Social media, its ‘gurus’, and personal branding

Note/edit: Some people have actually been offended by this post. A few people even unfollowed me on Twitter after reading this. If you’re going to be offended, please read on, and please do unfollow me if you’re offended. I would prefer, though, that before you unfollow me, you engage me and challenge my opinion, because that’s what this whole Internet thing should be about.

My friend Fernando Gros recently wrote an excellent post on his website about the distraction/noise of social media, the time cost to be considered, and the folly of so-called social media gurus.

Here’s my response/rant:

On social media and distraction

The whole thing started to go wonky when some clever sod coined the phrase “social media”. It’s a headline and PPT-friendly label, and not much else. The Internet is inherently social. Internet Relay Chat, bulletin boards, and newsgroups, to name three examples of services that were widely available in the mid-1990s, all provided similar levels of social interaction to today’s social media services. They were not better, by any means, but they were comparable, and usable with minimal (if any) training. They demolished the barriers to cross-border mass communication and collaboration among the masses.

Why wasn’t it regarded as social media back then? The marketing fraternity wasn’t yet on board. It was mostly techies, derided for their geekiness but quietly admired for their command of these mysterious new communication tools.

I enjoy what ‘social media’ (or the evolution of the Internet to where it is today) has done, giving the average, non-techie person avenues for expression that they previously did not, or could not, understand or use. That’s all fabulous. The positive aspects of democratised access to information and greater freedom of expression is beyond debate.

However, with any great freedoms come the eventual negative side effects. We have to wade through large chunks of information chaff. We are bombarded with spammy or dubious requests for our attention. Unhealthy groupthink develops across multiple topics and geographic boundaries thanks to largely anonymous thought (read: conversation) leaders. Dodgy ‘facts’ and straight out lies spread exponentially.

This is the price we pay for unregulated communications. Would I wish to change that? No. One grins and one bears it, for the positive aspects make it worthwhile. And the fakers eventually get weeded out. Regulation would just bring more trouble, distorting the field in favour of the biggest and loudest.

On personal branding

The most enjoyable people online are those who use the Internet not to recreate themselves, but to simply express themselves. For millions of introverts in particular, these are the soapboxes they never had, or were ever capable of utilising.

Brands are useful façades for attraction and recall, but it’s not until you actually use the product or service that you can assess that brand’s real worth. It gives companies a chance to succeed and thrive in a competitive marketplace. Similarly, online tools do allow individuals to seek an audience and provide compelling reasons to engage – something funny, informative, controversial, bizarre. I enjoy that the Internet has raised the average person’s potential to engage and be engaged. It’s a human development that works to level the playing field. Internet services aside, most of us personally brand ourselves in everyday life anyway. What we eat, who we associate with, where we go, what we wear, the music we listen to…

On social media gurus

Like many dodgy businesses, self-professed social media gurus trade and thrive on the ignorance of others. That is what bugs me most.

It’s the Internet: there are no rules. It is a self-defining, self-correcting, constantly-evolving system where even the base infrastructure driving the whole thing is liable to change. Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and other services have only been popular for a handful of years. The Wikipedia entry for social media cites references that go back a mere five years. Something new will be released today, tomorrow, or next week that could eclipse or leverage into insignificance any of the services listed.

The iPhone has already saturated the world with innumerable ‘social apps’ that compete for our attention. Augmented Reality applications are starting to emerge, and though they are mostlyconfined to small mobile devices, the iPad and similar products will move this in an exciting new direction of innovation. Who knows where that will go? The semantic web is also only just starting to nudge its way into mainstream awareness, and could flip the whole system on its head depending on how it evolves and who invests in its evolution.

And, sadly, at each of these evolutionary steps there’ll be individuals and companies flogging their ‘expertise’ in the latest and greatest trend, and suckers will fall for it.

Article review: The Economies of Online Cooperation

Peter Kollock explores the traditional nature of gift giving/exchange in a physical sense, contrasting it against digital cooperation and the notion of giving the gift of information, without a direct expectation of reciprocation. This is set against the idea that online cooperation has massively cut the cost of producing certain public goods. Kollock delves into the ideas of reciprocity, reputation, influence, desires and needs, and attachment, as potential incentives for online participation. It provides a solid foundation to explore and question reasons why people so openly contribute online. He is clear to define the article as an exploration of incentives, rather than motivations, for contribution.

Peter Kollock. “The Economies of Online Cooperation” UCLA Faculty. Marc Smith and Peter Kollock. 1999. Communities in Cyberspace. 2008-09-12 

Article review: What’s Behind the Success of Web 2.0 – A Psychological Interpretation

Ayelet Noff, in her renowned web marketing blog “Blonde 2.0”, looks at the psychological factors behind participation in online communities and throws down the notion that we have created a generation of narcissists. Interpreting and sharing the findings of a Jewish psychiatrist, who explores the sense of self identity and the need to project a certain image to a surrounding community, wherever that may be. It is argued that web 2.0 is a social, rather than technological progression, where Internet developers have been able to leverage key technologies to naturally extend what we do ‘in real life’. This progression, the author continues, allows us to convey and evolve our identity in a number of ways and to a wider audience, fulfilling a basic human need to be known. Increased participation creates a need for incrementally more participation to retain and extend the image being portrayed, offering an explanation to why “web 2.0” has been so spectacularly successful.

Ayelet Noff. “What’s Behind the Success of Web 2.0? A Psychological Interpretation” Blonde 2.0. Ayelet Noff. 2007-09-18.

Article review: What Motivates People to Participate in Online Communities?

This short yet entertaining piece goes beyond incentive structures to look at actual motivations for contributing online. It paraphrases some major players in the industry to back up its claims, and suggests that it is indirect, intangible, downstream benefits that really motivate otherwise seemingly altruistic public contributions online. The need to express one’s self and to communicate/share with others in a collaborative environment drives contribution in a cyclically reinforcing manner.

Kelly Nuxoll. “What Motivates People to Participate in Online Communities?” NewAssignment. Jay Rosen. 2006-12-15. New York University’s Department of Journalism. 2008-09-12