations will struggle with social media tools, especially as they impact identity. For individuals, personal and professional branding are beginning to merge. Employees’ personal identity has an explicitness that it did not before, and a defined connection to professional identity. I believe social media will impact communications at all levels, with powerful (corporate) application in internal communications, and savvy companies will learn how to leverage it to improve their communications, both internal and external. Along the way, we’ll learn a lot, and I hope we have a chance to shape business culture to motivate and realize the potential of individuality.

  5. Very interesting discussion. I’d say I’m somewhere around a 6 or 7. I have a client who’s an expert in customer loyalty and always says “Stop trying to change your customers and start changing yourself.” I think that companies can (and should) take social media as an opportunity to gain more insight into their customer base, as opposed to viewing it as something that needs to be contained.

  6. I’d have to put myself as a 5 for now, though I could easily see moving to a “0” or “1” depending upon the overall direction the ‘net takes. In “The Future of the Internet (,” Jonathan Zittrain wonders if the internet’s future is going to be controlled by tethered appliances (gadgets that are not easily modified by users) like the iPhone and applications like Facebook as apposed to the generative approach of its first decade. At this point, it seems like we’re headed toward welcoming a lock-down, but I’m willing (and hoping) to be surprised. If we do end up with a predominantly tethered device driven Internet, I’ll probably end up as a strong “0.”

  7. The “groundswell” is a powerful, descriptive term. It evokes an uprising against corporate power and a time of revolution.

    I’m not as thrilled with the “two camps” dichotomy. It’s too simplistic. The continuum seems to ignore the fact that we’re all part of an online ecosystem that’s in large part economic, even for bloggers with enlightened self-interest.

    No one would argue with Josh and Charlene about the power of social media. They’ve done some truly groundbreaking work and research. Where I think they’re losing credibility for the groundswell concept: its all-encompassing nature.

    Josh writes, “the groundswell I refer to consists of ALL social applications — not just blogs, but wikis, user-generated video and audio, social networks, ratings and reviews, twitter — any application that allows people to connect and draw strength from each other.”

    That would more or less qualify March Madness, Mardi Gras and “Oprah” as social applications.

    People are baffled by vague metaphors and simiiles. For example, Charlene says social networks will be “like air.”

    What does that mean?

    We’re participating in a Populist moment. We live in a capitalist world. We work online in the Google ecosystem.

    Hope to discuss those concepts further at Monday’s blogger dinner in NYC.

  8. I’m right in the middle, for social media to have an impact you need not only a push and cry from the people, but someone with the ability to make things happen.

    Social media enables corporations to form meaningful relationships with their employees, customers and partners. These relationships need to be driven by the right motivations and can not be self serving. A 5 seems like the best of both worlds to me.

  9. Good post. I think that I’m about a 6 as well, but I realize that I am being fairly optimistic. In an ideal world, corporations play nice with consumers and both have a fairly equal footing.

    We don’t live in an ideal world though. We live in a world where corporations have a great deal of control, and, in my experience, convincing them to turn over control to their customers is a hard sell. If “meaningful relationships” through social media interactions can be directly translated to profits, the odds improve for a more harmonious relationship between brand and consumer.

  10. A corporation is made up of individuals. Therefore, corporations will participate through the participation of their employees.

    The corporations that attempt to control that participation will watch the best and the brightest go elsewhere. Participating in a community will soon be seen as an essential way to collect and process information (the primary output of today’s knowledge economy).

    I would place myself near the 8 or 9 end of the spectrum. I don’t think this is going away, in fact I think it’s going to get stronger.

    @Chris – I can see your concerns regarding a totally tethered device driven network with controls. We started there with AOL, swung to the other extreme with the ‘net, and just might be starting to see a swing back. We’ll see where we end up, but I’d imagine it’ll be somewhere along the middle.

  11. This question is time sensitive. I mean, it depends upon when you ask it. Right now, I’m a purist because the corporations just don’t get it. They still think New Media is another medium through which to distribute marketing collateral, despite all the excellent work some of the PR thought leaders have advanced.

    Soon, I’ll be a 3. Corporations are slow, but they are led by smart people, at least the successful ones. Soon, they’ll get the hang of it and hire purists to be true community managers and the tide will shift. I imagine you’re seeing some of this now, Jeremiah.

