Do you spend a lot of time on the computer? Are you “Web-savvy”? Savvy enough to know that social media is bullshit? Well, thanks to a new book whose title declares this fact, we can learn why this is so. I found out about B.J. Mendelson, author of Social Media is Bullshit` on Twitter around 2009. I saw a tweet that said something to the effect of “Find out why Twitter isn’t working” and clicked on the link. It took me to an article by Mendelson. In it, he discussed how in 2007 Twitter had for some reason placed him on what was the original version of their Suggested User list. Back in 2007, the list appeared in the right sidebar on the Twitter Public Timeline (now defunct). In 2009, Mendelson was about to embark on a promotional road-trip for the early detection and prevention of breast cancer at American colleges. He asked Twitter to feature him again as a Suggested User as they had two years earlier. Twitter obliged, resulting in Mendelson acquiring over a million followers. Enviable, huh? Maybe, maybe not…
B.J. Mendelson has an interesting pedigree. He’s functioned as a meme generator since the ’90s; he created a website called “The Island”, with the help of a nerd friend, that mocked their high school. Most popular was a collection of audio rants aimed at other students, titled “The Top 50 Assholes Who Go to Monroe-Woodbury Senior High School”. The site went viral before the expression was even invented and the server crashed under the weight of traffic. Students loved it, and many printed out the “Top 50” and recorded the audio files on cassette tapes that were circulated around the school. Mendelson had learned a couple of valuable lessons. 1) Don’t mess with the football team. 2) By using technology and good content you can make yourself the center of attention for a lot of people.
The book then describes how Mendelson took this newly-discovered knowledge to college, with similar results. His comedic creations continued to go viral, in the form of humor columns with titles like “What Would the Hulk Do?” and “I Hate Captain Planet”. Soon, he was writing for esteemed institutions like CBS College Sports, Forbes, Mashable, CNN and MTV. The prototypical Web savvy kid soon found himself doing marketing for clients, mainly for “money to impress girls who had no intention of sleeping with me”, Mendelson says. This was when when he encountered the bullshit.
There follows a brave and reasoned attack on the so-called marketing “gurus” (terrible word, invented by them) who today form a weird cabal of supposed cutting-edge advice-givers regarding the next big thing on the Internet. I know the people Mendelson is attacking here. I work in e-marketing, which means I’m required to use the Internet to drive traffic and make money. I follow the Twitter accounts and blogs of these gurus, all of whom clamor daily for my attention. My Twitter timeline is littered with tweets that say things like, “6 Crucial Conversion Funnel Optimizers” or “Facebook’s 10 Conversion Commandments”. What is most admirable is that Mendelson actually calls out the prominent players in this fake circus by explaining what they do and why marketing advice is now an industry in itself. Formerly untouchable Web experts like Liana Evans, Brian Solis (who Mendelson actually likes), Guy Kawasaki and Chris Brogan (whose $47 live two-hour Google+ Webinar urging businesses to “get in now” coincided with a loud “stay away!” from Google+ to the business world that surely remains as a thorn in Brogan’s side until the time of writing).
People today are dazzled and opiated by the sheer scope of their online experiences, including marketers. But the Web really hasn’t changed much since the late-90s, says Mendelson; it just looks nicer and is easier to use. It’s also controlled by corporations that have virtually swallowed up all the true celebrity bloggers, i.e. those who inspired us all to believe in the power of the Internet.
Among the more memorable metaphors and models Social Media is Bullshit uses is that of the digital “Sharecropper” system – employed by social networks and news sites to generate huge quantities of unique content without giving anything back in return. The vast majority of these articles go unread but they’re crawled by Googlebot and that’s all that counts. They call it “user-generated content”, but it’s really just a form of free labor. One of the great tricks of entities like Huffington Post, Facebook and Twitter is their ability to compel members to continually add to the articles, comments and tweets, thereby accumulating a huge amount of authority in the eyes of search engines and providing the sites with untold riches through traffic; traffic equals advertising dollars. Traffic in this case also equals peoples’ private information, which Facebook and others then sell to marketers – the same marketers who are currently locked in orbit around the social media world, eagerly dispensing advice on how to make money from those same networks.
It’s a positive feedback loop; marketers tell you to sign up with the networks and become a “personal brand”, network traffic is inflated, and as a result they can charge advertisers more for ad-space. This also generates a constant supply of names, email addresses and telephone numbers to sell back to marketers. And on goes the cycle…
At any e-marketing conference today you’ll be confronted by dozens of marketers, all trying to sell you enormous lists of email addresses belonging to people who may have never heard of your company and probably don’t want whatever it is you’re trying to sell them through unwanted emails. Better yet, these “marketing companies” will offer to manage your entire email, SEO, affiliate and social media programs for you, complete with systems that track all data. These companies always want money up front. They certainly don’t want to charge by performance. Alarm bells should be ringing at this point…
Mendelson, as stated above, maintains that the Web really hasn’t changed all that much in its lifetime, save for certain superficiality. He compares today’s Dropbox to 1999’s Xdrive, Facebook to Classmates.com and WordPress to GeoCities. What marketers do, he says, is create buzzwords to describe old things in new ways. He illustrates this with a quote from one of his heroes, George Carlin:
“Poor people used to live in slums. Now the ‘economically disadvantaged’ occupy ‘substandard housing’ in the ‘inner cities’…Smug, greedy, well-fed white people have invented language to conceal their sins. It’s as simple as that.”
