Social Media Week: The Perversion of Social Media

The 5th Annual Social Media Week concludes today in New York and around the world.  This should be a celebration of the power and the breadth of all that we call social media but instead, the marketers have taken over.  It really should have been called New Ways of Selling You Something Week.  Not that there weren’t sessions reflecting the breadth and beauty of social media — there largely were — but if social media is about connecting people to people and people to information, the dominant thread was connecting people to products.  Selling them something.  How can we divine their intention? How we can we measure how much of their intention we’ve captured?  The marketers have moved in.

We’ve seen this loss of innocence before.  The early Internet was a people’s playground.  Remember a world before there were banner ads, where search engines, well, helped you search instead of were vehicles to compile a huge dossier on your preferences, locations and intentions.  I’m not here to suggest that the way the Internet has evolved is a bad thing.  Quite the contrary.  It’s a rather amazing place and it’s hard to remember how we lived without it.  Clearly this is in large measure because of the economic potential that was realized through marketers.  Their economic windfall has enabled us to continue to have this open playground.

Thus, my fault is not with the marketers, not even with the Social Media Week organizers who are actually sincere and profoundly well-motivated.  Rather, I see this as a call to arms.  A time to declare the emperor has no clothes.  Social media is not just about looking for selling cues and divining that next insightful piece of information about a customer or a series of customers.  In many ways, I actually view that as a fool’s chase.  It’s the old story about people in a dark room trying to figure out what’s there by touching it.

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Sometimes the best approach is the simplest one:  why don’t you just ask it?  That doesn’t work so well when it comes to elephants but it works much better when it comes to humans.  You perhaps know that I’ve been enamored for a long time of VRM, Vendor Relationship Management, the concept  that we’ll flip CRM on its head and put users at the center of the marketing relationship.  It’s perhaps no coincidence that VRM was first espoused by Doc Searls, the creator of the Cluetrain Mainfesto, that first generation Internet call to arms that was so powerful…before the marketers moved in.  So I think this focus by Social Media Week, and social media in general, on selling is just a short-term perversion of the concept by marketers.  They’ll derive value, sure, but the real impact will be much more transformational than helping them sell and the monetization of social media.

More than this, too.  Social media isn’t just about commerce, whether buying or selling.  It is, and will only be more so, transformational in the way we work and play.  The way we connect with each other as people, not as commercial entities.  The way we create, find and share information.

Yes, this was all there at Social Media Week if you looked. There was a discussion with Rachel Haot, the passionate Chief Digital Officer of New York City, who has the support of a visionary Mayor and herself has the passion to enhance and maybe even change the relationship a city has with its citizens.  There was a discussion with Dale Dougherty, the founder of Make Magazine and, one could argue, the champion of a “maker revolution” that threatens to change the way we, well, make things.

I would, if I could, eliminate all those marketing sessions from Social Media Week.  There are plenty of venues for that kind of information. The marketers will always find their outlet.  Let us not forget that social media is not (just) about selling or buying.  It’s not just about measuring and monetizing.  It’s not just about more big data. (You know how I feel about that one.) At one point during the week, I observed on Twitter how almost ironically Social Media Week had become very unsocial. I was in a room full of people and they were all heads down, staring at their small screens and tweeting.

Is this what social media has become??  I don’t think so.  As has always been the case with technological advances, we go through some ebbs and flows when it comes to adoption and disruption.  We often first enhance existing processes and approaches with the new capabilities.  Only then do we realize there are new and better and different, and disruptive, approaches to what we’re trying to do.  We’ll get there.  There is not a shred of doubt in my mind.  But the state of social media today, as demonstrated by this Social Media Week, isn’t there yet. I appreciate what you marketers are trying to do.  I really do. But I hope this is the beginning of the end for your perversion of Social Media Week, and social media.  Social media is so much more than selling and buying.  Change is coming.  And your time of defining the landscape is coming to an end.

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