Social: the noun. As if it was one entity – THE Social, an object made up of people, communications media and interactive behaviors. We, the pros, discuss it as if it’s a Rubic’s Cube and we – the experts, managers, problem solvers – are sharing our instruction and hints at solving the puzzle, at getting all of the colors lined up perfectly. We tell potential clients, “Do these things in this way and voila, your [marketing, PR, customer service, revenue) problems are solved.” Or at least lessened.
Being social on the Web is in many ways not that different from being social in your neighborhood, your kids’ schools, at the grocery store or at the local yard sale. You find success through establishing good relationships, even if they last only a few minutes. You learn informally from others. You “friend” people, but in the real sense of the word. You meet with individuals and groups and you build “social capital,” which feels good. If you have a hassle with a neighbor, you “unfriend” them (again in the real sense of the word.)
But being social on the Web takes place in a very different environment than face-to-face, mainly because everything you do or say on the Web is being recorded by many agents, from search engines to business data slurpers to the people who follow you. We are less human online and more like objects than we are in the flesh. NASA tracks the asteroids like Facebook tracks its users. Our behaviors are stored in giant databases and are analyzed, analyzed and re-analyzed to find value that can be traded for money.
Over the past 2 years I’ve been engaged in an intense course (also called A Job), processing a firehose of articles written almost entirely by social media professionals, offering advice, analysis and opinion on social media and how to use it for business and influence. I personally published about 4,000 of these articles for Social Media Today and reviewed many times that number. Based on that, combined with my many years in this business, I believe we have found solutions to all the puzzles that can be solved at this time.
Hurray, I guess, but in all those articles I found there to be a lot of repetition, re-stating, rediscovering and re-emphasis concerning the challenges of social media. A small percentage was what I considered to be new ideas. Not to imply it wasn’t timely or that the information is not currently needed. “It bears repeating,” as the idiom goes. But we seem to have run out of game-changing ideas for bringing business into the social realm. There are new apps aplenty, there are many new startups, but our pile of What We Know is not growing very fast.
Some original writing declared social media to be dead, or at least in need of renaming. I’ll go along with the idea that the Web is like a social sea and we are the fish, no longer aware that our environment needs a distinguishing title. But social media is far from dead as a category of media. Indeed, most media – from music to film to TV – is today leaning hard toward incorporating social tools and practices. But in our collecting new perspectives and approaches we seem to have plateaued.
As far as advice and creative thinking on social media, I’d say that 60 to 75% of what is being described as “new” was evident and under discussion at the time of the Web’s birth in the early ’90s. Issues having to do with privacy, privileges, copy rights, getting attention, community, commenting, sharing knowledge, the value of content, communications between customers and business were all discussed vigorously before the opening of the commercial Internet. Human nature being what it is, not much about these issues has changed since then.
So everything is new all over again, but when it comes down to proving ROI from social media, the primary obstacle has been and continues to be the rigid alignment of the CEO, corporate culture and short-term shareholder return. Social practice is still regarded by many of the largest corporations as an unnecessary risk.
What we know about The Social has become quite obvious to us. We just find new ways of framing and presenting it. What we can’t know are the factors that must, at best, be wildly guessed at. Just as few social media pros foresaw the growth and dominance of Facebook and Twitter, we don’t really have a clue as to what will grow up to replace them as the most commonly shared platform on the planet. Google+, maybe? Many were pronouncing its death less than 4 months ago. Migration to mobile? Well sure, more people will be using those devices than PCs in the near future. But you can only do so much with a 5-inch screen. Will the novelty wear off? Some metrics from last year describe a flattening growth curve in accessing the Net.
We don’t know what kind of event or force might persuade still-resistant businesses to leap into social. Surely, we like to believe, something will motivate this change in corporate thinking and culture. Indeed, that’s the market with the most potential for social media pros. All of these solutions we come up with and share are ultimately aimed at persuading businesses to pay to get themselves in the game. Since – IMHO – we have said basically all there is to say, we will continue to use our social logic like a battering ram smashing at the gates of corporate obstinacy.
What we also don’t know is how much of this knowledge we share can be put to work bringing these tools and techniques to solve the critical problems of the planet, beyond the problems of the corporate business world. We face some clearly predictable crises where massive implementation of the best of what we already know may one day prove to be the difference in our favor.
As always, I may be wrong and I’d like to hear what you think. And what is now becoming new knowledge?