    But ultimately, it will either swing back to the purist side or be damped (by sufficient corporate investment or possibly the rise of small business users) and settle in the middle. Corporations are, after all, run by committee, which always brings us back to if not the lowest common denominator then at least to the median.

  12. 6, but this isn’t a fixed score in my mind. One of the themes I just blogged on was the democratization and decentralization of brands. As more organizations discover the value of social media, they’ll use the momentum of the individual to push their products or services.

    Traditional advertising is so extremely inefficient. Companies that understand the value of good service have existed long before the Web (think Kiehl™s). A good word is worth thousands of dollars.

    So why is the 6 not a fixed value? Acceptance of social media varies by industry and may change over time. The Web is an inherently social forum and the value of conversations will only grow over time.

  13. @Tony Haenn – I sure hope you’re right about a moderate swing back. That’s what I’d prefer to see, too.

  14. I’m paid to be a corporatist, but I’m paid to inject corporations into the groundswell. That puts me as a dead solid 5.

    People need to remember that they really do LIKE marketing, WHEN they are in the market for something. So if corporations can put meaningful information out there, and have it be found when folks are searching for it, that’s a positive brand moment.

    That’s what we’re trying to achieve. Kill the groundswell? No way. Get in the middle of it.


  15. Great responses. The people in the 5-7 range here encourage me, because that’s where you get stuff done — open to the idea that social changes everything, but also to finding ways for corporations to participate.

    @Kevin Heisler our definitions are actually more precise that the caricatures that you’ve presented here, but we wanted to be broad since we think some views have been too narrow. I’d love to talk to you about this in New York.

  16. Like @Kevin, I’m not fully convinced of two camps. I have a personal blog used as a mix of, well, personal blogging and letting people know a bit of who I am, hoping that if they need money coaching, they’ll have a measure of trust in me based on my blog. Result? a new customer for my p/t business. Is that ‘pure’? or ‘corporate’?
    Similarly, I was recently hired by a cdn bank (hi, @dan!) as their evangelist. My hope is to *not* be lowest common denominator per @Rick but to demonstrate that corporations are a mix of human beings with opinions that vary internally, and are capable of listening and adapting to the external people upon whom its livelihood depends.
    ps – I’d be an 8

  17. (Still at an 8.5 😉 despite the great points made for the middle)

    Something I’m picking up out of the discussion – some one call me on it if I’m wrong. We appear to be looking at the Corporate vs. People groundswell in terms of how companies talk to their customers. Certainly a valid perspective; the majority of communities these days are consumers.

    However, what about the way communities enable corporations to produce differently (as opposed to sell differently)? Not just communities that corporations use to communicate with customers, but communities that enable corporations (executives in those corporations) to talk to each other, to share knowledge and peer review decisions?

    I’m exploring over here on my (newly minted) blog (link through my name). Would welcome comments here or there.

  18. Perhaps a hybrid strategy is called for – a buddha/stalin approach 10 /1. A Buddha sensibility of extreme empathy and customer focus uses the tool to become a great listener on the front end. A Stalin sensibility uses the tools on the back end to turn the learning into strategy and tactics that are ruthlessly executed.

  19. I’m a 5 because I think it’s now mandatory for companies to participate in the phenomenon that’s happening, otherwise they just look ignorant.

    When a social network like Twitter comes around and I can tweet about my “cbtl mission valley” experience (Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf), and that tweet becomes #1 on google for those keywords, then you know that participation is mandatory (3 of top 6 listings are actually my tweets). Watching and listening is great, but if you’re not connecting in a public and social space, you’re missing an opportunity and setting your company up to look foolish.

  20. I consider myself in the 2-5 range… say 3.5

    I think corporations have an obligation to listen to the groundswell and experiment in influencing and guiding it to the best of their ability. They should take risks, engage customers, and have an obligation to interact with the community.

    Jenn’s point is a good one. CBTL has new flat panel monitors where they could easily display an RSS feed of tweets that match #cbtlmv- there by encouraging an open forum that their customers can ‘take away’ from the coffee shop.

