The coming demise of ‘social media’ (the term, that is)

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Despite using it in our company’s marketing material (hey, we know a thing or two about search and marketing), I don’t like the term “social media.” I dislike it for the same reason I never liked the term “Web 2.0.” As I wrote in a 2005 blog post, “When a term starts to mean everything, it means nothing.” (And admit it, doesn’t “social media” sound like something that reports on parties in the Hamptons and Palm Beach?)

Terms like “Web 2.0” and “user-generated-content” and “social media” come and go. They may make sense when they are first used to describe a narrow activity or trend. But soon, they are hijacked by marketers who slap the term on things they are selling and try to turn the term into a product.

Web 2.0 (which, by the way, started out as a term that meant, roughly, what social media connotes today) was, without a doubt, the most hijacked term ever. Those who came up with the term may have known what the term meant. However, it soon became a bullet-point in sales sheets for products that had nothing to do with what its originators thought Web 2.0 meant. And it soon became a term to convey that a product wasn’t around during the debacle of the dot-bombing Web 1.0 — and it used fonts that had letters with rounded edges.

The term “social media” is heading for that same cliff.

Why?

As I tweeted yesterday, on the panel selector for next year’s South by Southwest Interactive, of the 2,000 nominated panels, 1,118 have the word “social” used in the panel name or description. To me, that says “everything is social.” And when everything is social, using the word “social” in the description is understood and therefore redundant. (Do you still say “World Wide” before saying “Web”? Hyper before link?)

More disturbing is the use by product vendors who are selling “social media” as a tool, product, technology or platform. (And yes, I include myself in this list.)

I just returned from the annual meeting of the American Society of Association Executives, a gigantic convention of people who run some of the best known trade and service organizations in the country. Like SXSW, the ASAE conference has dozens of break-out sessions (their’s are called training labs). And like SXSW, more-and-more of the sessions were about “social media this” and “social media that.”

In the exhibit hall, “social media products” and “social media platforms” and “social media technology” and “social media services” were being pitched and sold (including, by us).

If I didn’t know what “social media” is — really is — going in, I’m sure I would be coming away from the trade show being more confused about social media than ever — when something means everything, it means nothing. (Exception: I thought Charlene Li did a concise job of de-mystifying it in her keynote.)

I fear, however, that in the rush to “do something with ‘social media,'” there are many organizations (companies, associations, non-profits, etc.) that are thinking (wrongly) they can do one of these four things to “do social media”:

Four things that aren’t “social media”:

1. Setting up a page, user-account or anything else on any web service that is “social media” or “social networking.”
2. Purchasing social media platforms and products.
3. Hiring social media experts.
4. Hiring a 22-year-old who knows all about Facebook.

(See: Hype Cycle and Paul Saffo.)

Those, however, are things lots of associations, companies and non-profits currently are “doing about social media.” And like the adoption and hype cycle of almost all transitional technologies, we’ll soon be heading down into a “trough of disillusionment” with “social media” products, technology and services.

Before you start thinking I’m trolling, hear me out: All of those things can, and probably should be, components of a “social media marketing” strategy or program. But I think what’s going on is far bigger than marketing, or even strategies and programs — and certainly bigger than the term “social media.”

There are only 3 things people mean when they use the term social media:

1. The way people take control of their online identity.
2. The way people express themselves online.
3. The way people connect with one-another online.

Anything more about social media is, at best, an explanation of the different ways people can do those things. Or why they do those things. Or the technology enabling new and faster ways of doing those things. Or how those things are blowing up many of the institutions some of us hold onto dearly.

But if you take away the word “online,” social media is what people have done since the dawn of time: We are who we are. We express ourselves. We connect with others.

There’s really nothing new or different about social media — oh, except that online, these things can scale to levels that have the tendency to crush the status quo maintained by those who refuse to adopt them.

Yes, we also may confuse those things off-line and start believing we are what we say or we are who we’re connected to, but we all know the truth when we’re alone by ourselves.

Social media is not stuff. Social media is just you and me having a conversation — and then connecting in ways that are changing the world and every institution in it.

