Martin Luther, The Economist, me and you

On October 31, 2009 I published my 35 Social Media Theses, subtitled “The Disputation of Chancellor Lee Aase on the Power and Efficacy of Social Media,” on the 492nd anniversary of Martin Luther posting his disputation on indulgences on the church door in Wittenburg.

Since then, I’ve delivered well over 100 presentations in 7 countries, and in almost every one I’ve used my 35 Theses (get a PDF) as the organizing principle, beginning with the story of how a technological innovation, the Gutenberg movable type printing press, helped make Luther’s theses the first massively viral communication, spreading throughout Germany in two weeks and reaching the rest of Europe in two months.

It all ties to my first two theses:

  1. Social media are as old as human speech, with air being the medium through which sound waves propagated.
  2. Electronic tools merely facilitate broader and more efficient transmission by overcoming inertia and friction.

So it was interesting when Dr. Victor Montori, our former medical director for the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media, sent me a link to an article in the current issue of The Economist, “How Luther went viral.” I’m sure it was unintentional imitation, but I’m sincerely flattered anyway. Here’s an excerpt:

Although they were written in Latin, the “95 Theses” caused an immediate stir, first within academic circles in Wittenberg and then farther afield. In December 1517 printed editions of the theses, in the form of pamphlets and broadsheets, appeared simultaneously in Leipzig, Nuremberg and Basel, paid for by Luther’s friends to whom he had sent copies. German translations, which could be read by a wider public than Latin-speaking academics and clergy, soon followed and quickly spread throughout the German-speaking lands. Luther’s friend Friedrich Myconius later wrote that “hardly 14 days had passed when these propositions were known throughout Germany and within four weeks almost all of Christendom was familiar with them.”

The unintentional but rapid spread of the “95 Theses” alerted Luther to the way in which media passed from one person to another could quickly reach a wide audience. “They are printed and circulated far beyond my expectation,” he wrote in March 1518 to a publisher in Nuremberg who had published a German translation of the theses.

This is required reading for SMUGgles. The article does a great job of analyzing at length what I can only briefly introduce in 90 seconds or so in my presentations. It applies network theory to describe how technology enabled such rapid spread, and does a great job of explaining how and why it happened.

I read lots because I enjoy learning, but one of the extra pleasures it provides is validation. I certainly have gotten new and helpful ideas from Guy Kawasaki, Seth Godin, Gary Vaynerchuk and others, but it’s especially encouraging when they affirm what I’m already doing.

For example, if you’ve heard one of my presentations you know that I typically introduce my family, including my grandchildren. After I had been doing that for a while, I ran across presentation advice from Guy Kawasaki in which he suggested including pictures of your kids to build empathy and rapport with audiences. I didn’t start introducing Evie, Judah and Aletta because Guy suggested it, but his guidance validated what had seemed like a good approach, and was just naturally who I am. (For my latest family news, see my Holiday Greetings.)

In some ways, this Economist article serves that same validation function. In my presentations I usually cite Wikipedia as the source for my assertion on the rapid dissemination of the 95 Theses. Because of this article, I now know that Friedrich Myconius is the original source of the quote. And if a writer for The Economist sees the same historical analogy that I have, we can’t both be crazy.

Since you’re here at SMUG, you likely are interested in social media. You “just see” that it makes sense to harness revolutionary tools for the reformation of your industry. But maybe that insight isn’t shared by all in your workplace.

I hope SMUG can provide validation and encouragement for you. My purpose with the 35 Theses is to give you arguments you can use to make the case for social applying social media in your work.

If you work in a health-related field, you also should check out our Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media and consider having your organization join our Social Media Health Network. The Network goes beyond validating your intuition; our aim is to learn together and share best practices so we can harness these revolutionary tools to improve health care, promote health and fight disease.

As The Economist concludes:

Modern digital networks may be able to do it more quickly, but even 500 years ago the sharing of media could play a supporting role in precipitating a revolution. Today’s social-media systems do not just connect us to each other: they also link us to the past.

My first two theses all over again.


Thesis 4: Social Media are the Third Millennium’s Defining Communications Trend

I don’t think this should really need lots of discussion and proof. In the era of Gutenberg and Luther, only the most profound works could be published via the printing press. Thus Luther’s 95 Theses and other works of eternal significance were candidates for mass distribution. Not much else was considered worthy of the expensive paper on which it would be printed.

And of course in those days mass distribution didn’t mean exactly universal distribution, but only to those who had the unusual opportunity and gift of literacy.

