8 Ways We Get Social Media Wrong, 1 Way We Get It Right 1

I’m not a social media soothsayer. I don’t know the six key elements to make your social strategy sing, and I certainly won’t sell you on the idea that such a silver bullet exists. What I will do is share some of my observations, questions and quibbles that I have with capital “s” Social, capital “m” Media and maybe together we can find some of our own lowercase “t” truths (for what else would we do with our Tuesdays, but seek truth?).

“Social media” has been a recent interest of mine and increasingly a topic of discussion on this blog. It’s a place where I’m developing some core beliefs and discovering some unanswered questions. These thoughts aren’t totally cohesive–I reject the notion that there’s one unifying theory of social out there, but that doesn’t make scattered observations unrelated or unhelpful. Consider this post my hodgepodge collection of updated thoughts on the social arts.

As far as I can tell, you don’t have to be anyone of demonstrable competence to become a credible voice on social networking and content marketing. I have no credentials or indictments against me in this regard (as far as I know….). Take my perspective with as many grains of salt as you’d like. That being said, I’m drafting this post while listening to “Yellow Ledbetter” on repeat, so I’m feeling pretty damn smart at the moment.

Eddie Vedder

The State of Social

1. In yesterday’s post, Mike captured a great point from Gary Vaynerchuk’s book: effective social media strategy is relational far earlier and more often than it is transactional. The word “effective” only applies insofar as you are trying to ultimately accomplish something with your digital activity beyond being social for conviviality’s sake. If you want to sell merchandise, make professional connections or get eyeballs on your blog, you need people. And unless you’re a dictator or a CEO, people aren’t just going to pay attention because you tell them to; you gotta earn it. How do you do that? Not by always looking to take, but by being willing to give for a long time before asking for something. What a simple and eminently reasonable notion.

2. Say you can pick one of two skills: the ability to tell a story with visuals or the ability to write interesting and compelling text. Obviously, you want (and probably need) both to really be successful, but I think that we’re increasingly moving to a place where amateur storytelling privileges the first skill over the second. Attention spans are shorter and the volume of text thrown at a given individual daily continues to grow. Our culture of skimmers and scanners continues to gravitate toward the visual over the textual. That fascinates me. Unfortunately, I have no visual acumen whatsoever, so you know, I fold.

Compelling Visual

3. Stop me if you’ve heard this tune before, but the way we talk about social media is all wrong. Allow me to quote a world-class expert in doing things wrong: “we should stop talking about social media like it’s some newfangled contraption that we need our grandson’s help to operate (my bad). Yes, the tools that fall under the auspices of “social media” are dynamic and ever-evolving, but so is tax law, and no one considers that a transcendently innovative thing. The root of the problem is that whenever we speak of “social media” it sounds like we’re talking about it in totality, which makes mastering even one application of social media seem more daunting than it is. Yes, your business should have a social media strategy. No, that doesn’t mean you need a strategy for all forms of social media. It was never an all or nothing proposition, I’m not sure why we keep trying to trick ourselves into thinking it is.” 

4. To put a finer point on it, it’s the specific delivery mechanisms that we find novel (Twitter, Facebook, etc.), not the mode of communication itself. The most profound and insightful thing I’ve read about social in the last year is this title of a Big Think article, “Social Media is the Norm; Mass Media was the Fad.” Before I give Big Think too much credit, let me say that the underlying idea belongs to Tom Standage, whose brilliant book, reminds us that social media isn’t new; we can identify its roots going back thousands of years to cave drawings and other “primitive” forms of communication. I don’t think this is just an academic observation, it’s an argument against treating social media as a reinvention of the wheel. Modern digital communication might demand new skills, but it doesn’t necessitate a fundamental reprogramming of the way we think.

Social media caveman

5. Even outside the above point about its historical antecedents, we like to treat social media as this cutting edge, innovative space–I think we’re overstating it. Consider the rudimentary interfaces of leading platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn. It’s a space where utility trumps design; where function comes first. Social networks are clearly evolving and getting better, but it’s interesting that the clunkiness of an interface has no apparent chilling effect on adoption.

6. On a related and borderline contradictory note, LinkedIn is proof that content isn’t king if it isn’t consumable. LinkedIn has made huge steps in producing interesting original content that people like me want to read, but I find that the site’s interface is so frustrating and poor that I don’t spend enough time on the page to consume that content. This reality doesn’t stop me (or anyone else, apparently) from joining LinkedIn–they’ve done a fantastic job cornering the professional side of social networks–but it does prevent me from exploring and being “sold in deeper” to what they’re selling. I wonder if they know/care.

7. It’s natural to get excited about new tools and toys. I see about 7-10 articles a day on the “hottest new social media tools.” I read exactly 0 of them. Maybe I’m just averse to exploration, but I don’t want more tools to choose from. The social media tools universe already feels too expansive and fragmented. The answer is more powerful, versatile and compatible tools. Not just more tools.

You're a tool

8. This is a totally unhelpful observation, but I can’t help noting what strange bedfellows make up the social media enthusiasts enclave. It’s a weird mix of the counterculture “democratization of technology” folks and a group that can charitably be described as the 21st century’s children of Don Draper and Gordon Gekko. While I’m not aware of an overt battle for the soul of social, there’s definite tension between the “wanna be my friend!?!?!” crowd with the “let me sell you some digital real estate” crew. Sadly, I’m afraid that the likely outcome will sound an awful lot like this.

9. I think the thing that bugs me most about the way we talk about digital interactions is this notion that you have to maximize every communication; that if you aren’t making the most out of the tools at your disposal, you’re wasting a golden opportunity. I get that business interests are often involved, but the answer is always going to be more not less humanity. And guess what? Humanity is sloppy, spur-of-the-moment and inefficient. We’re prone to trial and error; comical miscues and accidental brilliance. Be an unintentional sitcom, not a coldly calculated informercial. And for God’s sake don’t make every tweet functional. There’s no formula for authenticity, so embrace irreverence and imperfection. I prefer to focus on the joyfulness of it all. The friendships formed, ideas shared and memories secured. Perhaps I’ll miss out on great opportunities for profit and persuasion, but if all Facebook and Twitter provide me in life is this one frivolous experience, it’ll be well worth it:

Tweet on the big board

Social reminds us that some experiences are worth capturing and sharing with people who are (mostly) willing to indulge us as we make our way through life’s highs and lows. That’s a hell of a thing and an unbelievable bit of good fortune, but let’s not overthink it.

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