The social web is starting to feel like high school


A while back I wrote an article about the fortress-like tendencies of the A-List bloggers and the sycophants who follow them. I compared it to an exclusive country club.

But as I’ve reached a wider audience and gained more experience on the social web, I’m learning that some of the online behaviors deserve even less credit than that.   A couple of anecdotes:

  • Last month I met with a high-profile blogger/speaker who said he had been “black-balled” by those following Chris Brogan (not Chris himself) because of disagreements he lodged with the uber-blogger.
  • Another top blogger told me conference speaking invitations had dried up since he criticized fellow A-list bloggers
  • I recently politely disagreed with a number of high-profile folks … who promptly “unfollowed” me on Twitter
  • One follower implied I was chauvinistic because I had more men than women on one Follow Friday tweet
  • A nasty and unprofessional online fight recently erupted between East Coast and West Coast factions over the issue of social media credentialing.
  • Recently, a well-known social media pundit named me as one their favorite bloggers.  One of my followers said she now had a “moral dilemma” of whether to follow me or not because she did not like the other blogger.

Pardon me folks, but doesn’t this sound a lot like high school?  Or worse.

The petty politics of every day relationships are exacerbated on the social web because we are making very limited assessments of people based on their written words. People seem quicker to judge, and harsher in their reactions without thinking about the real live human beings behind those little icons.  I’ve been guilty too.

In the end, I can only be accountable for myself.  The social web mantra of  “authenticity” and “transparency” is a load of crap.  Nobody is truly authentic. Nobody is truly transparent.  Nor should you be!  However, there is an urgent need for civility, tolerance and honesty in this space.  I’ll try my best to walk the talk in those areas and if this makes any sense to you, maybe we can support each other and make the change together.

Thanks for hanging in there through the rant.  You may now return to your social media high school home room, wherever that may be.  : )

Community alert: Sean Williams, a regular contributor to {grow}, pointed out this timely WSJ op-ed piece  on the subject of social web civility. Which was a civil thing to do.

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  • Mark — Excellent post. Hearing about about the credentialing smackdown earlier this week, I thought it extremely immature. This is one sorry list of similar anecdotes.

    The unfortunate truth is, you don’t need everything you “learned in kindergarten” to survive in social media; you apparently need everything you learned while surviving junior high school.

    I do believe the sector will grow up; like parents of teenagers, we just have to grit out teeth and wait it out.
    — Lisa

  • Awesome, Mark. Did you happen to catch “Keep a Civil Cybertongue” on yesterday’s WSJ Opinion Page? Authors Jimmy Wales and Andrea Weckerle say “First, and most importantly, we need to create an online culture in which every person can participate in an open and rational exchange of ideas and information without fear of being the target of unwarranted abuse, harassment or lies. Everyone who is online should have a sense of accountability and responsibility.”

    Too often, that’s just not the case, even in our PR/Marketing social media echo chamber.
    Rant on, dude.

  • Mark

    @ Lisa Agree. That whole credential smackdown made me sick. Made me want to shake a few folks.

    @ Sean — I had not seen that WSJ article but have now added it to the end of the original post as a useful reference for the {grow} community. Thanks for your contributions!

  • In my high school, the A-crowd was the smallest clique in the school and their power was short-lived. There is much more fun in hanging out in multiple inclusive circles rather than one exclusive circle. And, in the long run, you’ll have a much stronger network and be a better person.

  • Mark

    @Mike I had the same inclusive attitude in high school. I was the guy who tried to dance with all the girls sitting on the sidelines so they would have a good time at the dance. : ) I guess today, I still want to facilitate this sense of inclusiveness and acceptance even if you’re on the fringe and dissent. Especially if you dissent.

  • I’m still far enough outside to not have had the types of experiences you describe. But I’ve picked up the vibe. There seems to be a lot of online cliques and silliness. Personally, I think quality shows through in people’s online image. I try to be self-critical, and honest but respectful, as well as open to other’s opinions. I know that I follow the people that I perceive to have similar qualities, you among them.

    It’s frustrating when people don’t take you on your own merit and aren’t willing to question–worse when they ding you for questioning things. But that’s how people are in “real” life. Guess we shouldn’t expect any different online.