Why do so many people care what Robert Scoble does?

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Robert Scoble is leaving FastCompany.TV , he writes.

While I don’t view many of Robert’s video posts (there are only so many hours in a day), I’m one of the bazillion people who feel as if we’re in a never-ending conversation with him.

I know there are some people from my off-line life (a place I fondly call, the real world) who may not know who Robert is. So, for them, let me quickly explain why so many people with geekish tendencies (including me) care what Robert does.

For my off-line friends, you know how you think I’m “that guy” who was the first person you knew who was using “fill-in-the-blank-web-thing “? Robert Scoble is “that guy” for me.

Robert Scoble is the guy who shows up three times on the results page when you Google the word “Robert .”

Robert Scoble comes closer than anyone I know to being the fictional character novelists and screenwriters attempt to dream up: Truman Burbank or Ed Pekurny or Howard Beale. But Robert is real and less tragic, confused and dramatic than those fictional characters who live out their lives publicly and in realtime.

While he often stirs up controversy and debate and ridicule, his boundless curiosity and optimism keeps his real-time narrative from sinking into the dark hole that fiction writers imagine for those who live their lives in such a public way.

Robert is a blogging celebrity, no doubt.

And just as with other types of celebrities, he’s extremely popular with many who identify with him for his authenticity and his nuanced understanding of what “real” means in the world of always-flowing conversation. On the other hand, as with other types of celebrities, he is a lightening rod for those who despise him primarily for being so damn popular despite what they might enviously view as dilettantism. (Of course, as one of his fans, I admire his ability to ignore his detractors. And as such, I’ll admit that I ignore any legitimate complaints they may have.)

No doubt, some will spin the news that Robert is leaving FastCompany — and its loss of his long-time sponsor Seagate — as a rebuke of Robert. As a “firing.”

I view it as a “cancellation” of one “show” or gig, however.

Robert and a growing number of individuals who have gained a following via the vast array of “media of personal expression” some call “social media” should be thought of (in a positive way, for purposes of analogy) as “talent,” in the way “talent” are those individuals who move from movie-to-movie and show-to-show and publisher-to-publisher and appearance-to-appearance.

They have, at the end of the day, one talent that is more valuable than anything else in whatever niche they are found: the ability to connect with an audience in a unique and inexplicable way that causes those people to reward them in the most precious currency there is today: Time. In this attention-competitive culture in which we work and live, the ability to get people to “spend” some of their time engaged in listening, watching or reading what someone says, is what separates success from failure.

Those of us who aren’t such “talent” can list all the reasons why those who are may *not* be worthy of people’s time, but as long as someone keeps pulling attention, community and conversation towards any direction they head, they will find success.

I can’t wait to hear where Robert is taking us next.

In 2009, why not learn how to hack your own info-flow

I know how obsessed (at Hammock, we call it “passionate“) those trying to keep up with the latest geek news can be. Boy, do I know. But if you’re going be obsessed with tech news, you have no excuse for not using technology and techniques to help you organize the firehose of information you’re obsessed over. (Note: the same technology and techniques work no matter what your passion is, however, I can forgive those whose passions don’t require them to stay online all day from knowing how to hack the info-flow).

However, there are those who believe many people obsessed with tech news don’t actually know how to use things like RSS newsreaders to organize a personal flow of technology news. How else can you explain the desire people have to continuously create what they believe will be the perfect service to aggregate for others a collection of RSS feeds from aggregation services they believe are “the best.” And so, in the images of each of their creators, we get to see more and more aggregations of aggregators — like today’s launch of a new aggregator aggregator, TechFuga.

I’m sure there’s a reason its creators felt there was a need for TechFuga — perhaps they believed that all the other meme-trackers are too bias or limiting or whatever. Again, perhaps they think that anyone who is obsessed with tech news don’t know how to reach out for different points of view by setting up a personal page on PopURLs.com or any of dozens of “start pages.” But for whatever the reason, somewhere along the way to a future world where each one of us could customize our own unique and personal web experience, the creators of TechFuga and dozens of other such services decided people would rather not personalize the web, but have someone like them do it for us.

