What Star Trek Can Teach Us About Social Media

When the Founder and CEO of Icebreaker Consulting asked me to pen a guest post on Star Trek and social media, I couldn’t have been more pleased. I am, after all, the same guy who dropped a few (okay, I admit it was many more than a few) Star Trek references into blog posts I wrote for the Tufts University of Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and Social Media Matters, my personal blog, and like Raj from “The Big Bang Theory,” I believe Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, is one of the finest films ever made.

But I had never really thought about the films, based on Gene Roddenberry’s short-lived television series, and how they related to social media.

Until now, that is.

Over the past few weeks—while commuting to and from work, working out at the gym, or folding laundry—I’ve thought A LOT about this topic and what follows are the results of my ruminations.

Fight Your Inner Khan

Khan Noonien Singh—passionately portrayed by Ricardo Montalbán in The Wrath of Khan—has a lot going for him. He’s charismatic, “wicked smaht” as we say here in Massachusetts, and is pretty buff.

But he does have a fatal flaw. He’s all about Captain Kirk.

Even after our spirited antagonist captures a federation ship AND the world-creating “Genesis Device,” he remains fixated on exacting revenge on Kirk, the man Khan blames for his exile on the barren planet Ceti Alpha V.

Like Khan, it’s easy to have social media “tunnel vision,” particularly on Twitter. Every social media manager has “those followers”; you know, the ones that regularly respond to your tweets regardless of what you post. While it’s great to have these supporters, it’s a mistake to focus on them too much; if you do, it will have a detrimental effect on your ability to scale (i.e., engage with as many followers as possible as quickly as possible). I’ve tried to take this approach in my work as social media manager for the Harvard Business School’s (HBS) alumni office. Each day, I review my Twitter lists (see “Rules of Twitter Engagement” for more on Twitter lists) in search of ways to engage with alumni, especially “new” alumni (i.e., those we haven’t engaged with before).

Below is an example of this social media approach in action.

bianca tweet

We hadn’t connected with Bianca Ling before this series of tweets. But by taking a broader approach—resisting the urge to focus exclusively on our most active tweeters—we were able to add yet another alumna into our social media orbit.

Embrace Your Inner Kirk

About halfway through the 2009 Star Trek reboot, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto) have a particularly charged exchange following the destruction of the planet Vulcan by the time-traveling Romulan Nero (Eric Bana). Spock believes the next, best course of action is to proceed immediately to Earth, per their orders, and connect with Starfleet. Kirk, on the other hand, advocates chasing down Nero and taking on a vastly technologically-superior ship. The dispute between Spock and Kirk is eventually resolved with the former marooning the latter on the barren planet Delta Vega.

The different approaches espoused by Spock and Kirk—one conservative, the other more aggressive and “out of the box”—should be familiar to most social media professionals. It’s the conflict between playing it safe and taking risks on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms. There are pros and cons to each approach. If you play it safe (e.g., sending out broadcast messaging with little personality) you may get some nice traction, depending on your audience, and you’re less likely to alienate your followers. But you may not get the level of engagement (e.g, retweets on Twitter, “Likes” and comments on Facebook) you want following this type of “risk-averse” model.

The “Kirk” approach is far riskier. Engaging with specific followers on Twitter or posting content on Facebook that has some personality, may lead to more engagement, but it may also give your followers the wrong brand impression—that you’re treating the brand, at least on social media, too flippantly.

When it comes to my work, I’m firmly in the Kirk camp. I would rather take big swings—and risk missing sometimes—than hit grounders hoping they get through for singles. The examples below illustrate my “Kirkian” (I’m not sure this is even a word) approach to social media engagement.

selfie tweet


gq tweet


hbs tweet


rena tweet

Starting with the first image, these posts covered zombies, the “model” Derek Zoolander, Sharknado, and unicorns. While I did miss with some of these posts—the zombie image received a particularly tepid response—the other content performed fairly well.

Another benefit to this approach is that is sets your brand apart. Many brands take the conventional approach to social media. They tweet out content or post photos on Instagram and then wait for a response. It’s a post/react model. By approaching social media in a different way—reaching out to your followers, like in the case below, a proactive as opposed to a reactive model, you can stand out…in a good way.

tate tweet

Just think for a moment about the number of brands and individuals you follow on Twitter, specifically. I follow around 1,500 people and very few of them interact with me proactively. I typically tweet something out and then respond to that person if I get a retweet or favorite. But if people who follow me—or even brands—interacted with me based on my personal or professionals interests, now that would get my attention and I’d be more likely to remember that tweeter.

The same holds true for my social media work at HBS. We are competing with everyone a given alumnus/a is following, so it’s imperative that we do something different. The direct engagement approach is that something different, and has been a major factor in our generating 13,000 unique Twitter interactions—retweets, favorites, tweeted responses—since January 2013.

Find Your Inner Spock

With a few exceptions, Mr. Spock seems to hold things together pretty well in the Star Trek films. When everyone else is “freaking out,” Kirk’s half-human, half-Vulcan first mate is the calm amid the storm. Even when things go seriously awry, he maintains his composure.

We can learn a lot from Spock since social media can get bumpy at times, and it’s crucial to maintain a steady emotional hand. I’ve experienced a bit of everything—from making mistakes (see below)

ben tweet

to being informed that “we’re going to prohibit tweeting so we can have a free-flowing discussion” minutes before an event I was going to live-tweet from—and the only way I’ve survive is to, like Spock, remain calm and find a way to address the problem at hand.

For example, when Minal informed me of my mistake, I tweeted the following out moments later.

hbs tweet 2

When it came to the event live-tweeting snafu, I decided to only push out general comments and try to bring alumni who were not at the event into the discussion.

blake tweet

These are just a few examples of what can (and will) go wrong in the world of social media. But if you can “be like Spock,” these can be merely bumps in the road as opposed to large craters difficult to overcome.

Robert Bochnak manages social media for the Harvard Business School’s alumni office. He’s also the writer of Social Media Matters and is the former writer and editor of GradMatters: The Blog for Tufts GSAS. 

Follow Robert on Twitter at https://twitter.com/RobertBoc.