Disclaimer: Today’s post totally indulges my geek gene … SciFi and social media in one post – Woo-hoo!
Warning: Subtle spoilers to follow.

I finally saw Avatar yesterday. The movie is a technologically astounding audio/visual spectacle that tells the ageless and tragic tale of violent conquest in a foreign land. For the full two hours and forty minute running time, I was thoroughly swept up in the story and the artistry; but, soon after, I was struck by the powerful metaphor the film provides in the context of social media.

YOU are the alien
Towards the end of movie, the narrator, Jake Sully, refers to the humans as “the aliens.” It’s an interesting a-ha moment because, as humans, we tend to think of the other guy as the alien. But, if you view the story from the perspective of the indigenous people of Pandora, the Na’vi, the humans may as well be little green men in flying saucers.

When you’re embarking on a journey into the vast space of social media, you would do well to remember that you will often tread into territory that is not yours. Whether you are engaging an existing community, adding to a conversation on twitter, or commenting on a blog or in a forum, you need to remember that these are not your homelands. They belong to others and you are only a visitor.

You are not holding all the cards
The bad guys in the movie are played by Evil Corporate Greed and Needless Military Force. These two are on a mission to get the Na’vi out of the picture so that Evil Corporate Greed can harvest a wildly valuable ore called, ironically, ‘unobtainium.’ (Seems James Cameron has a sense of humor, after all.) The scheme starts with attempts at coercion – offering the Na’vi schools, roads, and other things; but no deal can be struck because the Na’vi consider the offerings worthless.

When you are engaging people in a social media setting, you have to remember to look at every situation and interaction from their perspective. Don’t insult your followers, fans, or readers by trying to pay them off with something that holds no value in their world.

This isn’t a matter of conversion
Like most conquistadors, the human invaders of Pandora try to convert the Na’vi. Armed with huge egos, massive amounts of firepower, and a belief that they are the more intelligent race, the humans (except the scientific crew) think only of how they can manipulate the Na’vi. They never once stop to consider what they might be able to learn from the natives.

The businesses who succeed in social media are the ones that think of their audience less like “targets” and more like “allies.” They don’t try to compel their audience, instead they listen to them and learn how to engage them in a way that will be mutually beneficial. They pay attention to the social cues and create a respectful dialog that allows them to learn valuable insights. They give their audience credit for being at least as smart as they are.

It’s a big ecosystem
There is a wonderful theme of connection throughout the movie. The Na’vi way of life and spiritual practice is founded on the connectedness of all things. This is a personal belief that I hold dear, and I loved the way the movie presented the concept in a concrete way – showing the Na’vi physically connecting with plants, animals, the planet itself, and even the spirits of dead ancestors. Not to give too much away, but the power of this highly connected ecosystem comes into play in a big way towards the end of the movie.

The number of people using social media grows by leaps and bounds each and every day. Not only are more individuals joining the online community, many of them are deepening their engagement through increased participation. The number of connections between individuals, groups, communities, publishers, aggregators, and brands is spidering out and back and forth like the firing synapses in a brain. The concept of the “isolated” or “contained” incident is almost a thing of the past. News travels fast on the digital highway, and sentiment ebbs and flows in an organic and uncontrollable manner. To succeed in this environment, you need to understand the scope of the system and learn how to work in harmony with all the moving parts.

The bottom line
Whether you are venturing into the social realm as an individual or as a representative of a brand, remember that you are walking among the natives and must earn their respect and trust before you can ask for any favors. Do not make the same mistakes as the corporate and military scoundrels in Avatar – charging forth full of ignorance, arrogance, and avarice. Instead, build relationships slowly and carefully. Base them on a genuine desire to serve and collaborate rather than a naked appetite for exploitation. Enter the conversations with humility and a willingness to learn. Leave your prejudices and preconceived ideas of what people want behind; they will only blind you to the wealth that is right before your eyes.