I appreciate all of the work they’ve done, but no thanks. At least, no thanks on aggregating tech news. Maybe if it were aggregating news about tennis or woodworking — two of my passions for which I haven’t yet “aggregated” any news-flow, but tech news? I’m trying to learn less about the latest fad, not more.
If you want to see an aggregated view of all the tech meme-trackers then try out TechFuga. However, if you actually want to use technology and not just read about it, make it one of your 2009 New Years resolutions to actually set up an RSS newsreader to aggregate what you want.

The only secret of Web 2.0 marketing you’ll ever need

For as long as the term “Web 2.0” has existed, I have resisted using it. My reason? I’ve repeated it often: When a term means anything, it means nothing. And for as long as it has existed, Web 2.0 has meant whatever was trendy during that period of time. The only thing that all those who have used it can agree on is this: Web 2.0 is not like those dot.com startups that tanked back in 2000.

Here’s the only secret
you need to know:
The web is a place where
people with shared passions
form communities
around those passions.

To show you how difficult-to-define the term continues to remain even at the end of 2008, a huge section-heading article appears in the Wall Street Journal (and WSJ.com) today called, “The Secrets of Marketing in a Web 2.0 World.” However, before getting two paragraphs into the story, the writers had to insert this caveat:

“But first, a more basic question: What is Web 2.0, anyway? Essentially, it encompasses the set of tools that allow people to build social and business connections, share information and collaborate on projects online. That includes blogs, wikis, social-networking sites and other online communities, and virtual worlds.

OK. Read back through that and tell me again: Why is there a 2.0 behind the word Web? That’s not Web 2.0. That’s the Web. There was a time when I would have continued this rant and pointed out that everything that is in that definition was around long before many of those words we now use to describe them were first uttered.

However, I’ve stopped that type of rant. Why? Well, one is simply a marketing decision. At Hammock Inc. my colleagues and I are in the business of helping clients build stronger relationships with their members and customers. We help our clients use traditional media like magazines and new media like everything mentioned in the Wall Street Journal’s list. We help clients understand blogs and build wikis and online communities and share information.

If potential clients would like to call these things Web 2.0, then I’m happy to call them that, also. If they want to call them social media, that’s fine also. If they want to say social networking or, my favorite, conversational media, then any of those work for me. If they want to call them, “all that crazy stuff on the web,” then ditto.

In other words, if the Wall Street Journal wants to write a giant story about the need for companies to get a clue about Web 2.0 marketing, I’m here to say that I run a company that is in the business of helping marketers do just that. Call me. Let’s talk.

However, my real point is this: It’s not about the tools nor is it about any “secrets” that are listed in the Wall Street Journal today. All of these technologies are merely platforms where people — real live human beings — can express themselves in all of the nuanced and chaotic ways we do in the real world. But today, we can all do it with thousands more people in real-time.

The only thing different today is that these platforms and networks of expression, knowledge and connections take away the comfortable myth marketers used to have that customers are not people, but metrics with names like reach, frequency, eyeballs, click-throughs, ratings points, etc. Communicating with real people who have a platform is not something one used to learn in college (they do now, but not in the classroom) or on-the-job. It’s scary for the kind of people who read the Wall Street Journal.

Here’s something I know as a fact: You’ll never learn the secrets of Web 2.0 marketing by reading an article. Or a web post. Or a thousand articles and web posts. Of course, you know that. Because you know that you can’t learn how to drive a tee shot like Tiger Woods by reading a thousand articles.

The web — and all those things the WSJ today calls Web 2.0 marketing — are about a place you cannot learn by reading, researching, analyzing or lurking. You’ve got to go live there. You’ve got to participate. You’ve got to try and be willing to fail. You’ve got to learn how to talk without using metrics.

The web is a place where people with passions form communities around those passions.

Don’t think you’re going to impress them by creating your own communities. Go live there, among their communities.

That’s the secret. Now go drive a tee-shot.

Web 2.0 Bust arrives — finally. Say goodbye and get to work on the next great thing.

