On the 17th October I found myself experiencing a moment of clarity about the value proposition of social media.  It happened whilst I was on stage at the 3rd Annual Nordic Investor Services Forum in Stockholm, talking about the decentralization effect of social media would transform the world of business over the next decade. (My next blog post will explain that one )

It was a interactive epiphany because my moment of clarity dawned when I was trying to answer a tough question from the audience.  The question was asked by a senior partner in a global investment and securities firm and went like this…

“The problem with social media is this:  There’s twitter in this room.  I’ve been reading the tweets and you’ve tweeted various figures from an earlier presentation and they weren't precisely what was said, because Twitter means you've got to edit everything down to 140 characters.  How do we guard against speaking in public forum like this event and having our words misquoted to the world via social media?”

My answer at the time wasn't very precise.  I accepted that putting stats into 140 character snippets on Twitter doesn't give the same context as a 40-minute PowerPoint deck.  But is that really the point? I noted that the tweets in question had started conversations with various people about the subject matter, and demonstrated that there were many people beyond the audience in the room who were interested in the subject – identifying a digital community interested in financial regulation (the subject of the stats I’d tweeted).

My argument was knowing who those people are (and identifying them through social channels) would become an essential tool for financial services in the future to share knowledge, extend their reach to a wider client base and recruit talented people into their organisations.

All that is true, but it’s not really the most important point.  As often happens, the words didn’t form into a coherent argument until after I’d left the stage, so here is what I should have said…

“The concept of ‘public’ has changed.  The public space now extends beyond the physical limitations of the room and into the wider world through social media and mobile computing (smartphones) – that is an inescapable fact of modern life.  In the same way you could never control what people took away inside their heads from a live event, you can’t control the data that people share the wider public world through social media during a live event – unless you stipulate Chatham House rules beforehand.

However, I've been in a similar situation myself - I spoke at an event on news gathering earlier this year and saw tweets that claimed the exact opposite of the points I’d made.  I couldn't control those people, but because I’m engaged in the space I had the opportunity to correct them, which I did.  And here’s the point - if you aren't engaged in the conversation, you can’t affect it.  If the presenter in question was on Twitter and following the event feed, they could have clarified my tweets – something that I would have appreciated because it’s wholly in my interests to provide my followers with accurate insights, but if you choose to remain outside the conversation, you can’t hope to exercise control over your own data.

The genie is out of the bottle, you can get engaged or you can get used to the fact your PowerPoint graphs will be chopped into soundbites without the ten minutes of explanatory chat that went along with them.”

As it happens, I reviewed my tweets and the point in question is I tweeted there were 70,000 people employed in financial regulation in Europe.  This caused my audience member a problem because that figure is an estimate by McKinsey, not a precise fact.

I also tweeted that Isaac Newton had gone bust through bad investments, when in fact he lost most of his savings in bad investments but had not, in fact, become bankrupt.

I wish that someone had added those important qualifying snippets of data to the tweet stream, it would have made it more interesting and maybe more people would have got engaged in the chat as a result.

The engagement ship has sailed.  In the real time world you need real time participation to make sure your message is clear and understood.  If you don’t, the data gets skewed through personal interpretations and omissions.  In a highly regulated industry where data accuracy is vital like Financial Services, I think that makes an urgent case for getting engaged in social media channels, because the next generation will do business there as the rule, not the exception. In a world where everything you say in public might filter out into the world that way isn't participation in social channels a mandatory requirement of being responsible to your organisation as well as yourself?