Are You Mud in the Social Media Waters?

by William Reichard on November 17, 2010

Social networks often claim to have altruistic motives (e.g., Facebook’s more connected world)  or they claim not to be social networks at all (as in the case of twitter).  These claims at best lead to a convenient ambiguity and in any case highlight an obligation for anyone practicing social media.

I say this as someone who believes passionately in the potential of social networks to change the world for the better – both socially and in the world of business. Social networks as they exist,  however,  are often opaque and muddled in their missions. We have work to do as consumers, individuals and businesses to make it right.

Much of this is occasioned by the blogospheric equivalent of a sunspot eruption in the form of a debate on whether it is good and justified to be a “snob” who lets others follow him or her without feeling the need to follow back. The uproar has made me realize how much of the issue comes down to plain semantics–people not wanting to call someone a “friend, ” however little may actually be attached to that, if they are not in fact neighbors or schoolmates or fellow parishioners (and even sometimes it they are). Many people apparently feel that to “follow” someone on twitter obliges the follower to consume everything that person produces and,  what’s more, to appreciate it in some meaningful way (even if that doesn’t happen in real life). But it is much more than semantics as well.

Spending so much time thinking about the question has left me highly attuned,  and I’m beginning to see how the networks zero in on precisely this confusion.

Facebook shuts down accounts for people who pursue connections too aggressively, but via games such as Farmville encourages people to amass friendships. The site is constantly devising new ways to link us together and yet maintains a fiction that “real” connections are the only acceptable ones. Meanwhile, it encourages you not to take those relationships very seriously. When someone makes a friend request of you, you can choose to “ignore” it–saving you the mess of declining it–saying “no.” When you cancel a friendship, Facebook doesn’t tell the other person, and when someone declines your request, it doesn’t tell you. In other words, they make it easy to connect–but also to disconnect or ignore. So which is it? Are these “real” relationships or not?

Twitter, meanwhile, makes the relationship one-way by definition. The followed need not follow the follower. This in itself isn’t a problem, but it makes public whether the person being followed chooses to return the favor or not. It encourages people to collect large, visible followings and encourages us to see “friendship” as something that can pass in both directions or only one.

Follower counts are one of the biggest problems. Why should it matter to anyone else how many friends you have? The only plausible reason is that it encourages competition and anxiety about being seen to have fewer friends than others. We’ve all learned quickly that more followers doesn’t mean that you’re more trustworthy or useful…just that you have more followers. And yet, if you hide your count in Facebook, you lose some ability to connect with others through mutual friends, and that I know of, Twitter doesn’t allow it at all. The networks like your anxiety about follower counts–it encourages you to keep at it.

For Marcana readers, the question becomes how we avoid contributing to it. To begin with, we have to be committed to a tough code of ethics. It’s far too easy for one’s white hat to get a little grey, to let things slide. We’ve got to be tough about issues like disclosure (some worthwhile links herehere and here). We have to be upfront about our connections and intentions. We have to let people know what we’re trying to accomplish.

But we also have to internalize the attitude Mark has been working to cultivate here–namely, that connections should be natural. They should evolve. They should mirror our personalities, reflect our ethics, encompass our goals and aims. As you go out into the world to create social products, we have to design with these limitations in mind, because you’re never just selling anymore–you’re working with actual people and their relationships. Your sale is helping to shape society. Is it for the better or for the worse? (And not, perhaps, as Burger King did when it gave away hamburgers for unfriending people on Facebook. Or was that a good thing?)

The next time we start to build a business model that even tangentially encourages exclusionism or elitism, we should step back and remind ourselves that  real human psyches are at stake. I’m sorry to sound melodramatic. I’m often accused of being oversensitive to this. And yet, we’re talking about real and meaningful interaction here. It seems fashionable these days to joke about “snobbery,” but as Nietzsche (a prescient thinker in this as in many other areas) noted, “A joke is an epigram on the death of a feeling.

This is one of the main ways that the social world will change business forever. Services like honestly.com will make karma something that doesn’t take generations to return to us. Our general openness to others, our respect for our relationships, our overall approach to interaction will be part of the permanent record. In other words, it won’t just be the right thing to do — it will be good business in a way that heretofore has only been assumed.

Clarity remains a hallmark of good relationships, personal or professional. Let’s all work to be clearer about what we’re doing here.

How are you handling these changes? How can we as marketing professionals and social media consumers help solve the problem?

[Flickr photo by Davide Restivo.]

Will Reichard

Will Reichard has an MBA from the University of Mexico and is CEO of CrossCut Communications, LLC, a full-service marketing and communications company with a digital edge. His forte is messaging. From working as an editor at a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper to articulating the selling points of an innovative customer focused nonprofit fundraising organization, he consistently helps to give voice to challenging but mission-critical ideas. He writes a blog on social media, public relations, marketing and technology and was recently invited to be a panelist on personal branding at the prestigious Crittenden National Conference. He is also an award-winning writer who has been published in outlets including Innovation: America’s Journal of Technology Commercialization and National Mortgage Professional Magazine.
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  • Malissa Kullberg

    Once upon a time, I couldn’t get social media wrong. As long as I was my genuine self, I showed character, if not non-vanilla appeal (http://bit.ly/9wR44e). Now, I’m a snob because I refuse to follow everyone who follows me, even though I do so in order to be my honest, character-full self who cares about the individuals and entities with whom I engage.

    Reminds me of the Aesop’s fable about the boy, the man and the donkey.

    Know that I have great respect for author of this blog and his willingness to learn out loud. And that is why, despite my frustration at the seemingly arcane and changeable rules of social media mastery, I am launching the first sally in a hoped-for dialogue on the issues raised in this post.

    I have less time for social media than I would like because I am deeply committed to a day job where cultivating and serving relationships with authenticity is critical to my success, my brand and most importantly, my integrity. I bother with social media because I like people and want to know more of them than I would encounter in the natural course of my work and life. But unless I limit the amount of frequency of my social media stream, I can’t hear or find the time to interact with those I friend or follow. On Facebook, I frankly flounder in the face of so many requests to “like,” “friend,” join up and advocate for people, businesses and causes about which I know little-to-nothing.

    Will’s post on Technoagita II — “My person Terms of Service for Online Connections” — struck me as a sincere effort to drive a stake of authenticity into the shifting sands of societal expectations. Here’s mine: If I, as a real estate broker, cannot set my back against the bony force of my own values, I will be lost: attempting to satisfy all, pleasing none–least of all myself.

    • http://will.crosscutcommunications.com William Reichard

      Malissa, I’m honored that you remember that other post. I don’t see the two as contradictory at all, but I suppose I wouldn’t! As I noted in that post with a caveat, the title wasn’t meant to suggest that we could no harm (or betterment) through social media.

      If this post has encouraged you to clarify what you want from social media connections, then I’ll feel I’ve done my job.

      My issue with snobbery is people choosing to call themselves that, choosing to celebrate being closed off. That’s hugely different in my mind from deliberately designing one’s level of engagement with the world. We’re all going to set boundaries. We’re all going to pick and choose where and how much to be connected, how much to invest (whether in social media or in the “real” world). I’m not saying we should or could do it all and simply engage with everyone in the world. I’m asking about our goals, our basic theory, and saying that mine includes an overall greater level of connection.

      And this post is really meant to be a call to the Facebooks of the world not to play on these ambiguities and anxieties, not to make them part of a business model. The “you” in the headline was really meant to be the professional marketer. I think my post wasn’t very clear that way, so I apologize.

      Maybe I’m not being very clear in general. Your kind and thoughtful response impels me to continue thinking it through. Thank you, as always.

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