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. Joe Mescher

    Thanks for calling BS…

    SocMed – in my ‘biased’ opinion, is a wonderful tool for starting conversations that lead to profitable relationships.

    IF you are genuine And have clearly defined goals.

    To your point, the biggest problem outside the “Get a Trillion Twitter Followers” crowd is failure to understand why you should or should not use Social Media. SocMed is a tool, not an end unto itself.

    Nice article, I enjoyed reading your well argued points.

    Reply
  2. steve

    someone posted the question recently “why aren’t CEOs on Twitter”. Answer: they are active [insert mission statement from company annual report], wether it is increasing shareholder wealth, making society ‘better’, the ‘good of the cause’, increasing personal wealth. The point it, there are doers and there are those that ‘talk’ about doing. From where I sit you are doing – keep it up. Those in the fishbowl need to hear that they are in the fishbowl.

    Reply
  3. Mark Lovett

    While I agree that we should all “Be suspicious of technologies claimed to change the world.” we should also recognize when technology does just that.

    Social Media – and I’m okay with the term as a way to differentiate two-way communication from one-way traditional media – has been revolutionary from the standpoint of reach.

    Never before have so many been able to express so much with an audience so wide. Between blogs, Twitter and Facebook the planet has truly become smaller and social networks (yes, they’ve always existed) have broadened in scope.

    As with all terms, social media is overused to the point of making me nauseous, but it’s all we have to describe the advent of global citizen interaction – which the cool part of SM.

    Reply
  4. Greg

    Scott, what a great post. I find Social Media is used more often to “discuss Social Media” than it is to discuss actual findings, subjects etc. When I opened my first email account I used to write emails that read “hey, this is pretty cool, reply when you get this”. Social Media – although more advanced than my first email – shows signs of the same. Your post, the comments (like mine) that follow is much of the same.

    Reply
  5. Helene Smith

    Thanks for this. I won’t even tell you how many blogs I have time to read, but this is now (the) one. ;-)

    A funny/nauseating story and a request:

    First the story: When Wired magazine premiered, I called to request a media kit. The woman asked me for my “analog coordinates”.

    Request: I don’t have time to spread an important opinion I think many would agree with and support – perhaps you too? “Old media” has a crucial place in “new” — recognizable journalistic credibility/credentials. Has the Freedom Forum, Columbia, NYU, or my own beloved Newhouse helped to come up with some kind of criteria for bonafide reporting in new media? A label? Some kind of immediately-recognizable certification that would help millions – especially my mother – be more discerning about what they read and repeat? Are thousands already talking about this, and I haven’t noticed?

    Thanks!

    Reply
  6. Laura

    “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.”

    When the volume of communication increases by orders of magnitude, it’s naturally going to be harder to find what you’re looking for, unless it has increased in proportion along with it. And even then, the volume is the real challenge, isn’t it?

    If your implication is that our culture has changed because of these tools, then that seems to undermine one of the premises of your post — that they are just tools, and that this is not really a change in our culture.

    But these tools have changed our culture already. Politics are even now operating on a different basis, just as politics changed when the printing press helped give voice to the governed. I just don’t see how these things are just the same as back when people could scratch on papyrus.

    The change is control: Who controls the saying machines? Back when the pharaohs ruled, your average mucky muck didn’t have a voice beyond those who could hear him — when he felt safe enough to even speak. He could not write, and even if he could, he certainly could not afford scribes to copy his writing or messengers to distribute the copies. When the printing press came out, then those of less significant means could in theory distribute writings. This made education more accessible, which then leveraged more power out of those printing presses. The paradigm of political power started shifting at that point. Over time printing presses and distribution became very expensive and the large-scale media conglomerates came to dominate. The appearance of TV and radio did not change that significantly because they ended up dominated by the same players. It was the same paradigm.

    The shift happening now is that there’s a new printing press. The social media tools like Twitter are part of the evolution of this new printing press — the Internet, where people can talk to each other from afar, and talk to many with affordable distribution.

    Yes, there’s more noise. But the real change is that the voices empowered (and controlled to some extent) by the owners of the saying machines of the 20th century are now competing with people who were disadvantaged, disempowered by that paradigm.

    So yes, this is a revolution of sorts. Our culture is changing from it. Our politics are changing from it. How and to what extent, we don’t know yet, because we’re still extremely early in the paradigm shift. Note that nobody can really say what the internet will be like 5 years from now. Lots of guesses, but no real easy prediction — not even of which companies will dominate the business side of it.

    In the end, this post strikes me more as a rant against the marketers. In that point, I’d agree, and it’s annoying. But that does not mean there’s not something very new and revolutionary going on. After all, 20 years ago you would have had no means to post your thoughts here without the buy-in of someone who owned a saying machine. Few would have ever read it unless you got a big saying machine to publish it. And fewer still would ever have the opportunity to talk back like I am here. That’s revolutionary.

    Reply
  7. Robert Eastman

    Scott, I admire your forthrightness in the views you express, the relatively high signal-to-noise ratio, and I think you are on the right track in several areas.

    All media is social? I think that TV is one of the least social mediums that there is. And so I would have to disagree that there are not “anti-social” media.

    If I have any problem with the term social media, it is with the “media” part of the terminology, rather than the social part.

    Signal-to-noise ratio is paramount, in my view.
    Value of the social media, however, is only as good as people’s use of it, and will always tend to sink to “the lowest common denominator” of the people using it.