In social media marketing, the new language consists of buzzwords like “Web 2.0“, “Big Data” and “User-Generated Content”. Knowing a thing or three about making stuff go viral, Mendelson also offers a great take on the YouTube phenomenon. For a video to go viral, he says, several very specific things must happen in sequence. He claims it’s possible to determine exactly when and how a video took off, which, let’s face it, is really what everyone wants to know. According to Mendelson, YouTube tends to be made up of three groups: Mainstream celebrities and companies, Original YouTube creators (who also enjoy huge followings thanks to adopting the service early and networking), and the third group, who Mendelson calls “suckers like you and I”. He maintains that things simply don’t go viral organically, apart from extremely rare creations from this third group. These are the cases that cause marketers to shout adoringly from the rooftops about what a wonderful place social media is.
But it’s bullshit.
Celebrities have a ready-made audience. YouTube original creators have connections within YouTube and longevity on their side, which is huge considering YouTube is the Web’s second-largest search engine. These creators are a form of mini-celebrity, but unlike real celebrities they’re tech-savvy with a direct credit line to the Featured Video spot. The third group, suckers like you and I, represents a kind of dead zone, where millions of videos go unwatched and unknown (similar to the thousands of Huffington Post articles that nobody ever sees other than the precious search engine spiders).
As an example of the bullshit surrounding YouTube, Mendelson cites Justin Bieber, long heralded as a “social media” success who was launched into the limelight by the Google-owned video service. Bieber’s tale has been told and retold many times. Usually in articles authored by people with a vested interest in convincing you that you, too, could be Bieber with the right marketing and production behind you.
Rebecca Black is another YouTube “sensation”, who in reality was backed by several thousand of her mother’s dollars invested in promotion and songwriting with Ark Music Factory, a production company in Los Angeles. Black eventually submitted a Take Down Notice to YouTube after Ark set the video up as a $2.99 rental, citing copyright infringement. Ark wasted no time in pleading their innocence, as well as claiming that Ark company founder Patrice Wilson “discovered, defined, and delivered” the 13-year-old “sensation”. By then, the video had received almost 167 million views. Ark’s decision to charge money for views didn’t exactly help Black’s already tarnished image; after she surpassed Bieber’s “Baby” as the most disliked YouTube video of all time she fell prey to millions of thumbs-down votes, plus threats of violence and even death.
Many authors of “social media” success-type articles are in fact marketers working in the industry, looking to take your money in a world where everyone is a star living their own reality TV show. The truth is, it’s not that easy.
Mendelson interviews and quotes numerous people in Social Media is Bullshit. He describes trying to obtain information from Google as “harder than breaking out of a supermax prison in Arizona using only a toothpick and pluck”. He did, however, manage to glean some interesting numbers from Felicia Williams, former entertainment content manager at YouTube:
“…There are a few tiers of viewership that once hit tend to expand to more and more views (100k, 1 million, 5 million, 10 million+, 100 million+). If a video breaks any of these benchmarks for the first week, they are 100 times more likely to become a success over time…”
As well as directly calling out supposed marketing gurus, Mendelson also cites several campaigns famous for having gone viral. He spells out a timeline of bullshit, wherein Web marketers lauded various social media campaigns beginning in 2007 with Blendtec’s amusing “Will It Blend?” campaign, and progressing to Zappos 2008 supposed social media success story (more Twitter Suggested User List-induced hogwash), then on the 2009 claims that Dell made $3 million using Twitter, finally coming to rest panting at the feet of 2010’s Old Spice Man (but didn’t we all?). The Old Spice Man, Mendelson explains, was actually an offline campaign, backed by Proctor and Gamble’s vast advertising budget, which saw actor-athlete Isaiah Mustafa appear on almost every single daytime talk show, including ESPN, The Ellen Show, Oprah and G4TV. For some strange reason, marketers with a serious investment in social media chose to focus only on one small aspect of the Old Spice Man campaign, calling it a – yeah, you guessed it – “social media success story”.
Another of Mendelson’s pet peeves is the idea that various foreign political uprisings and domestic Occupy campaigns were somehow driven by social media. He disputes that the Egyptian uprising was a Twitter production. Stating that only one in eight Egyptians are even connected to the Internet (the wealthy ones who were hardly likely to be out demonstrating anyway), it becomes clear that our friends the marketers once again became a little over-giddy about something that never happened. In addition, we also have the new phenomenon of so-called journalists who find “news” on Twitter, news which is often false and which originated on the Twitter account of some anonymous Twitwit. Mendelson says he established a dialogue with NPR’s Andy Carvin, who admitted to him that social media was indeed bullshit. Carvin used Twitter extensively to broadcast news from the Egyptian “frontlines” (when in fact he was in Washington). In fact, Carvin was simply retweeting other people who may or may not have been in Egypt. Carvin promised Mendelson a contribution to the book, but fell strangely silent when he secured his own book deal. Carvin’s book was called “Distant Witness – Social Media, the Arab Spring and a Journalism Revolution”. Hmmm….
The Occupy movement, much maligned by many, was another target. Mendelson says Occupy “went absolutely nowhere” because the truth is, in the western world we’re constantly being told we have a voice, when in fact we don’t. He describes his own Twitter reach (with a following of almost 800k) as being able to affect “a small, statistically insignificant group of people”. He also says that if the Occupy Movement had as much money as the Koch brothers’ Tea Party, they would have been far more successful in damaging the system they opposed. That’s money, folks, not Twitter accounts.
Mendelson has recently hinted that he might follow this one with SEO is Bullshit. I sincerely hope he does, because if anything those guys are even more full of it than the marketers pushing social media. Bullshit‘s final section is titled “How to Really Make It on the Web”. Mendelson sets it all out here, as a *coughs* road-map for anyone determined to be successful online. This is very solid advice. It’s the only way to work it if you’re not a giant corporation, or a celebrity, or some early-adopter techie freak with extensive Internet history and connections. I can definitely vouch for this guy; he knows his e-marketing. He knows what you have to do to stand a chance of being in the game. And he also knows that social media is bullshit.