B.J. Mendelson is making a bold claim in the title of his debut book Social Media is Bullshit, and makes an even bolder claim inside the book that social media “doesn’t exist” (17). That said, the author presents a reasonable argument that the term “social media” is nothing more than a buzzword for conventions that have existed on the Web since its proliferation in the 1990s.
If you look at danah boyd and Nicole Ellison’s definition of a social networking site, you will see elements in common with the affordances offered with 90s platforms like AOL and Prodigy. Users were able to create a profile, generate a list of users who share a connection and had the ability to view and traverse their connections’ profiles. In other words, the definition of what makes a social networking site existed before sites like MySpace, Facebook or Twitter.
As someone roughly the same age as the author, I applaud him for pointing out what I have been unable to articulate. That is that people my age have been engaging in social networking online since the 90s, we just didn’t call it social networking or refer to the platforms as social media. However, to say that social media does not exist is an irresponsible claim, because it’s dismissing the practices that occur on social media as insignificant.
Mendelson is not attempting to make a sociological or anthropologic statement necessarily. Therefore, it is important to note that he is not dismissing academic scholarship of social media, or the interactions that occur between users on a day-to-day basis. He is instead saying social media is a vapid marketing term, or myth, used to sell people on a get rich quick story rather than a practical approach to growing a business with online tools. Mendelson eloquently analogizes this notion by saying “Remember: The people who get rich during the gold rush are rarely the people digging for gold. It’s the people selling the shovels” (27).”
Marketers are selling the shovels they call social media to every business seeking marketing consultation. Mendelson argues social media is not necessary for business and digital strategies are not universal. Those buying the shovels are rarely getting rich without either getting lucky or having major influencers back them. And even then it is not social media that is driving the bottom line, it is merely a compliment to a full-on integrated marketing campaign. In other words, social media is bullshit.
Mendelson presents an excellent point that while social media offers the stage for a global audience it is unlikely you will reach that audience without a large capital investment. Where I begin to disagree with him though, is when he states social media is not a democratizer because at its core it is controlled by a limited number of giant corporations. While it is likely true that much of our user-generated content is made popular through large corporate support, the fact that we have total freedom of expression and free speech suggests that the Web is still a democracy.
Social media may not be a space for the everyday user like you and I to make a wealth of profit. But it is a space for free expression, taste statements and maintaining connections. Social media, or for the author’s sake the Web, offers users the ability to perform however they want and as whoever they want. Mendelson ignores these factors because he is not considering the consumer use of the media, rather looking at it purely as a marketing tool.
Mendelson makes the same point as social media scholar David Beer that capitalistic factors must be considered when defining social media. Beer criticizes boyd and Ellison for ignoring these factors when defining social media. And even though Mendelson does not directly concur with Beer, his book suggests that financial gain is a defining factor of social media’s existence.
Social Media is Bullshit sheds light on marketing practices, and how digital media is packaged and sold through deceptive practices. While you can argue that social media does exist, it is difficult to argue that many who promote social media are doing it for their own benefit. From a cultural perspective it could have been richer, but that was not the books aim. Still, the author seems to dismiss the cultural significance of the phenomenon of social media. Nevertheless, Mendelson does present a well researched and provocative book that I think changes the discussion about social media without refuting academic scholarship.