    I’m following three A-listers and have only seen two posts that I thought were worth retweeting. I was just yesterday thinking I should unsubscribe from Chris Brogan’s newsletter. He always has nice things to say in it, but nothing that I find actually useful. I follow your blog because you provide great posts. The fact that you seem like a nice guy is icing on the cake–but very yummy! I say, keep up the good work and try to ignore all the crap, Mark.

  • Mark, I believe that inclusiveness is an admirable goal, but I wonder why the social web would be any different than real-life interactions where most choose to surround themselves with people who share the same dreams, values, and often opinions.

    While I personally prefer to follow people who make me think, laugh, and learn, I’m sure not everyone shares those reasons for their follows. And face it, there are some people who wouldn’t turn down a fight be it with an A-list social networker or the junkyard dog.

  • Mark, You’re right: no one is really open or transparent. I mean, there’d be a lot more “looking for a job” and “just trolling for clients” tweets and blog posts out here, right?

    As to the Social Media H.S. cliques and clubs, I’ll do what I did back then: my own thing. Ignore the nonsense and BS and stick with what speaks to me. FWIW.

  • Mark

    @Neicole This is the first time I have been described as a pastry of any sort. Thank you. I think : )

    @Linda IMO, the main reason the social web is different than the real world is because you never have to take real accountability for you actions. You can hide behind an avatr and say things you would never say to a person in real life. I know that is where a lot of the nastiness comes from. I’ve even called people out on it — asking them, would you say that if the person was sitting right there with you? No.

    Thanks for adding your wisdom today!

  • Mark

    @Davina Hurray for you. You have given me a good idea for a blog post. Take people’s tweets and then interpret what they REALLY mean! Ha!

    See, I just broke my own rule on civility. (slapping self in face)

  • It will never cease to amaze me how petty people can be. I appreciate your taking on this topic because I haven’t had the personal experience you have, but I have seen tweets that surprise me and frankly they lose my respect.

    Taking the high rosd and moving on is the best way to procced because WE are moving forward with integrity, character and an attitude of kindness.

    Always learning. Your blogs are excellent and I always look forward to reading them. Come 2010 my website will be done and I’ll really be putting a lot of strategy into place. I am sure I will open myself up to some comments that I will not be pleased about. I can’t wait….I think!!

  • I think as the sector becomes more mainstream, more competitive the worst aspects of human behaviou are going to appear more and more. It’s just getting so competitive that there are going to be put downs, snide stuff and general standard human behaviour. Humans haven’t changed that much over the years. Why should the emergence of social media change that?

    The Net (Google!) makes things pretty transparent so misbehaving will catch up with you sooner rather than later. It’s best to be nice, polite and friendly. But still maintain your critical edge.

    Great post, Mark!

  • mariuusitalo

    Thanks Mark, this was such a good post. It reminded me, that where there is people, there is drama. So it can be antisipated, that we will find plenty more this kind of behaviour you described.

    In old days witholding information meant power. These days social media has taught people that you’ll gain power by sharing information.

    What will be really interesting to see is that what happens to social media if one of its core elements sharing is effected for instance with envy?

  • Mark

    @Diane. If your new blog reflects your attitude of “integrity, character and an attitude of kindness” sign me up! Please let me know when you go live.

  • Mark

    @ Jon and @ Mari You both make a simliar point about intensifying competition changing the nature of power on the social web. Extremely interesting points. You’ve got my wheels turning …

  • Bravo to you, Mark. Terrific post and I found myself nodding along as I read it. Always the mark of a good rant. And I do so love a good rant (and do my fair share of that often).

    I wasn’t part of the “in crowd” in high school and never really wanted to be. Those people, even at 16, seemed vapid, self-absorbed and lame – things I never aspired to be. And, in my advanced age, I find that I am just as repulsed by those characteristics now as I was then. So to you and everyone else who recognizes that being polite, courteous and respectful – even when people have different beliefs and opinions, is really not all that hard to do. And anything else is really – well, high-schoolish. And I don’t know about you, but I have no desire to go back there!!

    Great job – thanks for inspiring lots of good thoughts and comments.

  • Thanks, Mark. Sadly, there are always those that bark just to hear themselves bark.. Good news is that it’s predicted that 2010 will start showing some natural attrition of the 15,000+ “experts” that reside on Twitter. Once all that dust settles, I think we’ll hear the kinder voices a little bit louder.

