Calling bullshit on social media

While I like and use Facebook and Twitter, there’s enough hype and abuse of words like innovation, transformation and revolution around all things social media that a critique is warranted. I hope this post is used whenever someone feels they’re being sold something phony or that makes little sense and wants a skeptical opinion to calibrate where the truth is.

For starters: social media is a shallow term. Is there any anti-social media out there? Of course not. All media, by definition, is social in some way. The term interactive media, a more accurate term for what’s going on, lived out its own rise / hype / boom cycle years ago and was smartly ignored this time around – first rule of PR is never re-use a dead buzzword, even if all that you have left are stupid ones. I’ve participated in stupid terms, from push-technology to parental-controls, so I should know when I see one.

That said, here’s some points not made often enough:

  1. We have always had social networks. Call them families, tribes, clubs, cliques or even towns, cities and nations. You could call throwing a party or telling stories by a fire “social media tools”. If anything has happened recently it’s not the birth of social networks, it’s the popularity of digital tools for social networks, which is something different. These tools may improve how we relate to each other, but at best it will improve upon something we as a species have always done. Never forget social networks are old. The best tools will come from people who recognize, and learn from, the rich 10,000+ year history of social networks. (Read the Excellent Writing On The Wall: The First 2000 Years of Social Media).
  2. There has always been word of mouth, back-channel, “authentic” media tools. In Gladatorial Rome, in Shakespearean England and in Revolutionary America, motivated individuals had ways to express their ideas and share them. Call it gossip, poems, paintings or pamphlets, there is a long history of individuals taking action to express opinions through non-official channels. The ease of using these channels changes over time, but they always exist because #1 always exists. Of note, IRC predates some, but certainly not all, of the features twitter is heralded for introducing to the world.
  3. The new media does not necessarily destroy the old. TV was supposed to kill radio – this was wrong. TV forced radio to change and in some ways improve. The web forced TV, newspapers and magazines to change, and they will likely survive forever in some form, focusing on things the web can not do well. Its unusual for new thing to completely replace the old ones and when they do it takes years. Anyone who claims social media will eliminate standard PR or mass media is engaging in hype, as odds are better those things will change and learn, but never die. It’s wise to ask what each kind of media / marketing is good and bad for and work from there.
  4. Social media consultants writing about social media have inherent biases. It’s difficult to take posts like this about social media seriously, as it’s written by someone from a social media consulting firm without an ounce of humility or perspective. It’s hard to come across as authentic if you promote a revolution that you personally stand to benefit the most from. Much writing about social media is PR people writing about the importance of PR – see a problem of authenticity here? When did PR, like advertisers, become a reliable source for what is authentic? How is SEO optimization, or similiar techniques for twitter, authentic? When a system becomes popular the greedy will game it and social media is no different. We should be worried when people with PR and advertising backgrounds or consulting firms are leading us in the ways of authenticity or integrity. The Twitter Book, from my publisher O’Reilly, takes a surprisingly reasonable, authentic and low-hype approach to social media I wish was more popular.
  5. Signal to Noise is always the problem. I’m someone who would rather read 5 or 10 really good things every day, than skim through 50 or 100 mediocre ones. I find much of social media activity consists of people re-forwarding things they were forwarded that almost none of them appear to have read, as they believe they are rewarded for publishing frequently above all else. Using twitter, facebook or nearly any social media service I often feel I’m in the minority since what’s popular is rarely what’s good. If you are interested in quality, and not volume, then the size of your network matters less than the value of what or who is in it. I’m more fascinated by how kottke.org and metafilter.org have kept such high signal to noise ratios for years than I am about most media tools I see.
  6. All technologies cut both ways and social media will be no different. For all the upsides of any invention there are downsides and it takes time to sort out what they all are. Blogs and Twitter have made self promotion, and self-aggrandizement, acceptable in ways I’ve never seen before, and I’m guilty myself. Is it possible to write or publish without self promotion? I don’t know anymore. I suspect digital tools for social media may have the negative effect of making authentic communication harder, not easier to find, as more people, and corporations, hover right on the gray dividing line between authentic and corporate, or selfish and generous.
  7. Be suspicious of technologies claimed to change the world. The problem with the world is rarely the lack of technologies, the problem is us. Look, we have trouble following brain dead simple concepts like The Golden Rule. Millions starve to death not because we lack the food, but because of greed and lack of political will. We will largely behave like idiots on blogs and on twitter because we behave that way in real life. Every technological revolution must contend with the fact that we bring our stupidity, selfishness and arrogance along for the ride with our generosity, wisdom and love (12for12k.org being a great positive example). This is true for any new technology we use, and invariably it’s this fact that plays itself out and ruins the current technological wave, setting up the frustrated landscape for the next one. Democracy, steam power, electricity, telegraphs, telephones, televisions, the Internet, and the web have all been heralded as the arrival of Utopia, and although there has been progress in each wave, it seems there are things we want that technological change can not bring to us.
  8. Always ask “What problem am I trying to solve?” The smartest thing to do with something new is to ask what is it you need it to do for you. Recognize good marketing will not make up for bad products or incompetent services.  If your company is marketing itself well to customers, or your social life is fine, perhaps you don’t need a revolution and need something much simpler and more realistic from social media. Spend time figuring out what you need. If you want to experiment and see for yourself, that’s awesome, but know that’s what you’re doing. But above all use whatever media/communication tools or methods work for you, whether they are old or new, no matter what anyone says, including me.

If you liked this post, you might also like my general purpose essay, How to detect bullshit, and How to call BS on a Guru.

Update: @jmichelle posted a response, In defense of social media, on O’Reilly Radar. I responded in the comments.

Update, part 2: six months later, here’s a follow up post: twitter reconsidered.

