Beyond Social Media

The purpose of this article is to suggest some reasons for the failings of social media, as well as to offer suggestions for its better usage.

The promise of social media, it must be remembered, was to reduce intermediation.  Prior to the Industrial Revolution, markets revolved around the direct interaction between buyers and sellers; both conversed, and the result was often a transaction.  But with the development of mass manufacturing techniques, the relationship between buyer and seller was riven.  Now it was impossible to scale the exchange to an individual conversation. For efficiency, providers had to organize buyers into geographic, demographic, and psychographic clumps. The pre-industrial buyer/seller relationship became, in short, a monologue.  The famous Henry Ford quote “you can have any color Model T you want, so long as it’s black” could be apocryphal, but it is emblematic of the end of an era.

As with any power dynamic in which one person controls the message and deprives the other party of a voice, tensions emerged. The customers distrusted the producers and their intermediaries, i.e. the marketers and advertisers. The producers were in turn condescending towards their customers, targeting them almost as if they were vapid, mindless, and somewhat irrational entities.

This was, in fact, the golden age of marketing–an era well articulated, for example, in the TV show Mad Men. There, both business and private relations are based upon the manipulation of information rather than honesty; the act of selling itself eschews transparency. Indeed, customers could be said to have lost their voice during this era.

Technology would change that, and it must be remembered that the Internet was never intended or designed to be an engine for commerce; rather, it was born of a desire to communicate more openly and efficiently. Story telling was its part and parcel. Usegroups, bulletin boards, nascent blogs, and other early Internet tools paved the way for individuals to broadcast their innermost thoughts.  After decades of not being able to do so, this so-called ‘reclamation of the voice’, as described by Doc Sears et al in the classic The Cluetrain: The End of Business As Usual, brought real joy1.

The Internet quickly went from a small group of early adopters and conversationalists to a “market” ripe for the picking by others, notably a business class of neo-industrialists. Some of them understood well the importance of stories in the Internet.  Consider, for example, Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon who made the bold move of allowing customer comments on his site.  It makes all the sense in the world now, but at the time it was novel (“Yeah, we’re trying to sell stuff on this site, but we’re going to allow people to write negative reviews of the stuff we’re trying to sell.”)

Bezos also understood the importance of what has come to be known as ‘civic sharing’. If we are hard-wired to share and enter into conversations with each other, Amazon’s star ranking, which invited our participation without manipulation, was made to measure (“You want to say this product sucks, go ahead”).

Of course, others companies caught on too, including eBay and Craiglist. Soon, civic sharing gave way to social media, and the ubiquitous customers became the trusted source for product reviews rather than the manufacturer. Startups like,  Flickr, and Friendster invested in the artful organization of  conversations, through words or photographs.  Friendster begot MySpace, which begotFacebook. Text messaging and SMS begot Twitter.  YouTube did for videos, what Flickr did for photos.

Today, the way in which most companies have employed social media has stripped it of its organic nature, and thus its joy.  Perhaps that is why so many people are feeling fatigued by social media. What once was reclamation of many distinct voices is now simply another tool in the arsenal of marketers—who are not trusted.

Reclaiming The Promise

Here are some best practices.

-Remember, whether markets are conversations or not, they work best when they’re treated as such.  And, like an actual conversation, the best online conversations require listening in an empathic manner.  It’s hard to listen when you’re consistently tweeting out updates about yourself.  Therefore, use your social media megaphone to talk about thing other than yourself, at a ratio of about 80/20.  This means for, say, every ten tweets/FB status updates, only two of them should be about you or your product or service.  The other eight should be shining a light on something or someone else, and/or RT, @ replying.  This ratio will also help to keep you from over sharing.

-Know/align your values: You may be wondering how to tweet eight out of ten times about something other than yourself.  The issue underscores the importance of having a point of view and defining yourself as a trusted source on the topic for which you have a point of view.  You do this by contextualizing issues through the curation of articles and other Internet ephemera that relate to your point of view.

-It has been said that “technology is an accelerator”.  Whatever you put into it will either be amplified, for better or worse. First, make sure what you’re sticking in your accelerator is something you want to spread; second, make sure that what you’re putting into it aligns with your values/point of view.

-You simply can’t build durable, authentic relationships online.  This happens offline.  However, you can grow and expand your offline relationships online.  Find ways to marry your offline and online work.

-You can’t build communities. Zuckerberg apparently blasted a media mogul who kept asking him how to build communities. “You can’t”, he said, “all you can do is provide an elegant organization.”  Communities are formed by people who have shared values.  If you provide them a forum in which to more efficiently share their values and connect with others who share them, you may succeed; not otherwise. You cannot just endeavor to “create” a community and assume that it will work.

-The social element needs to be well integrated.   If you just try to layer a social shell atop of an existing web site architecture you will fail.  Instead, think how the social part fits each step of the way in all your projects.

-Shift the burden of proof. Companies and individuals will hit a plateau very fast if they attempt to convert customers on their own.  Instead, they must give existing customers the tools and authority to promote the companies’ products and services.  Part of this promotion occurs through involving your customers in the conversation.

-Remember you don’t own the social media tools. If you are not using them to direct people back to your own site all you are doing is building brand equity for the tool . Bandcamp, for instance, is not your site. Social tools go “poof” too, as was the case with MySpace, so watch out.


1  Levine, R,. Locke, C., Searls, S. & Weinberger, D.; The Clue Train Manifesto  (Basic Books, 10th edn., 2009).

by George Howard



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