Social Media is Not Bullshit

BJ Mendelson’s new book, “Social Media is Bullshit” claims that the buzz surrounding social media is overblown and uses semantic arguments, case studies, and his own experiences to make that case. At the heart of this book is a counterintuitive soapbox for furthering the direction in which the web and capitalism are both already headed. In sections, the author is simply saying that we need to check our expectations and realize that many “success stories” in social media advertising were responsible from a full-out media push and huge ad spends, and that social media was only one component of their overall marketing strategies.

This all rests on how you define success, however, and many brand managers and marketing officers may very well agree with the author, because he only considers a campaign a success if it has tangible, direct and immediate results of sales that can be monitored and tracked and not attributed in part to anything else. This kind of focus on metrics and click-throughs in the short-term is what I think is wrong with marketers in any medium, and is why I take offense with this book. This is the old way to look at marketing, no matter how you slice it.

Mendelson also references Malcolm Gladwell’s piece “Small Change” in which Gladwell points out that the movement and organization matters, not the platform individuals use to accomplish those goals (there would have been an Egyptian uprising with or without the existence of Twitter). Indeed, this is a very important statement, and one that the author should have spent more time focusing on. Those who try to take advantage of marketers, brands or advertisers claiming to be “social media gurus” and prognosing a certain number of exact steps one must take in order to be “successful” online are bullshitters, indeed. I couldn’t agree more.

Whether you are an individual or a brand it wouldn’t hurt to read some of the literature this author condemns, though, as it is still a new platform with unfamiliar etiquette and workflows. He would do just as well to call paperback bullshit because there have been those who have written “how to write a novel” books and lectured and given courses and made money off giving bad advice or editorial strictly for profit. There have always been schemers and there always will be — but with certain new technologies there is more opportunity for transparency. What changes are made depend on what the public demands.

Search Engine Optimization can’t replace good content — neither can social media campaigns, a cool website or a radio jingle. You must have something of real value before ever expecting advertising to help you. This is my thinking, but I’m also not from the age of Don Draper ads. This is the age where everything has a sponsor, and product placement and marketing have become almost ubiquitous in our lives. We have become walking billboards and are attempting to replicate the same experience online. Instead of making technology fit within our lives, we are fitting our lives within the current limitations of technology.

Wendell Berry once wrote, “That computers are expected to become as common as TV sets in “the future” does not impress me or matter to me. I do not own a TV set. I do not see that computers are bringing us one step nearer to anything that does matter to me: peace, economic justice, ecological health, political honesty, family and community stability, good work.” Wendell, a farmer and essayist, wrote freehand and his wife typed his works for him on typewriter, providing a seamless workflow that allowed his wife to contribute much to his editorial process and nothing about typing on computer would have added anything substantial to what Wendell found important.

Until our technology finds ways to improve aspects of our lives such as those listed by Wendell, we are overselling the power of the web in some respects, and the author would be correct in bringing our expectations down to earth. Today, however, social media can be used much more powerfully than most mediums have ever been able to (for good and bad, as shown, for example, in the YouTube series “Escape and Control“) and telling people to put their voice online is by no means hurtful to society (even if that person has unrealistic expectations about how “viral” his voice will go). I think telling people that corporations have already consolidated all the good platforms and blog sites and that there’s no point in trying to compete is a much more harmful approach to bringing real discourse back into our culture than encouraging people to focus on creating compelling content that is not completely self-serving.

So it’s true, perhaps, that anything can be used as bullshit, and thus the worry that something utilized for bullshit must be done away with is an empty statement, because words themselves are the vehicle of truth, lies, or bullshit. However, this sounds a bit like Gorgias speaking with Socrates, saying it is not his fault that the students he teaches sophistry to use it for bad instead of good. He says if a boxer teaches someone to box, it is not the teacher’s fault if he uses it to pummel the innocent instead of other boxers in a ring. In one way, he is right — boxing or sophistry or social media are in some ways “morally neutral.” However, there are certain things that, because of their particular nature or power, are more prone to misuse. So a nerf ball and a handgun can both be used virtuously or viciously, but the handgun can do far, far much more evil (and good, no doubt), and thus, saying “I simply taught someone how to shoot, not what to shoot” is ultimately a cop out.

As Wendell Berry illustrated, if this technology exists solely as a surrogate for real human interaction then it has no original or practical application in the future of technology. Dog Bless You trains and donates service dogs to American war veterans, and for every thousand ‘likes’ their Facebook page gets they donate another dog to a veteran. We are putting many similar programs in place for various military charities through America Stand United, and there are clearly many other ways that social media is  not only allowing “connection” in the sense that we’ve come to know but actually creating new experiences and connections, such as the first Jumboltron event that was hosted this year at the Forge.

Yes, we need to manage our expectations and yes we should be diligent before ever hiring or buying advice from a social media consultant, or anyone for that matter. What we don’t need to do is say that because the author has witnessed a plethora of so-called ‘gurus’ that spout off the same nonsensical advice we should abandon the potential these platforms truly do offer us. As ‘Escape and Control’ illustrates, there are many sinister practices in place by brands and governments attempting to control the Internet and we do need to always remain skeptical to be informed, but the good that social media can offer far outweighs the bad.

Writing about why social media isn’t the immediate arbitrar of profits is as constructive for the future of technology as saying our president’s four years in office is responsible for the entire stability of our economy. We don’t seem to look at the 50-year plus results we’re seeing from policies in order to make a short-sighted political point. Likewise, we don’t think about creating an authentic and sustainable community online as opposed to looking at immediate sales figures. We need thought leaders to give suggestions on how we can help others, prolong peace, and provide economic and political stability before thinking about the business bottom line.

If your focus is on being authentic and helping others, you give your customers a reason to remain loyal, and the bottom line can have a future. Otherwise, brands will begin to see they do not hold all of the power in a democracy, and they will have to learn that the public is not happily defined merely as billboards and listed as metrics and click-throughs on quarterly reports. If we want a better Internet, or society, its up to us to begin acting more cordial and human to each other online and off, and by doing so the bullshit will be more evident and we all will be much better off.