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The Fundamental Misconception of Social Media

March 4, 2009
In close recess and secret conclave sat A thousand Demy-Gods on golden seats
In close recess and secret conclave sat
A thousand Demy-Gods on golden seats
– John Milton, Paradise Lost

Unless you have been living under a rock, you’ve heard of this “social media” thing. But if pressed to define it, you — like the rest of us — would stammer out a few words about Twitter, Facebook, and blogs and then… realize that the term is more or less undefined.

Well, here’s the Wikipedia definition of “social media”:

Social media are primarily Internet- and mobile-based tools for sharing and discussing information. The term most often refers to activities that integrate technology, telecommunications and social interaction, and the construction of words, pictures, videos and audio. This interaction, and the manner in which information is presented, depends on the varied perspectives and “building” of shared meaning among communities, as people share their stories and experiences. (Emphasis mine)

And the entry goes on to note things like World of Warcraft is social media. Okay, then so is internet gambling.

Furthermore, the highlighted portion suggests that email is also social media. So is a fax machine. Or that cutting-edge (for the 19th century) device, the telegraph. They all “integrate technology, telecommunications and social interaction.” In theory, so do messenger pigeons and smoke signals. In other words, “social media” doesn’t actually mean anything.

And yet, it does. The real meaning of “social media” may be difficult to define, but everyone knows what it is — and more importantly, knows what it is not. Stories in the New York Times is not “social media” despite being an activity that integrates technology (the printing press), telecommunications (the Associated Press wire service), and social interaction (the reporters write, the audience reads).

Some might say that “two-way communication” is the essence of social media. This too is wrong. There are blogs that don’t allow comments — yet they are very much “social media”. YouTube is considered “social media” but it’s hard to call what goes on in the comments section to be “two-way communication” in any meaningful way.

The Internet is not “social media” since mobile applications can entirely bypass the Internet and still become social media.  Meetups and Tweetups often fall into “social media” categories, but it’s hard to see how people sitting in a room together talking can be conceived of as web-based simply because they arranged to meet via the Web.

So what the hell is “social media” in its essence?

Social Media Defined

My personal definition of social media is this:

Communication channels that enable the authentic and personal engagement of one human being to another.

Admittedly, my definition is heavily influenced by Cluetrain principles.  While each and every one of you needs to go read the whole thing (free, online!), this passage from the Introduction speaks most eloquently to how I define social media:

The Cluetrain Manifesto

The Cluetrain Manifesto

The Internet became a place where people could talk to other people without constraint. Without filters or censorship or official sanction — and perhaps most significantly, without advertising. Another, noncommercial culture began forming across this out-of-the-way collection of computer networks. Long before graphical user interfaces made the scene, the scene was populated by plain old boring ASCII: green phosphor text scrolling up screens at the glacial pace afforded by early modems. So where was the attraction in that?

The attraction was in speech, however mediated. In people talking, however slowly. And mostly, the attraction lay in the kinds of things they were saying. Never in history had so many had the chance to know what so many others were thinking on such a wide range of subjects. Slowly at first, a new kind of conversation was beginning to emerge, but it would achieve global reach with astonishing speed.

For those of us grizzled old dinosaurs who got onto the pre-Netscape Internet, and were absolutely floored upon discovering IRC know the feeling.  The strange combination of utter freedom and complete anonymity brought out levels of authenticity in many people — while others invented online personas with a wild variety of roleplaying.

What makes a blog a blog and not an online magazine is the authenticity of the voice, and the personal engagement of the blogger.  I’m a big fan of Instapundit, where Prof. Glenn Reynolds holds court on a variety of political, kitchenware, photography, and nanotechnology topics.  There are no comments on Instapundit.  Yet, it is social media because Prof. Reynolds never fails to speak in his voice.  He never fails to be personal.

Another great example is contrasting the National Review Online (an online magazine) with The Corner on National Review Online (a group blog).  [So sue me, I read conservative websites.  The point is on social media, and these came to mind.]  These are two sections of the same website, yet the flavor, the tone, the feel is very different.  The NRO proper has articles that have been edited, written to professional standards.  What it lacks in personality and authenticity, it makes up with authority and seriousness.  The Corner, in contrast, is full of the authentic voices of the bloggers — many of whom are also writers and editors of the National Review — and a personal human engagement exists there that is lacking in NRO itself.

I believe, therefore, that social media is not defined by the tools or the technology, but by the authenticity and the personalness of the engagement.

The Corruption

Trouble is, marketing departments worldwide in every major and minor corporation could not see (and in some cases, have never seen) what the big deal with the Internet was, and what is so important about Cluetrain, and about social media.  To far too many marketers, “social media” was just like “any other media”, but “more social” — whatever that means.

The same strategies and the same models for putting ads on magazines were used to put ‘banner ads’ on this newfangled World Wide Web thingamajig back in the late 90’s.  When Facebook became the flavor du jour, companies regarded it as just another place to have a branch office.  And as Twitter starts to take off, we are finding more and more companies regarding it as something like a streaming billboard:

@XXXXXX You kin’ buy DD coffee online: … see drop down menu for whole bean options. Cheers!

That tweet is from @DunkinDonuts.  Cheers!  Sounds just like a micro-ad!  Gee, thanks!

Is this social media?  Or it is just a variant of email spam, TV spam, mailbox spam, and billboard spam we have to live with in our commercialized world?

And now, we apparently have a “directory of brands” on Twitter:  First, the Yellow Pages, then the Web (and Google), and now Twitter.  Cheers?