But even with limited literacy, Luther’s theses spread like a virtuous version of pandemic flu. They got people talking.

Over the ensuing 480 years or so, the ability to publish remained scarce and therefore precious. And for the last half century, there was a unique development in that a privileged class of editors and programmers could make tastes, and could decide what news was fit to print or worthy for airing.

So journalists attached to someone who owned a printing press, or (in the U.S.) an FCC-granted monopoly license, were unique in their ability to spread news and views to their community. News organizations sold their wares to consumers, or as Chris Anderson, Clay Shirky and others have noted, more accurately sold (or rented) their audiences to advertisers.

The economics of digital abundance and what Shirky calls unlimited perfect copyability, along with development of tools for self-publishing, means that we no longer are hostage to this privileged class. People like us can start a blog, or a podcast, or a YouTube channel that can be accessed from around the globe.

It doesn’t mean we necessarily have a huge audience for our views, but it does give us access, at least loosely based on merit, as judged by individuals instead of only the tastemakers.

The fact that only perhaps 10 percent of potential publishers actually avail themselves of these tools doesn’t lessen their significance.

In warfare the credible threat of force can be just as effective in accomplishing goals as the use of force is. Likewise, the fact that almost everyone has a digital camera at all times (thanks to the ubiquity of camera phones) means the potential cost of an organization treating someone badly is much higher.

In my presentations, I frequently illustrate this point with portions of the Social Media Revolution video, which begins with two questions:

Is social media a fad? Or is it the biggest shift since the Industrial Revolution?

While I agree the development of social media tools is as significant as anything since invention of the steam engine, the cotton gin and other outgrowths of the Industrial Revolution, I prefer to consider social media in the context of communications trends. In that regard, I believe it’s the biggest shift since Gutenberg. At least since Marconi.

In Thesis 3, I will discuss the anomalous (that’s a pretty sophisticated, Chancellor-like word, isn’t it?) nature of the mass media era, and why the era has ended, even as we continue to have mass media outlets in our communications ecosystem.

The fact that Gutenberg’s invention defined the 16th through the 19th centuries didn’t mean it completely replaced verbal communication. And broadcast media didn’t completely replace print in the 20th century. But each defined their era.

Likewise, social media define the Third Millenium, even though they haven’t (and won’t) completely replace mass media.

Meanwhile, here’s a screen shot from the Social Media Revolution video that puts it all in context in just a single frame:

Picture 8

If you have 4:22 to spare, here’s the video in its entirety:

So how do you answer those questions? To what would you compare the social media revolution?

Nailing 35 Theses to the Wall

As I mentioned yesterday, it was 492 years ago today that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg. The official title was “Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” and its viral spread led to the Protestant Reformation that has had seismic effects in world culture for nearly five centuries, even though more Americans associate October 31 with goblins and overdosing on high fructose corn syrup than with theological and cultural revolutions.

Today I created a new page on SMUG on which I have posted my 35 Theses, entitled “Disputation of Chancellor Lee Aase on the Power and Efficacy of Social Media.” Instead of nailing them to the physical community bulletin board as Luther did, I’m posting them on the wall of a virtual university. And while Luther’s theses unintentionally sparked a revolution, mine have the goal of sparking discussion and disputation about a revolution that is already well underway.

The video I’m embedding below highlights the changes taking place in what it calls a Social Media Revolution:

I’ve seen several videos of this genre, but one thing I appreciate about this one (as opposed to the “Shift Happens” series) is that it focuses on what has already happened (which is amazing enough) instead of projecting things like “By 2049 a $1,000 computer will exceed the computing capabilities of the human race.” I also like this recent video, Did You Know 4.0…which only makes one really outlandish extrapolation at the end, but in that it was at least quoting someone.

So while the videos above provide support for Thesis #4Social Media are the third millennium’s defining communications trend — my 35 theses are more about describing the revolution than causing it.

What I do hope to accomplish, though, is to help health care organizations (and other risk-averse businesses and groups) understand that the social media revolution isn’t a fad, that it will affect them and — most importantly — that it can be immensely beneficial if they look for ways to take advantage of the opportunities inherent in social technologies.

I look forward to writing posts over the next month or so that will amplify and illustrate many of these theses, and to having others refine and improve them.

And since I only started with 35, there’s plenty of room for you to suggest more. We’ve got a long way to go to match Luther’s 95.

Let’s discuss!