Moore Consulting

What medieval manuscripts can teach you about social media

Book of Deer (public domain, courtesy of wikipedia)

Back in the early 1990s I spent a lot of time studying medieval manuscripts, and what I learned has proved to be a valuable way of thinking about social media.

My undergraduate degree was in Dark Age languages and history, and I spent hours in the libraries of Cambridge poring over manuscripts written over a millennium ago with a quill pen in a freezing scriptorium on cow hide by monks writing in a language that wasn’t their own. Those illuminated texts were almost impossibly hard to produce, but they are beautiful works of art that changed lives at the time, and have since survived centuries of age and abuse.

Interestingly, the monks who copied these texts also wrote little notes about more day to day stuff in the margins of these beautiful books. These marginalia (often written in the monks’ vernacular languages, rather than the Latin of the main texts) commented on the weather, or complained about their colleagues. There were the social media posts of their time — ephemeral but personal and revealing.

So there was the long-form, well-produced and considered work, and the looser and shorter marginalia. We need both too, to present a rounded picture of our organizations.

Long form first

We don’t have to strive to create anything as lasting as the Book of Kells, but we absolutely need to make content that’s hard to create, takes skill, time and effort. Work that not everyone could produce, but that lots of people can appreciate.

If you’re an organization looking to use social media effectively, you might be thinking that you have to reduce all your thoughts and messages down to the smallest form you can. The assumption might be that since you want to tweet and post to Facebook, you don’t need a blog or videos or good photography. That might seem fine, but what are you actually going to tweet about?

If you look at how people use their social media accounts effectively, it’s very often to link to longer-form work — a video, a good article or a strong image. This might not always be produced by the person tweeting — linking to other’s work is not just good karma, it can build your reputation as a resource for valuable information — but whoever made it, it’s often the more considered work that lives a longer life online, and generates more of an emotional response from people.

Social media might be seen as replacing old media models, but the irony is that we spend a lot of of our time tweeting and facebooking about things produced by ‘old’ media. We share a link to a New York Times article, live-tweet the Oscar Ceremony, or get excited about a Lady Gaga video. Without the expensive and skillfully produced longer-form media, we’d end up only taking about the weather or what we had for breakfast.

Following this model, when we’re looking to make an impact in social media, we can’t do it if all we produce is 140 characters long and takes just a couple of minutes to throw together. We need to create things of value, that others will find moving, entertaining or at least useful — and that takes time.

As I said, there’s room for passing on other people’s information of course, but consider the difference between just linking to a story about the release of a new camera, and putting together a detailed review with sample images, comparisons and your own expert conclusion. Sure, it’s harder, but the time (plus the expertise) creates a much more valuable piece of work. It makes you look better, and it’s much more likely to get passed around, shared and re-tweeted.

Simply put, if you don’t have anything to tweet or Facebook about, what kind of reputation can you build? I’m not saying you have to go for massive Hollywood production values for each video, or writing 50,000 word treatises for every blog post.

But I am saying that you need both the illuminated manuscript and the marginalia — the long-form content and the social media posts.