By Mark Schaefer
As a relative newcomer to the social media world, I have been dismayed by the swooning behavior that occurs over every statement made by the kings and queens of digital media.
In the corporate world, I was taught that thoughtful dissent was an expectation. If you are a “knowledge worker” (as we are in marketing) withholding your ideas or dissenting opinion is tantamount to stealing. You are paid to contribute your original thinking, not to be a cheerleader.
But now I am immersed in a world where people complain about others bitterly in private emails but never add to the public dialogue in a way that creates a better and more accurate reality. The people at the top of the business fawn over each other, and their sycophantic followers amplify their every trite and tired proclamation about “authenticity” and “community.” It’s a weird, bizarro world.
Why? The “thought leaders” of social media marketing are a country club fearful of saying anything negative or controversial about another club member.
The real commerce of social media is trading favors, and a negative comment breaks the favor chain of reciprocity.
In the popular book Trust Agents by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith, they acknowledge and encourage this elitist world with this advice: “Be yourself, which is to say, ‘be one of us’.” They go on to describe the clannish protectionism of those at the top when they write “(newcomers) don’t realize that we all know each other, that we recognize the new stranger in our midst …”
I understand the human nature of this situation. Someone who wants to make it as a blogger may be afraid to rock the boat with a powerful individual who can influence their success by turning favors. We all want to belong. That’s the way the world turns. So if somebody wants to be a sycophant, why should I care? Here’s why. The nicey-nicey world of social media blogging creates problems beyond the walls of the country club:
1) Group think. If you are unfamiliar with this term, here’s a good definition. Among the top social media bloggers, there is little or no substantial debate over ANYTHING. Sometimes an individual outside the “inner circle” lobs a grenade, which is usually deflected by a member of the inner circle in defense. The result is that essentially everybody expresses and re-expresses the basic opinions of the leaders without serious challenge or innovation.
2) Myth-making. A few weeks ago I wrote a post about social media myths. The ideas I chronicled probably seem ridiculous, yet mantras such as “it’s all about community” have become foundational tenets of nearly every blog I read.
As I’ve entered this arena and observed participant behavior, I’ve been astounded by how many people tweet, praise and re-blog anything uttered by the primary thought-leaders, no matter how insipid. It seems Marshall McLuhan was wrong in this case. The medium isn’t the message. In social media, the messenger is the message.
3) Lack of credibility. Take a close look at the credentials (if you can find any) of nearly any leading social media marketing “expert.” How many have ever had a real marketing job or have been actually accountable for delivering new value in a marketplace by creating, testing and distributing a product on a meaningful scale? Very few. Yet these are our marketing “gurus?” In a communication channel already dominated by porn-peddling, get-rich-quick nimrods, it simply doesn’t help our collective credibility to have our most visible advocates spouting incredibly naive statements about marketing fundamentals they know little about.
4) An infrastructure of angels. If you get to the point where you are huge on the social media scene, shouldn’t you be able to pull enough strings to constantly surround yourself with enough positive tweets, reviews and testimonials to bury any authentic complaint? The real strategy of Trust Agents is not to build credibility and brand loyalty, it is to build enough professional leverage to call in favors.
OK, so let’s not talk about what’s going on “out there” any more. Let’s bring it to the here and now, you and me. What would better serve MY social media strategy … or yours? To provide an honest opinion that might upset the favor-makers, or to join the country club?
Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant. The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world. Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.