  • Enjoyed the post, Mark. And I’ve been there.

    Way back in ’07, I disagreed with some of the blogosphere headline acts more than once. It cost me some readers from the “true believer” crowd, but I was determined to examine social media and to write about it as a critical thinker, not a cheerleader.

    Remember those cheerleaders? They didn’t like me in high school, either!

    Anyway, I stayed the course, and over time I’ve found many of those cheerleaders have matured and mellowed. We’re not friends, per se, but we do have respectful conversations.

    I’m wondering if the folks who froze you out are worried about their shrinking incomes from the SM banquet circuit. We don’t need the rock stars anymore. We’ve moved on, and they will eventually.

    I take comfort in knowing you won’t let any of this bother you. Just do your thing, and don’t convert to evangelism…er, cheerleader.

  • Mark W Schaefer

    Really proud to be associated with the intelligent and thoughtful commenters in this community. I’m humbled every day.

  • The funniest thing is, in high school, I was the guy in the halls who was the “go between” between all the real groups. I had a few friends, but I mostly hung “with” the other groups. I wasn’t especially popular, and I was nothing but inclusive.

    If you ever spend time with me at an event, you’ll see that’s still my style. I certainly speak my piece when I’m not in agreement with something, but I do my best to accept different people’s opinions. Take your pastry fan. She doesn’t like my newsletter. No worries. It’s not for everyone. : )

    But you know who spends time thinking and writing about the supposed A list? People wondering why they’re not getting the appropriate praise for the good work they’re doing.

    Beats me, Mark. I was in Seattle once, visiting Microsoft. On the front of the local paper (which should be MSFT’s biggest fan) was a full page photo of an Al Qaeda guy with an iPhone. On a tiny snap in the business section was some huge announcement about Windows 7.

    Why does Apple get all the press?

    Read any five of my posts in the last few months and tell me where I’m shouldering up with any clique. Scan through my tweets for it. Do I spend time with certain people more than others? Yes. We all do.

    So, I dunno. Am I some kind of exclusionary clique kinda guy? Not that I can tell. Do I have haters? Tons. Plenty.

    Analyzing each other doesn’t seem all that impactful to me. I try figuring out the space instead, as you do with some of your really insightful pieces. I liked the “how sm could hurt business” post from.. I don’t remember. Last week?

    So why bother writing posts about who hates who and who doesn’t get along? EVERY business has that. It’s just not as interesting. Might just be my take.

  • Mark W Schaefer

    @ Chris I’ve praised you and your personal style enough in my posts that you should know where I stand. You handle your abundant criticism with amazing grace and I’ve acknowledged your positive energy and limitless contributions to your vast community. I like you and admire you : )

    I’ve thought a lot about whether to write about specific individuals (celebrities like you) or not. I decided it is unavoidable to get into real issues of our business without naming names judiciously. You can’t talk about the State of the Union without mentioning the president.

    Am I writing my blog because I don’t get enough praise? I’ll have to do some introspection on that but the thing I am at least consciously aware of is that I write becuase I am aghast at the lack of critical thinking in this space.

    Knowingly and unknowingly you and a few others make “policy.” Every time you burp it gets tweeted 900 times. The burp becomes codified by other bloggers and suddenly the burp is part of the social web mantra. I look around and just think W. T. F. is happening around here? When the mantra is questioned, the fortress goes up … not necessarily by you … but ranks close.

    I recently watched a video of you yelling at an audience “It’s not about you and your STUPID COMPANY.” I sat back and thought of all the young people you influence who would walk away from this talk with a very confusing set of instructions, at least based on my 28 years of marketing experience.

    This doesn’t make me right either — I’m a humble student more than I am a teacher — but {grow} is the only voice I have, as insignificant as it is to the cumulative, overwhelming, vox populaire. And something needs to be said.

    I don’t think I approach things as a “hater” but would appreciate you and and any one else keeping me honest in that regard. It’s not my intent at least.

    Bottom line, I totally respect what you have accomplished. And I’m so appreciative of your countless, positive achievements, including your numerous contributions to this community. However the politics surrounding the evolution of social media marketing often overwhelm solid business thinking and I’m going to keep writing about that. I think you and I both will benefit from the wonderful conversations that will result.