    I don’t think you can always ‘contain’ the groundswell. That is where I am not a full ‘2’. You can show your good intentions, but in the end, it’s up to the community to decide to embrace your brand.

  21. I answered on Josh’s site – but have re-thought it.

    I am essentially a purist – conversations are for people! The HUGE loophole in this position is that people within companies can participate – and are welcome – as long as they contribute to the community.

    One difficulty for companies is letting people participate appropriately. A second challenge is that participation in a community is NOT a campaign. It is the start of an open ended relationship. That requires planning and committment.


  22. My take is that it largely depends on the industry that one is in. Someone involved in the tech industry, for example, is going to be far more interested/involved in social media tools than someone in a traditional industry of some sort.

    As I’ve worked in several consumer startup companies, we have a lot to gain by interacting with customers on the internet and paying attention to what they say; Coca Cola, however, probably doesn’t have a lot to gain by what customers say about Original Coke (this recipe probably isn’t going to change). Coke will simply release different products to fit different markets.

    I think there’s a very dangerous assumption that these tools will work across all industries and/or countries, largely due to the fact that this isn’t going to be consistent across the planet (cultural norms, mores, etc. do come in to play). After all, most web content (user generated or other) is generally only about 1-2% of the total online population; most of the other folks probably don’t care enough to contribute to the conversation.

    Technology companies have a lot to lose by not participating in the social media swell. A more traditional company might only have to pay attention when something seriously goes wrong.

  23. I am completely late on this post, but I am firmly in the middle on this (5). I believe that corporations have a role to play in social networking because they have resources that the community needs (or the groundswell) but that they in turn are in need of the community support to continue operation. There is an overlapping spot where the interests of the company and the interests of the community converge, and this is the place where the corporation can successfully contribute.

  24. I’m about 2-4. When it comes to having money to burn, enterprises have just a tad more in their pockets than SMBs. And even when they’re reckless with that money, they can outspend and outlive most other companies. Regardless how much people would rather play in the rain and sing camp songs, reality is most people would rather remain protected within cubicle farms where there’s safety in numbers, someone else to blame, health insurance and a steady paycheck than the guarantee of nothing. And having chosen that workplace as the source of their income, they will strive to protect it. Regardless how much better they feel it would be to do business the social media way, most duhmployees would prefer to almost go down with the ship instead of facing the fear of criticism that it, and they, would initially encounter by dipping their toes in the water.

  25. Again, we are in year 2.1 of a 10 year cycle at the end of which I expect the majority of businesses will finally see how right Jack Welch was with his thoughts on the boundaryless organization. The groundswell and the social media tools that empowers it will be a leading factor towards this tectonic shift. Ultimately, it is about people, power and respect. Rather than respecting people for their position of power, we will respect people for how they leverage their knowledge and connections as power while respecting other people.

    At this point in time, I am with you Jeremiah, between 5-7. In 6 years, I will hopefully be an 8-9. The thing is, companies and hierarchies still have enough power to ignore ‘the little people’. Soon the prevailing cultural winds will change that…

  26. Well, the bunching at 6 may be a bias of the people that follow you, Mr. Owyang.

    My sense right now is that current corporate structures make collective action very difficult to justify with the limited timeframes and outside influence (right now, mostly shareholders).

    It’s very possible, however, as these structures start to change and those outside influences continually involve customers more intimately, that your scale will fold in on itself, with 0 and 10 merging. Alas, that would be with perfect transparency, so let’s say 2 equals 8. What an interesting thought.

    Coming back to reality, I’m a 6. Like Mr. Heuer, I hope to move to a higher number over time.

  27. Hi Jeremiah,
    I’m in the middle, like the average. Shel is nuts to think that 11 is possible, if only because a company is just a group of people and there is some power in a group that an individual, or even a groundswell of individuals cannot match. So that gives some traction to the institution, the organized group, the company, over the disorganized, though powerful and potentially larger group of, let’s say, tweeters.

  28. I am in the 6 to 8 range myself.

    I agree with Chris Heuer that we are still early in this. Most people do not see or understand they have a voice that matters. But, this availability to have a voice, particularly one that is transparent, is limited to a small part of the earth’s population. Companies can still be viable in unopen markets that cover much of the inhabitable surface of the Earth.

