“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” the ambiguous They warn. Well, whoops, guilty. When I first laid eyes on Social Media is Bullshit by BJ Mendelson, I figured I would be disagreeing with the whole book. After all, haven’t I just spent an entire semester reading academic studies that validate the existence and importance of social media today? Didn’t I learn about how deep personal connections can be made via the interwebs? I did. But I also assumed that, of course, these concepts and connections are naturally and easily translated to personal economic gain as well.
Nope, says Mendelson, they are not. In fact, he pretty much thinks that the whole concept of creating and maintaining strong ties through social media is bull.
What isn’t bullshit is staying weary, being informed, trusting yourself above all else, and having a product that has grandma’s approval, but we’ll get to that momentarily.
Mendelson portrays run-of-the-mill marketing advice and his argument against it through the Social Construction of Technology (SCOT), or the “People have the power” discourse, as defined by Nancy Baym (Baym 39). According to this discourse, “technologies arise from social processes” and “social forces influence the invention of new technologies” (Baym 39). Marketing books will convince you that since we have the power to make technology do what we want, we can use all of the social media sites to our benefit. We can make them work for us and make us into giant successes. We can all dream big and be Justin Bieber. Forget about what LinkedIn is actually tailored for—you’ll make it work, you’re in control, you glorious Human you!
But no. Mendelson wants you to know that at least three of the big six social media sites out there are useless for marketing—great for other stuff, just not marketing. You actually cannot make every social media website work in your favor, and trying to do so will burn a hole in your poor pocket, no pun intended.
Throughout the book, Mendelson systematically breaks apart “social media success stories,” such as that of the Biebs. He points out how behind every one of these stories are (pretty traditional, dare I say “old school”) circumstances that drove their success; things that go beyond the scope social media. Things like having money, media exposure, influential people that like you and your product, a little bit of luck and good timing, and of course, a good product that is easily explained to and understood by your grandmother.
However, the advice given by marketing How-To books at large isn’t geared towards helping you sell to grandma. They’re geared toward selling to big corporations with large sums of money and people (i.e. 1000+ employees, a.k.a. “enterprise-class corporations”) because they have the means to make you a superstar. You, the average person, don’t have the kind of connections, power, or capital of a big business, and the Web, says Mendelson, won’t help you get those things either. Hence, everything you’d read in your run-of-the-mill marketing book is mostly irrelevant to you.
Let’s take some of this one by one, starting with connections.
Social media has gotten plenty of attention for being “an extension of traditional word-of-mouth communication” and for being a phenomenon that can’t be ignored “because it has rapidly become the de factor modus operandi for consumers who are disseminating information on products and services” (Mangold & Faulds 359). Or in English, us consumer folk talk a whole lot about all sorts of stuff and say a whole bunch of things about that stuff via these social media websites. It is assumed that some of us who blabber about this stuff are Influencers, or a “small group of engaged, energetic, and well-connected people,” and it is sold to us that Influencers are the people you want to get talking about your product (Mendelson 65). But who are these people to you, really? Weak ties—someone you followed on Twitter or LinkedIn. Ties that, according to Donath and boyd, “are good sources for novel information…[and] often bridge disparate clusters, providing one with access to new knowledge…[and] a wide range of information and opportunities” (Donath & boyd 80). These are the people marketers tell you are valuable to spreading your gospel.
But Mendelson wholeheartedly disagrees with that notion. He believes that strong ties, which “exist among close friends and families” and which “can be costly to maintain, requiring much time and attention” are infinitely more valuable to you. Those are the people who will feel more obligated to help you, not someone you followed on Twitter. In my phone conversation with him, Mendelson expressed that people he met online “were not as trustworthy” as those he’d met offline because “there is no social pressure on them [the offline connections]. With someone you met on the Internet, there’s no buffer.” He called offline connections “very shallow” and “very superficial,” and noted that they “require constant attention” as well. This directly disagrees with Donath and boyd who state that it is in fact the strong-tie connections that require more maintenance in exchange for fewer opportunities (Donath & boyd 79).
As far as Influencers existence goes, Mendelson agrees that they exist, “But no one knows who those people are” (Mendelson 65). Celebrities as the only surefire Influencers of the Internet. They’re like corporations. They have money and people. This kid, for example, will probably do anything Beyonce says to.
Plus, Mendelson says, you can have all the Influencers in the world (if you find them)…but if your product sucks, it won’t spread. A good product will share itself. All you need in terms of an online presence is a clear website to direct people towards. People will spread that website around. In addition to a website, a well-informed you can decide “which [social media] platform, if any, might be a good fit for you and your audience” and figure out how to “best integrate it into what you do” (Mendelson 127).
In a nutshell, “offline matters more than online” to Mendelson in the world of marketing (160).
However, though it praises social networking sites such as Facebook for making keeping up with friends and family easier, the book does nothing to validate any of the various benefits of online communities outside that of marketing, such as the LGBT community. In the cases brought up by Mary Gray, websites such as PlanetOut.com and Gay.com, teenagers found social support and a valuable pool of resources in their online relationships. Those they met and spoke to online meant a lot more to them and were more helpful to them than the offline connections available to them.
So maybe not all social media is bullshit…and Maybe I shouldn’t feel like Cher Horowitz just yet.