Social Media wants to answer two questions:
1. “What half-way productive thing can we do with 1,000,000 people sitting in a room talking to each other all day long?”
2. “How can people who sell things exploit these millions to sell more things?”
Social Media is about the most effective, efficient and psychologically painless way to use large groups of people to accomplish goals. It’s codified social engineering with a technological and often messianic slant. It is the “technology” that will save our souls by giving us access to the corporate powers that be and influence over the highest levels of society, all from the comfort of our living rooms.
It abstracts knowledge and influence. It doesn’t matter what you look like, how old you are or what size shoe you wear, if you make sense people will listen. If you make enough sense, people will talk about you. If enough people talk about you, things will start happening. That’s the the secret sauce that Social Media consultants try to sell and the “point” of most discussions on the topic.
It exists as a movement because until recently, it was really difficult for an individual to reach outside of their small, geographically limited circle of influence. Now that you can, it has allowed anyone with the right mix of charm, knowledge and gumption to play guru.
Social Media has been described as everything from a easier way for shills to shill, to the most important cultural change since the Industrial Revolution.
It’s both at the same time.
Ideally it leads to projects like Wikipedia, Blogging, group action, fund raising, and scads of entertaining, irreverent and often unavailable media that now has a home on the web.
Just as often it leads to 1,000,000 sitting around on the web talking about sitting around on the web talking about sittin…All led by gurus explaining to them that they are on the cusp of a technological revolution the likes of which the world has never seen.
Don’t get me wrong, I love gurus. I think we need more gurus.
If history teaches us anything, it’s that people want “thought leaders.” It’s why FOX News, Self-Help and Politics works. It’s also why immediately after forming groups we start ranking each other by whatever is available: page views, followers, post count, it doesn’t really matter. Even when we don’t use numbers as the proxy, other more esoteric forms of rankings crop up (cliques, “gangs,” interest groups). If you look at any group of people who have been around for more than a few months, you will see systems of class and stratification of influence.
We want gurus, leaders, people to look up to, people to emulate. We also want power, influence and prestige whether it’s meaningful or not. We need a society where we can strive towards becoming something better than we are, where we can go from peasant to King. Think about it, having a level 70 character in WoW isn’t going to make your 401k look any better but it sure makes you feel good.
Even the most self-less, well meaning and good members of society need to feel like they are accomplishing something in the eyes of the people who matter to them. Social Media gives them an outlet.
Companies want gurus and “thought leaders” because let’s face it, advertising doesn’t work so well anymore, the economy is bleeding money and businesses are hungry for a new way to get us excited about consuming increasingly esoteric products. Social Media holds the promise of creating a system where people will, for the first time since WWII, do work and spend money for the sheer principle of it.
If someone told you that they could give you access to your customers thoughts, and make them like you for selling things to them — it’s really hard to argue with that. If they make the entire process feel noble and self-less and pure on top of that, it should be packaged up and sold alongside the Flintstones Chewable Morphine.
It’s everything that everyone has always wanted, consumption without guilt and sales with sliminess.
We would all be better off if we were a little bit more honest about all of this.
We get bad gurus selling snake oil and bandages because the people who can really help, the people you should trust and listen to, don’t want to come off looking like “some kind of marketer.”
We end up being fed a constant diet of rehashed, recycled junk media because it’s not OK for “good people” to want to make money off of what they do so they avoid doing anything to push their content.
We all want to be a thought leader on our little patches of sand so we write, “how to use Social Media,” blocks of content which are little more than aggregates of aggregates of aggregates. This leads to an endless cycle of Social Media 101 played out across every network in the world, when what people really need is a Masters Class. They need something evolutionary.
We ignore the role that geography, social power, and class play in our networks. The fact is that what we think of as a Meritocracy, where everyone is on equal footing eating lollipops and singing hymns, is really a loosely structured Republic, where rotating groups of influencers elected for their charisma decide what is good for us and spoon feed the results to their circles of influence. The content we think is “important,” the media we consume and the trends we follow are rarely the will of the masses as we’d like to believe, they are will of that 1% of people who have worked to get the power to make the trends.
Like it has always been.
Social Media is a world ruled for better or worse by those with the skills to market themselves and push their opinions as facts. Sometimes they’re right and we’d do well to listen, sometimes they’re wrong and should be ignored, but the percentages are no better or worse than anywhere else in society. All we’ve done is switch out old world sociological signals like wealth, class and appearance for their psychological equivalents and further obfuscated the entire thing by putting everyone behind a semi-anonymous wall of technology.
Social Media has allowed good people to do good things and bad people to do bad things on an unprecedented scale and at an unprecedented rate. It might be time for us to stop looking at it like some kind of Utopian dogma or evil, marketing fad and see it for what it is, a startlingly accurate look at how societies as a whole function — for better or for worse.