    Thanks again for all you do, Chris.

  • @RaynaNyc

    You nailed it with this observation Mark. I wish people were as passionate about ‘being social’ and the greater conversations as they claim to be. If they were, then these debators and conversationalists would listen first, and respect the other’s opinion, regardless of whether they agree. Those varying opinions should inspire debate and hopefully new ideas and opinions. I’ve always believed the online world is a reflection of how we are behaving as a society. I am sadly discovering limited attention span, instances of intolerance for difference of opinion, and a mean spirit towards dissenters. I think we need to keep addressing this and not ignore and retreat to own corners of sameness. I commend thought leaders like you (and those that facilitate the dialogue on blogs, Twitter, and the like) for taking this stance, and trying to help the crowd ‘grow.’ Have a Happy New Year.

  • Jim LeBlanc

    Mark, you are providing needed thought leadership with good posts (and comments)like this. TY!!!

  • MarkWSchaefer

    @Rayna Think this is your first comment here? Thank you for taking the time to contribute.

    @ Jim Thank you for your kind words.

  • But Mark, when all is said and done, isn’t this basic human nature?
    Great observations and thinking. You’ve again generated an interesting and thought provoking discussion!
    In my mind, as a contrary opinion, what you are observing is not a bad thing as it shows the real human element of social media and proves its reality (not just being yet another promotional vehicle).

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  • Great post- sorry to say that it does feel like the social status game sometimes. I’d love to see everyone begin to operate with more civiliity but also understand that it’s actually *good* to disagree (when done in a respectful manner) as that’s how we can grow by hearing others views and learning from them. If we all have to follow and praise the same voices online to get along then there’s no room to grow.

    -It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. (Aristotle)

  • It seems as if people participate on the social web under the auspices that it’s supposed to be an honorable, altruistic place to join in — as if the very basic fact that people suck (we do, don’t deny it) wouldn’t make its way into the online social space.

    But, humanity hasn’t ever been very nice, on a macro or micro level. We are all constantly stepping on one another to get ahead, forming cliques, and behaving like children no matter what age, no matter what setting. The Internet isn’t special enough to deserve better behavior from us.

    There are times it absolutely feels like high school around here, but that’s pretty much the nature of any new social venture: hype, the rise of stars, raving praise, questioning the hype, disillusionment, and eventual balance. We all come to our “I’m just going to do what I have to do and be myself” realizations on our own time, and part of that realization is understanding the ebbs, flows, and unpleasant idiosyncrasies of human nature.

    To react to all of this is to believe it was supposed to be different here, but it never was. We are people everywhere we go, in real life or virtually. Changing the way we connect and communicate won’t ever change that.

  • mariuusitalo

    I am so enjoying this conversation. See this is what I find so exciting about social media. We talk, how people are, kind of cynical (how is that spelled?…but you know what I mean) way and yet noone in this conversation actually are. We have few occurances of these things in our experiences, but it is so much easier (way more easier than in high school actually.:)) to ignore, delete, unfollow or block anything that doesn’t suit us, that we in all and all don’t get affected much by that.
    Yesterday I was reading what people had said about the New Years, and there was not one negative, sad, depressed or mean comment to anyone by anyone anywhere to be found. So to me it means, that people I commmunicate w/ in social media are tuned quite positively towards life in general.

    What comes to A-list bloggers or marketers or any of that, the first rule to internet marketing is to gain authority by getting profiled as an expert. No wonder you want to be on the same page with the A-listers, until you find the thing that you disagree with, then you want to make sure everyone knows you think diffrentely..see A-listers usually end up being A-listers for a reason. They have created their own expertise… and that levels it up to all of us. We are all equal in that.

    If you start looking for envy you’ll find that, if you start looking for something else, you find that too. Like always in life. Everywhere – social media or not.

  • Mark

    @ Teresa I have read your comment several times and can’t get my head around it, especially: “We are all constantly stepping on one another to get ahead, forming cliques, and behaving like children no matter what age, no matter what setting.”

    This is so far from my reality i don’t know how to respond to it. In both my personal and professional life, I experience positive, healthy, supportive, mature adult relationships. Don’t know what else to say other than i hope things change and get better for you. It sounds like hell to me.

