Last week I was invited to a summer party. Some are better than others, but this one was instantly unappealing for one reason: I was asked at the last minute.
This usually means one of two things. Either you weren't meant to be invited in the first place or, worse, someone apparently more important dropped out at short notice.
Despite being pulled from the bench like a guy who didn't make the starting line-up, I made the trek across London and was soon in the garden, sipping a drink and chatting away to interesting person after interesting person. I was glad I had made the effort.
As I headed home that evening, however, my mind turned less to the like-minded people I met and more to the dud conversation when two of us struggled to say anything interesting and moved on at the earliest opportunity. It was uncomfortable, and yet I couldn't help thinking the exchange had a value that outweighed its awkwardness. It forced me to rethink how I interact with people, and it led me to another conversation that proved more engaging all round.
Such awkward moments are increasingly rare in the age of the social network. We aren't really encouraged to interact with ideas we find disagreeable.
My e-mail basket regularly has a message listing the "accounts" Twitter believes I would like, based on those I already follow.
LinkedIn offers me "Top Content, Tailored for You." The company, which used to be used primarily as a jobs site, wants to turn itself into a management destination. It has hired a former journalist from Fortune magazine to create the type of content that is catnip to the professionals who use the network.
There is LinkedIn Today, a news hub, and Influencers, a space where executives, entrepreneurs and thinkers – from Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase and Meg Whitman at Hewlett-Packard to Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post, Pete Cashmore of Mashable and Joi Ito at the MIT Media Lab, blog about pretty much whatever they want.
The scary thing about the algorithms underpinning these media is that they are getting better and better at knowing what I like.
I used to hate the e-mails because they were so far off-base that their utility was usually next to nil. Now I increasingly find myself following the links and sharing them.
But is this uptick in relevance an entirely good thing? Does it make us better at our jobs? I'm not so sure.
The problem is that these networks' greatest strengths are also the biggest weaknesses for managers. If everything that is pushed your way is based on pre-existing behaviour, it may be efficient, but it can create a vicious cycle of self-reinforcing data that merely confirms rather than challenges. In reality, we need a bit of both. How often do you follow people on Twitter whose views you don't share? And how often do you look for someone whose ideas challenge your own on LinkedIn?
This is important because executives need to be pushed to think differently before they are blindsided by someone unexpectedly coming along and forcing them to rebuild their business model entirely. The music industry didn't "get" the power of digital until it was on its knees. The media business was full of groups so focused on traditional competitors – other conventional media groups – that they didn't see the threat posed by disrupters until they were already sucking away readers and advertisers.
What's a manager to do? You certainly shouldn't ignore these massively helpful services. But you do need to be mindful about how you use them. Here are three bits of simple guidance.
First, be curious and experiment. Most social networks are designed to be intuitive to use, so it is easy to tweak and try new things. That could mean following people you wouldn't normally think to, or signing up to a list that is far outside your comfort zone.
Second, take a sabbatical from a service you use obsessively. A break can help you think beyond the very defined world to which you are accustomed, and it might also open your eyes to possibilities that you had been ignoring. If you choose to take up the technology again, you might start using it more effectively.
But perhaps most important, don't forget the lesson I took from that awkward party conversation: being social also means negotiating relationships with people you don't like or agree with, whether online or off. It may be a bit uncomfortable but without pain there is often little gain.