Update, part 3: A video of me presenting on this topic at Seattle Social Media club (slides):

 

137 Responses to “Calling bullshit on social media”

  1. Tom Flanagan

    Scott, thanks for inviting us to celebrate your tactical focus on impact. You ask us to respond to the problem that we are trying to solve. This is formally different from asking us to name the opportunity that we are trying to discover. Still, we can frame a discovery task as a problem resolution task if we step back and say

    Reply
  2. Barry Dalton

    dead on….what else can I say? Thanks for activating the bullshit meter. I’m going to go log onto my favorite social media site…the company break room.

    Reply
  3. blogbloke

    We can thank the internet marketing / pro-splogger hambones for hyping the hyperbole and copyrighting schtick so they can hog all the traffic.

    I love pull-no punches posts and this one did it for me. I can sleep restfully tonight.

    Cheers,

    ..BB

    Reply
  4. Eric Baird

    Replacing the term “social media” with “interactive media” is a bad idea, because there are plenty of examples of interactive media out there that aren’t social. Single-player computer games are “interactive” (you interact with the content), but aren’t particularly social. TV talent shows that let you phone in to vote are interactive to some extent, but don’t let you have conversations or make friends.
    Even Lego is interactive, but its “gameplay” isn’t based on social interaction.

    With “social media”, OTOH, it’s the //social// interaction aspect that defines them.

    Switching to the term “interactive media” would also involve replacing a six-letter, two-syllable word with something that has twice as many syllables and nearly twice as many letters, which

    Reply
  5. sean allen

    Great thoughts and commentary Scott. I’m not sure I clearly see the intent of the article. Today it is Twitter, FB, etc, tomorrow it is something else. As you know, media is just a medium for getting the message out. What ever you call this new method, (social media, new media, web 2.0, etc.), it is just a message. Money follows where people are looking and the anecdotal data supports that people are looking, living, shopping, communicating in these spaces. Is T.V. going away tomorrow? Probably not, but it is being forced to change because of these spaces. Print media? I’m not as confident that it will have the impact that it has had in the past. Just my thoughts as I especial like #4 of your post. A lot of the communication and connection in these spaces are, like you said, PR folks talk up to and about other PR!?? Sales people are the easiest to sell to, and PR/Marketing people are the easiest to get and keep excited about new media and marketing! Thanks for the post.

    Reply
  6. Joe Pritchard

    Scott,

    Thank you – great piece. There’s a lot of snake oil, smoke and mirrors being peddled about ‘Social Media’ at the moment and this article is a good dose of reality.

    There si value to be gained from things like Facebook, Twitter, etc. but they’re still marketing channels and means of communicating with customers / service users. No more, no less, and no need for bs jargon.

    Reply
  7. amolpatil2k

    People like forums because it comforts them to know that others are in the same soup. Rulers like forums because the linear presentation allows trolls to be read. Another reason people like forums is vanity. Social media is simply more vanity because the focus is on the profile rather than on the thread.

    Reply
  8. Gregor McKelvie

    Just read this for the first time.

    Point 5 is exactly why I hate many of the main stream blogs like Mashable, ReadWriteWeb and TechCrunch. They just produce and produce blog posts all day with varying degrees of quality. I’d much prefer less of much higher quality. When you subscribe to the RSS feed of any of these sites it just becomes noise.

    Reply
  9. foredi lampung

    First time i visit blog. I found very interesting stuff in your blog, especially its discussion. I guess I am not the only one having all the enjoyment here! Keep update stuff regualry.

    Reply
  10. Jacob Singh

    Great piece. Brother from another mother.

    Small typo:

    “This is true for any new technology we use, and invariably its this fact that plays itself out and ruins the current technological wave,”

    “its” should be “it’s”

    Reply
  11. Ted

    Number 5 hit it right on. There’s way too much stuff on social media to be good. Wading through it all takes a lot of time. Are we better off having to filter all this out?

    Reply
  12. edp

    nice article. I used to work for a marketing software company that had some pretty large clients and developed a tool for monitoring, creating data for analysis of social media. I was in the kitchen chewing the cud with the most senior sales VP in the company and asked him how you can possibly gauge ROI on such a tool..’we make it up!’ was the response. I think we are ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ a little with all this. We are not sure where we are going, we seem to be destroying our world and there is an increasing sense that the populace, financial structures, wealth gap, pollution, warring factions are out of our control. Ask an economist on 500k a year what the fiscal problems are and he will give an entirely different response to another 500k a year economist. Social media distracts us from anything real, because we can in a way control it. People would rather tweet about life, follow someone else’s life, live within an online global village, work in a virtual way because the real world alternatives have turned out to be just too darn complicated.

    Reply
  13. David

    Wow what a post :-) I agree with 99% of the sentiment here. Ive seedn digital agency after digital agency acting like evangelists when spouting SEO & social media prowess and they all seem to be straight out of University. The industry pumps up the hype and loves employing evangelists who rarely apply any critical measured thinking whats so ever.

    So in the words of RUN DMC dont beleive the hype over to you boys… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LK8sxngSWaU

    Reply

Pingbacks

  1. […] What happened last Wednesday in a workshop titled “PR Buzz for Early-Stage Startups“, in the fbFund’s offices in Palo Alto, is a good example of this. I admire Jeremiah Owyang for his sage blogging, and also enjoyed listening to PR consultant Jeremy Toeman and Clara Shih, who has just published a book about Facebook. But half of what they said was bullshit. “It

  2. […] Calling bullshit on social media – I loved reading this as he hits a number of things I've been thinking about, muttering about on Twitter or feeling unable to articulate in case they get misinterpreted (one of the perils of working in an industry you're commenting on…) I don't necessarily agree with his conclusions or opinions but it's a great codification of worries I've been having since SXSWi this year. (There's a counter argument here.) […]

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