The Importance of Spontaneity

Good social media is like the good life: unplanned.

I’ve got some very good friends whom I see far less often in real life than online. Like almost everyone else I know, their answer to the question “How are you?” is inevitably “Busy.” I don’t blame Facebook, and I don’t blame inevitable life forces. In fact, I realized the other day that the situation is actually a great illustration both of how to use social media well (so rarely done) and how to live life well (even more rarely done).

I spend my days helping people do the first. I spend my evenings trying to do the second. And I’m trying to make the second eat into the first as much as possible. So I couldn’t resist thinking about this a bit.

When I’m explaining the good things about social media to somebody, one of my favorite techniques is to bring up one of my favorite authors: Jane Austen. See, in Elizabeth Bennet’s little town, all you had to do to see your friends or neighbors was step out your front door. They’d bump into you coming out of the shop with that new hat, they’d overhear the conversation you had with your sister about when silly Miss Bingley bought the other hat (which would probably get back to Miss Bingley), and so on. If you were well off enough not to work, you’d even keep your afternoons free so that people could just drop by uninvited. In other words, Elizabeth’s world was bursting with spontaneity.

The world I was born into couldn’t be more different. We love our privacy and our control. We live as far away from hubs of social life as possible, even church. We pack our evenings with as many scheduled activities as possible—evening classes, volunteer work, and so on. Home is our castle, by which we mean fortress, and God help anyone who drops by uninvited. Every interaction is planned, to the point where we can’t remember the last time anyone called and asked if we wanted to do something tonight, let alone the last time we would have been able to say yes. And for most people older than me, the thought of anyone seeing us doing just about anything is terrifying.

Most of the nonprofits I know operate the same way—it’s all about control. They want to “capture” your “information,” add you to your list. Social media scares them because it requires relying on the gossip chain and showing just a bit more skin (so to speak) than they’d like.

The problem in both cases is that there’s a social, dare I say spiritual, value to spontaneity. Without it, my friends won’t know about that new shirt I bought, but there are other more important things they won’t know as well—like whether I need someone to straighten me out from unhealthy life habits, or how (despite how I always answer the question) I’m really not “fine” at all. When my friends’ awareness of me is a highlight reel, when every interaction starts in such ignorance that it has to begin with “How are you,” when every conversation is a formal social ritual planned three weeks in advance, real relationships are impossible. Without spontaneity, there can be no “we.”

This is why my generation invented Facebook (and the rest). Many of the things that make some people shy away from it, like the “shallowness” of having to know how your banana bread recipe turned out, or the “invasion of privacy” of the idea that the public could see pictures of, um, stuff you did in public, are precisely the shallowness around which real relationships, real community, the good life are based.

Good social media doesn’t simply replicate Elizabeth Bennet’s lifestyle on a computer screen. It also fosters it in the real world, where geographical realities of the modern life make early 19th-century-level spontaneity difficult. I can see those shallow things online, and through dozens of small, spontaneous interactions, have a somewhat better idea of who you are and who we are. And the measure of good social media (including corporate social media) is how well that world extends into real life, helping build the “we.”

An example: I’m part of a Theology on Tap group that gets together for drinks to talk spiritual matters. (Yes, we’re nerds.) We use a Facebook group to coordinate the activity—it allows us to chat back and forth as a group in a way non-social communication tools don’t. But we’ve discovered that when people aren’t interacting spontaneously between meetings (both on and offline), turnout goes nearly to zero. We discovered this when the fellow who started the group, who was very “19th century” and was involved in people’s lives, moved away. (We miss you, Adam.)

From a social media marketer’s standpoint, the takeaway here seems clear to me: social media is ineffective and unhealthy when it ceases to be social. When it ceases to foster spontaneous interaction, helping create the “we,” including in the real world, it loses its value as both a marketing tool and a social aid. I’ve noticed this with one client after another; the people most active on their fan pages are the people most invested outside the fan pages. The successful pages are the ones that cultivate a lot of those people.

From a human standpoint, the takeaway is a bit more profound, or at least I took it to be. Building my life around spontaneity of this sort requires me to make different decisions about where I live, and how I live—and recognizing that doing the right thing rarely requires a program. I want to leave room for having relationships—for being spontaneous—for “doing Nothing.” And theoretically at least, I’ve known how to do that since I was five:

“How do you do Nothing?” asked Pooh, after he had wondered for a long time.
“Well, it’s when people call out at you just as you’re going off to do it, What are you going to do, Christopher Robin, and you say, Oh, nothing, and then you go and do it.”

Brian Brown
Brian Brown loves building the environments, habits, and networks that make people thrive. He is the founder of Humane Pursuits, where he writes a featured column and edits the Give channel. He started his consulting company, Narrator, to help great mission-driven organizations modernize and grow. He lives with his wife Christina and son Edmund in Colorado Springs, where they mix cocktails, hunt for historic architecture, and see how many people they can squeeze into their house for happy hour.

1 Comment

  • […] Contrary to what you learned in law school, the best questions are the ones you don’t know the answers to. Ignorance lets conversation flow from an upcoming wedding to the ways gender might determine the influence of myth and story on decision-making. For further insights into why we’re bully for the unplanned, please see Mr. Brown’s recent article. […]