Social Media Panacea: Why It Isn’t A Marketer’s Cure-All

B.J. Mendelson’s book, Social Media is Bullshit has been deemed a “funny, honest take on the myth of social media, the people who fuel that myth, and the only marketing book you will ever need”…by B.J. Mendelson (17).  Join me in a critical analysis as I attempt to debunk the hype behind Mendelson’s own debunking of social media as a marketing tool.—

We’ve all seen the ads on our Facebook sidebar (If you don’t have one, I’m willing to bet you’ve seen at least one Internet ad in your life.  If you haven’t even seen one Internet ad, then you should probably just stop reading this blog post).  Maybe you’ve clicked an ad once or twice just to see what would happen, or wondered why the marketers on Facebook are trying to convince you that your friend’s spoon collection is straining your relationship with him/her.  Perhaps you’ve seen the corporate Facebook page that Walmart has created for its company or scrolled past a tweet from Nike while perusing your Twitter feed.  It’s impossible to deny that marketing has a large influence in social media, and questions arise: what are marketers really aiming for?  How do we fit into their scheme?  The real question at stake, however, isn’t a question of what or how–it’s whether or not it really works.

Enter B.J. Mendelson.  A self-proclaimed practitioner of “radical honesty,” he answers the “is social media useful in marketing” question with an emphatic no by offering us the truth regarding marketing and social media.  This includes an introduction through personal experience, the lowdown on the origin of the term “social media” itself, followed by his own tips and insight into the world of marketing.  His essential argument is that, although marketing consultants and authors claim otherwise, social media is absolutely useless unless you’re a powerful, rich, company–or a celebrity.  Mendelson backs up his argument through either multiple examples of alleged “social media success stories” that were really only the result of other influencing factors, or by going over failed corporate case studies.  Still, he admits that “Facebook fans could lead to sales” (107) and that “there are legitimate stories of success out there” (177), a number of which he lists on page 48.  He also doesn’t seem to take into account the fact that many corporations simply attempt to leverage social media by using it as a tool for information collection—as evidenced in an article by Eric Clemons.  Clemons points out the complexity of marketing and the trend away from push-based advertising, pointing out that it entails more than simply publicity or getting people to “like” a Facebook page.  In another article entitled Social Media: The New Hybrid Element of the Promotional Mix, W. Glynn Mangold and David Faulds point out that social media might simply be used to allow consumer dialogue or to engage customers, among other purposes.  In this respect, Mendelson’s argument seems narrow.  We might categorize his views under the “social construction” perspective that Nancy Baym talks about in her book, Personal Connections in the Digital Age, since he sees social media technology as having no inherent advantages in itself; it is simply a tool of human interest and useful for only that.  In its totality, the book does seems to present some important points about the reality of social media marketing, but Mendelson takes a rather pessimistic, all-inclusive stance that isn’t necessarily conducive to a productive discussion of social media in its own right.

To begin with, Mendelson’s title itself acts as a broad overgeneralization of his topic.  He uses the phrase “social media is bullshit” as a blanket term that doesn’t account for the nuances of various social media platforms, or leave any room for discussion.  Given the already highly ambiguous nature of the term, simplifying it further to try and create a holistic argument isn’t quite effective.  danah boyd points out the difficulty of categorizing social media (and more specifically, defining social network/ing sites) in her article Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship.  Mendelson’s title does not distinguish between what marketers say about social media and social media as a tool in itself (in fact, it discounts the existence of social media completely on page 17).  He even dedicates a whole chapter towards explaining why “social media” is just a phrase–he uses the term “buzzword” (33)–that has been invented and recycled to describe web technologies that are no different from those which emerged in the late 1990’s (21).  But clearly there must have been some reason why such technologies failed then and flourish today.

Throughout the book, Mendelson does not do much to justify this alleged presence of the “myth of social media”.  He takes jabs at marketers for what they’re supposedly saying, but seems to be fighting an invisible enemy.  I’m not saying that I don’t believe that what he says is true, but I do think it would strengthen his argument to point out–with concrete references to the “hundreds of [such] books” he’s bought–exactly what ideas the marketers (in writing and in practice) put forth that he takes issue with (17).

Furthermore, writing a marketing book about the pitfalls of marketing books, if not counter-productive, at least warrants a very circumspect reading.  In the book itself Mendelson employs at least a few of the methods he decries:

  • While denouncing the use of “buzzwords” to enhance or emphasize certain ideas, Mendelson uses a few as well.  These include “cyber-hipsters/cyber-utopians” (56), the “Asshole-Based Economy” (54), “influencers” (63), “Attack & Distract” (113) and he even repurposes the term “social media” to work for his argument.
  • Although Mendelson has a strong aversion to marketers, himself stating, “I’m not a marketer,” (179) much of the terminology Mendelson uses is reminiscent of vague, fluffy marketing jargon: “I’ll tell you about those later.” (85), “I’ll tell you why in a minute.” (94), “We’re going to sidestep the fact that…” (111)
  • In chapter 2, Mendelson talks about tricks marketers use to sell their products, how “if you cite what someone else is saying, someone [the audience] might have heard of, that lends [an] idea more credibility” (8) and then goes on to use multiple block quotes from web, entertainment, and media authorities in the subsequent chapters (34, 46, 51, 61…).  (While you could argue that he’s using them to back up his argument, the method of citing well-known authorities on a topic to increase the credibility of your own idea still holds.)

Overall, the picture that Mendelson paints seems to malign social media in a slightly sensationalist light.  The title is a testament to this (might I suggest an amendment to something along the lines of “Stuff Marketers Say About Social Media is Bullshit” instead?).  But I won’t hold it against him, because I know he’s trying to get this information out there.  And this review won’t be completely negative.  In fact, towards the end of the book, Mendelson actually becomes quite agreeable, admitting that, while social media may in no way be a plausible marketing strategy, it’s not impossible to achieve a certain type of “success” through it.  I give most credit to the very last section of his book, The End, in which he reiterates the idea of known “social media successes” as more of a combination of influencing factors, and I think this section gets to the heart of the issue.  Given the fairly recent (and ongoing) insurgence of social media, it’s too early to make any concrete statements regarding its utility, and it demands closer research.  For example: in their article, The Benefits of Facebook ‘Friends:’ Social Capital and College Students’ Use of Online Social Network Sites, Nicole Ellison, Charles Steinfield, and Cliff Lampe put forth ideas about social media in a purely social context that run contrary to Mendelson’s.  While Mendelson says all that does and will ever matter for you is your offline relationships and connections, they examine the significance of both strong and weak social ties, as well as the concept of unformed, but potential, latent social ties.

In essence, Social Media is Bullshit is a marketing book (Mendelson himself says so on page 17).  It’s not a critical study of social media, but rather a look at its applications (or lack thereof) to marketing in particular.  And this is fine.  If you’re looking for one such book, by all means, Mendelson’s proves very useful in that it generates a dialogue around the complexity of trying to integrate marketing and social media.  But if, like me, what you’re interested in is an examination of the utility and significance of social media itself–not just as a marketing platform or an advertising outlet, but as a place where users connect and interact with each other in different contexts–then you’re probably better off elsewhere.

Side note: I do appreciate Mendelson’s sharp sense of sarcasm and humor: i.e. “anti-Christ appears in the form of a six-headed Ryan Reynolds” (15) and his description of the “horrible Canadian creature” that is Justin Bieber (49).

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