    And unfortunately, people are fickle, have always been fickle, and will always be fickle. How many times have you (or I) sent an email to the person sitting in the cubicle next to us? Yesterday, someone on Twitter reported IM’ing his wife who was sitting 10 feet away from him. How many times have some of us been guilty of using email for meaningless chit-chat, or opening, addressing, signing, and sending an email that said, ‘thanks’ or ‘whatcha doin?

    I do not believe that this is necessarily a condemnation of social media.

    Your point is well-made, and cannot expressed often enough – ask what problem is being solved.
    That said, I am not sure what problem Twitter was designed to solve, and in fact I think it was a solution in search of a problem. I, ever the skeptic, experimented with Twitter expecting very little, and am surprised to report to you today that the best insights – the highest signal-to-noise ratio I am getting – is now from Twitter. Go figure.

    Reply
  8. Doug Caldwell

    Thanks for a refreshing perspective. As a self-appointed social media maven, your comments remind me that my audience often asks, ‘So what? and why should I care about social media? The answer is a work in progress.

    Reply
  9. Sarah

    Wouldn’t have read this great article if someone hadn’t tweeted it to me. Social media is useful and by its viral nature helps to accelerate or expand the delivery of online information – but it’s not the answer to all the problems many folks make it out to be. I may have to keep a copy of this around to re-read whenever the hype gets hard to wade through.

    Reply
  10. Brian Clark

    You might think I’d be one to disagree with you, but this is mostly spot on. I’ve spent 3.5 years trying to tell people that social media is a lot of the same in a new context.

    Of course, this makes me terribly unpopular with the social media idealists. The social media “experts” also don’t like it when I and others who make a living online point out that they’ve never done what they advise their clients to do.

    Thanks for for the post.

    Reply
  11. Mr.Bacon

    Hi Scott. First I like to thank you for posting this intresting post. Lot of good points and I do agree on many things you say. But after reading it, I thought what really made you in the first place write this post. I don

    Reply
  12. Rob

    There will always be mass hyping of new ideas and technology. What I find amusing, is that the first users of these technologies and the innovators have usually moved on to the next thing by the time mass population catches on.

    It drives me crazy how people will talk with an attitude of since they “Tweet”(God I hate that word), they are really tech savvy and in the “know”.

    Reply
  13. jose del moral

    Great post! It actually became one of the most retweeted today, so popular does not always mean bad ;-)

    Reply
  14. Subbu

    Internet and its various tools will continue to evolve at a rapid pace. I agree that the hype around social media is a bit too much to digest. I think the fault lies with the mavens who create this. It is very good that thoughts like the ones you have are there to bring a semblance of sanity. I love the world of internet (just as I am sure you do) Hype makes the internet more like a fad than an important aspect of people’s life or for that matter the society’s. You might want to take a look at my last post which talks about this.

    http://thefreeunion.blogspot.com/2009/06/why-does-it-have-to-be-either-this-or.html

    Reply
  15. Suburban Oblivion

    Great piece, but you really should add some sort of social bookmarking buttons to your posts. My first impulse was to tweet this out, and alas, no buttons!

    Reply
  16. raggedy

    Testify!!
    And I’d love to hear your opinions on “Web 2.0” :-)

    Reply
  17. Dan

    I’ve never been a fan of buzz words or business speak. Mainly because whenever businesses get a hold of a term, like ‘social media’, they’ll try to squeeze every penny they can out of it. Facebook is a great example of a free service starting the downward spiral of putting profits before the customer (horrible FAQ and support, more apps than you can shake a stick at, some of which want you to spend real money (Mafia wars anyone?)).

    I really enjoyed this post. I’ll keep an eye on your blog :)

    Reply
  18. foo

    Twitter is an electronic open sewer with such high S/N ratios as to be completely useless.

    I only wish it were a public company, so I could short them to the ground.

    Reply
  19. MattyMat

    Unfortunately, the majority of the world is populated by undereducated, non-critical thinking, media/consumption absorbed morons– so it stands to reason that the majority of people using “social media” will fit that demographic as well. Use with caution.

    Reply
  20. gigitrix

    This is the elephant in the room for so many of us.

    Reply
  21. s0apy

    I think you got stormed a bit for your opening paragraphs but your bullet points pretty much hit the target – you might like this:

    Q. What’s the difference between a social media consultant and a snake?
    A. You can’t get oil out of a social media consultant.

    Reply
  22. Marcia Figueroa

    This is in response tothe post, “Calling Bullshit on Social Media”. Yes it is true that twitter and other networks are a new version of gossip and good old fashioned chit chat. However, it is innovative for the fact that people can voice their OPINIONS to thousands around the world rather than just 3 or 4 friends in the neighborhood. Just as the printing press spread new ideas, social netwrorks do the same on a larger scale. We do have to remember that what is being expressed is just opinion, not fact. As a teacher, I believe we must also teach students to evaluate blogs and websites for acuracy and objectivity. New technology is not the savior or end to old ways of doing things, it is simply another choice. Free will is moot without alternatives.

    Reply

Pingbacks

  1. […] Calling Bullshit on Social Media — Scott Berkun, O’Reilly author of The Myths of Innovation and Making Things Happen (via — irony alert — Mark Bertils on Twitter): 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.

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