The  Fundamental Misconception: Social Media = Media, Social

The fundamental misconception about social media — held mostly by marketers — is due to that word “media”.  We understand “media”.  Many of us have frikkin graduate degrees in media management, public relations, and communications.  We come out of advertising agencies where dealing with various forms of “media” was a settled practice.  So we apply those same principles to “social media”.

“Hey, we really need to get a corporate Twitter account!” likely passes for innovative thinking inside many corporations today.  “That way, we can really engage the audience with our brand message!”

Trouble is, the audience doesn’t really want some faceless, identity-less brand to ‘engage them’ with their brand message.  What the audience really wants is for a human being that works at your brand to engage them in an authentic, personal way.

Once again, Cluetrain:

In the market, language grew. Became bolder, more sophisticated. Leaped and sparked from mind to mind. Incited by curiosity and rapt attention, it took astounding risks that none had ever dared to contemplate, built whole civilizations from the ground up.

Markets are conversations. Trade routes pave the storylines. Across the millennia in between, the human voice is the music we have always listened for, and still best understand.

So what went wrong? From the perspective of corporations, many of which by the twentieth century had become bigger and far more powerful than ancient city-states, nothing went wrong. But things did change.

Commerce is a natural part of human life, but it has become increasingly unnatural over the intervening centuries, incrementally divorcing itself from the people on whom it most depends, whether workers or customers. While this change is in many ways understandable — huge factories took the place of village shops; the marketplace moved from the center of the town and came to depend on far-flung mercantile trade — the result has been to interpose a vast chasm between buyers and sellers.

Markets are conversations.

Markets are conversations.

Markets are conversations.  Commerce is a natural part of human life.

I don’t want to twitter with @DunkinDonuts.  I want to twitter with Amy, who works in marketing or customer service or sales or whatever for Dunkin’ Donuts, and is allowed to communicate openly, honestly, authentically, in a human voice with me.

Social media is not media; it is conversation.  Theses 62 to 65 of the 95 Theses of Cluetrain Manifesto read as follows:

62. Markets do not want to talk to flacks and hucksters. They want to participate in the conversations going on behind the corporate firewall.

63. De-cloaking, getting personal: We are those markets. We want to talk to you.

64. We want access to your corporate information, to your plans and strategies, your best thinking, your genuine knowledge. We will not settle for the 4-color brochure, for web sites chock-a-block with eye candy but lacking any substance.

65. We’re also the workers who make your companies go. We want to talk to customers directly in our own voices, not in platitudes written into a script.

I have learned so much more about what the real estate community thinks, what its needs are, its pains and joys, and so on simply by being myself on this blog, on Twitter, and in personal conversations.  They are all the same to me.  In some cases, individuals who have decision-making authority at clients or prospects for my employer share their issues with me, not because I’m trying to sell them something, but precisely because I’m not.  I think I do a better job of marketing Onboard simply by being myself, speaking in an authentic voice, and engaging in a personal way.

Could I really do that hiding behind a @onboard persona?  No, not really.

The fundamental misconception about social media is that it is media, just more “social”.

The Beginning of the End

If companies and marketers continue to treat social media as just another variant of media, then it spells the beginning of the end for social media.

What makes Twitter interesting is not that I can get bombarded with offers from Dunkin’ Donuts, but that I can have real conversations with real people thousands of miles away.

Once misguided marketers and brand chieftains start to corrupt Twitter with fake-personas, with brand twittering, and so on, it will become just like blog comment spam.  People will begin to retreat further and further into smaller and smaller niches where they can be left alone to have the conversations they are craving.

And companies who do not understand social media as authentic human engagement will lose out on the opportunity to empower their people to converse with those consumers.

There lies the beginning of the end.

Real Estate & Social Media

For whatever reason, social media has been a buzzword in real estate for years.  Blogs, blog networks, twitter, Flickr, Facebook, and all these social media tools have been enthusiastically embraced by our industry with varying degrees of success.

The first wave of pioneers — people like Todd Carpenter — did social media as individuals.  They blogged, they emailed each other, they linked up, they facebooked, and they twittered and so on.  People got to know each other as people, as authentic human beings first and foremost.  This early adopter group used (and still uses) social media primarily as a platform for socializing and making connections.

The second wave saw how much fun that first wave was having, and was starting to hear various ideas being floated about how these new communication technologies might be used to drive more business, sell more homes, do more transactions, and the like — and jumped on the bandwagon.  Most of these people are also having a blast networking with people, meeting new and interesting folks, and having great conversations… but they’re a little concerned that all this social media stuff isn’t throwing off much cash.  Because this group looks at social media as some newfangled innovative way of marketing — predictably, for realtors, that means marketing homes, listings, and themselves.

The third wave either has arrived, or is coming.  This is the “professional marketer” brigade, and the future of social media in our industry depends on what happens with this group.

If the numerous newly-minted social media directors, and the VP’s of Marketing who oversee them, overcome the fundamental misconception about social media, then we may be the industry to drive change in how people who work for companies relate to other people who want to buy from those companies.  If the social media directors become, in my formulation, “Cluetrain conductors“, then we have a chance to alter the relationship between consumer and service provider in a profound way.

If, on the other hand, the third wave consists of folks who think that Twitter is just another marketing channel, that blogs are just a new way of publishing listing brochures, and that branded corporate identities (which are both opaque, and speaking in that stilted “corporatespeak” we all have learned to detect) online are the answers to the challenge of “social media”… then it’s just a matter of time until these communication technologies also become just another spam-filled cesspool of fakery.

And we all, consumers and professionals alike, will move on to our next fix.

I know which way I’d like things to come out.

Markets are conversations.

Commerce is a natural part of human life.

Markets do not want to talk to flacks and hucksters. They want to participate in the conversations going on behind the corporate firewall.


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