  • Mark — I don’t personally experience much of this, but I have to admit I don’t have very optimistic or positive views of humanity. Historically, we haven’t treated each other very nicely, and modern society is incredibly competitive. I mean, our economy wouldn’t be in the mess it’s in if we (collectively) had behaved like responsible, moral adults.

    You have to admit there are probably a few people online you chat with more than others; you’ve got supporters and detractors. And you’ve probably heard about people competing in a business setting with one another in unethical or seemingly illogical ways. And I’m sure you’ve seen personal dislike between colleagues in a professional setting. That’s what I’m getting at. You’ve obviously observed some of this as you gave a bulleted list of examples in this post.

    I’m not speaking in personal terms. I’ve had a crazy year, but it’s been great and I’ve been treated incredibly well by the people who support me. I’ve also had some hate and immaturity tossed my way, but that’s life.

    My intention wasn’t to sound like I’ve been stepped on because that’s absolutely not the case. I just think, as a whole, humanity naturally leans toward immaturity and cattiness before altruism and respectfulness, and I’m not surprised by seeing that fact seep into the online social space.

    Hopefully that helped clarify my point.

  • Mark

    @Teresa I agree with you completely. In the end we can only do our own little part to create some value in the world. You just did that for me and I thank you! Appreciate the clarification.

  • You just barely scratched the surface. I find the clique-quotient of social media to be as high as anything I experienced in high school. The diff is that with social media, at least you know what the cool kids are thinking–in high school we had to guess.

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  • Hi Mark,

    Very interesting and something I’ve been thinking a lot about this past week. I’ve also noticed a lot of so called SM rules (things not cool) that have caused people to shut themselves out from bigger better things.

    Recently I had a conversation with a couple people (one around 23 the other early 30s) who were completely turned off by someone at a conference because they said he was “selling himself” too much. Social Media has created a large group who say self-promtion is “not allowed ever”.

    I talked to the same person but had a completely different take (so did a friend also in her 40s). We saw him as passionate about a topic. Yes he wrote a book and mentioned it several times at the conference but we clearly saw he was not selling a book. He was selling a passion and found writing a book to be a way to do it. He wasn’t making any money on the book that was clear.

    I feel sorry for those in Social Media who so rigidly follow the “don’t ever pitch yourself” mantra in social media. Don’t turn people off too quickly because you don’t like the first words out of their mouth. You could be missing out on some great ideas and conversations. These two people wrote off this person quickly, as it turned out they and their career could benefit greatly by listening to what he had to say.

    It reminds me of the whole, “don’t ever do what’s not cool” thing in High School.

  • You make some really great points. I do think a lot of this has to do with the nature of blogs and social media in general. Almost all blogs, even those that are taken to be journalistic, have a personal aspect to them. There is usually some part of the author that shines through in their posts. It’s that part that makes the blog unique and interesting to others. Your blog for instance. While it is used for business, your personal biases and opinions come through from time to time. Which I like—that’s why I read.

    But that is where it gets sticky. I think this quality in social media is what allows people to create stronger attachments to content. While they may have been initially been drawn to a blogger because of their take on Google’s privacy policy, they stick around because when they commented on the post, the author both responded and thanked them for their contribution. That happens enough times, and they become connected to the blogger—to the content. They begin to believe everything that person says with very little objective analysis.

    But then someone comes along and says one of the blogger’s ideas could be wrong and they become personally affected. They see it not as a commentary on the content, but the person behind the content. Multiply this effect times a hundred when it comes to these superblogger celebrities. In a medium that is so young, people are still really trying to get their grounding and feel comfortable with their knowledge of the environment. If you question their foundation (ie. these superbloggers), you need to expect to receive repercussions from their faithful.

    Keep up the good work Mark.

  • Mark

    @Traci — Wow. Thanks for the great insights. I’ve written about these “rules” quite a bit. Another article you might enjoy is here:

    This article is about the social media “myths” that have been perpetuated.

  • Mark

    @Kacy You are right and i have thought about this a lot in the context of this blog too. Certainly I have enjoyed creating a community of people who support each other, but i don’t want it to be a group of sycophants who are afraid of dissent. I realize some of that is unavoidable but in the end the most rewarding aspect of the {grow} is the debate and diversity of opinion shared in the conment section. Thanks so much for taking the time to share, Kacy!

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