    So far the tools we have for getting our voices our, let alone the tools for organizations to hear the voices are really early in the emergence process. Tying listening services and turning it into action for CRM/VRM right now is really poor. The listening tools are still crude and not well shaped. The tools also are still rather crude for people who contribute their voice as the tools focus on short term results not lasting relationships.

  29. Been on both sides and up and down the scale but at this point I have to be dragged screaming to anything above a 7.

    The people / the clamor / the noise don’t guarantee prevailing and truthfully I don’t think they should. On the other side, the corporate money does not always mean that they will be able to win all battles.

    Stick me at a 5 and call me medium-rare.

  30. Count me in for firm 7 as long as I can conduct business in a healthy free economy where frivolous lawsuits are held in check and we can shed 30 years of unfortunate common law that binds corporations in to their behavior! The spider-web of legal liability and insane “human resources” policy has tarnished the ability of the corporate brand to be seen as anything but evil.

    A corporation is a legal entity which has a legal personality distinct from those of its members.

    The defining legal rights and obligations of a corporation consist of the capacities (i) to sue and to be sued, (ii) to have assets, (iii) to employ agents, (iv) to engage in contracts, and (v) to make by-laws governing its internal affairs.

    The challenge of the future is to have the corporation shed its negative brand image and be seen a legal entity that allows people of similar mind and interest to have more positive impact than any single individual. Ideally, the scale shouldn’t be “purist” vs. ‘corporatist”, however, “individual” vs. “collective’.

    Nice happy collective of like minds we have here! Let’s incorporate 😎

    I know many of you commenting here and I believe that we all are part of that first-wave of business leaders that are determined to have “double bottom lines” in our businesses and treat each other how we wish to be treated…and that includes “legal entities”.

  31. I’m a 6.5
    The value of social technology and computing for an individual or a corporation is predicated on the psychographic and technographics of the participant. Whether as an individual or as a representative of a corporate culture, you’re either going to engage and make good use (create a benefit) of the dialog, or not.

    I say 6.5 because smart companies (like smart people) find benefit from embracing the groundswell. For example, startup Method products has built a great business embracing the groundswell of green…so much so that a large homecleaning company now has now embraced the movement with its own line of green cleaners.

    Some corporations, like some individuals are interested in, even require dialog with their constituents. For some companies, i.e. consumer packaged goods, a dialog with its consumer constituents is required for product development and refinement. VCs and startups look to the groundswell to create great companies all the time.

    Social technology is a fantastic opportunity for these kinds of companies. And this is nothing new. Social interaction has served smart business owners extremely well for centuries.

    Corporations do have a reason and, if they have the good sense and fortitude, need to engage with customers with whatever tools are most effective for them.

  32. I fall somewhere between 1 and 3 and this is why

    I don’t think this means I am “corporatist”, though. I wish corporations (and government) could be run differently, be more people-focused, but they are not. They are politically motivated (in the case of government) and shareholder motivated (in the case of corporations).

    I definitely move higher up the list (6-8) when it comes to social media in small-medium business and non-profits. That’s where social media has real power.

  33. I would be from 8-10 I would say.

    It’s possibly because I don’t believe the business format we know – as of today, is gonna be untouched in the future.

    I don’t believe that purist are not about business, Im selfemployed with my own business myself.

    I just think that they are not about “business as usual” but more like “the business of business should be more than business”

    =) hope I make sense

  34. Great question. I put myself at “moderate purist” (probably 7). I think corporations will struggle with social media tools, especially as they impact identity. For individuals, personal and professional branding are beginning to merge. Employees' personal identity has an explicitness that it did not before, and a defined connection to professional identity. I believe social media will impact communications at all levels, with powerful (corporate) application in internal communications, and savvy companies will learn how to leverage it to improve their communications, both internal and external. Along the way, we'll learn a lot, and I hope we have a chance to shape business culture to motivate and realize the potential of individuality.

  35. I'd say I'm a 5, In between. I really think that in order to have a good business you have to connect well to the people around you. Know what they want, etc. Companies could not operate without the knowledge pf what the people what from them.

Comments are closed.