[Note: This post is generating a little more traffic than normal, so I need to encourage you to actually read what this post says, before reacting to the subject line. I remain a true-believer in many of the actual approaches that the regrettable label Web 2.0 is hung upon. But I think the label Web 2.0 and the “gold rush” mentality it has spawned is long overdue for a correction.]

I am lucky.

I became a blogger in 2000, early enough to remember when blogging and bloggers were a small group of people who were passionate about the phenomena and dynamics of online community and personal expression and conversational media and the technologies that underpin them. Back then, “social media” was not a business. Indeed, back then — and I’m an expert on this topic — venture capitalists wanted nothing to do with anything new that had something to do with “content” or “community” on the Internet. Recall, this was 2000, the year Google introduced Adwords and four years before Google rolled out Adsense, the two juggernauts that slam-dunked (to the tune of about $20 billion in gross revenues this year) the business model proof of concept of search advertising — especially within the context of tightly focused, narrow-niche online communities with plenty of content perfect for “contextual advertising.”

Frankly, it was the “freedom from business model” nature that first drew me to the nascent tech blogging community.

In my case, I was also drawn to bloggers back then because they (we) were not giving up on the web despite the near-deafening drumbeat of news about lay-offs and failures that, from about 2000-2002, made it appear the Internet was about to be unplugged.

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As I mentioned in a post the other day, I call that time the F’d Company era, because of the website that caught the zeitgeist of the period — an online forum where very scared dot.com employees spent a portion of their day speculating what shoe would fall next.

Bloggers, however, were focused on something else. It was all about, “Hey, check this out. This is kinda cool.” It was about discovery and hanging out and talking about how cool it was not to have to spend lots of money on hardware to do stuff that a few months earlier would have cost tens of thousands.

It was a time where the DNA of today’s social networking sites was established: The inclusion of RSS and a bias against anything that is “closed” or “walled” were just two of the foundational concepts codified (figuratively speaking) during those couple of years when the VCs were convinced nothing of true value could come out of all of this goofy blogger stuff.

It took until about 2003 for people to even start attaching the word “business” to “blogging.” In June, 2003, I attended a conference in Boston that claimed then (and the website still exists) to be the first business event for blogs. Click through to that link and you’ll get a sense of the innocence of those times. Yet, as you’d expect, there was lively debate and lots of disagreement. But I can’t recall there being VCs in the audience — but a few were likely there as Blogger.com had been purchased by Google a few months before. (My post-conference post from June 11, 2003.)

Soon, however, blogging and business became intertwined. And money started flowing from VCs to anything with an RSS feed. And then all this cool stuff became something about marketing rather than changing the world. And then, in October, 2004, all the cool things people were doing got an incredibly awful name: Web 2.0, which meant anything, so therefore meant — and still means — nothing. And then everything once more (in Web 1.0 fashion) began to be about startups and VCs and debates about whether or not one is worthy of being taken seriously if they live outside a 30-mile radius of Sand Hill Road.

And then in June, 2005, it got a Bible: TechCrunch, a medium so powerful that web developers soon began to equate success with getting mentioned by it — and for good reason as more and more VCs who had no idea what was going on began to use TechCrunch as a filter for finding new ideas.

One more thing happened in June, 2005, that put those collective things called Web 2.0 into the mainstream: Apple — recognizing they had been handed a billion dollar branding present and endless free content for potential purchasers of iPods people thought they needed to retrieve, store and play them — began to incorporate podcasts into the iTunes platform. In other words, they turned iTunes into the equivalent of an RSS newsreader for audio files.

Within a couple of years, South by Southwest Interactive went from being a conference where a few hundred people discussed CSS compliance issues to a mega-convention where several thousands of people attend sessions where accountants discuss IRS compliance issues. (Okay, that was a joke. In addition to the “surprise, you’re an accidental entrepreneur” sessions, SxSW still draws lots of purist geeks who wouldn’t be caught dead at an event where ideas are pitched to VCs — unless in a parody fashion.)

The upside of the end of Web 2.0

Fortunately, the Web 2.0 Bust isn’t technically a financial market bust in the way the dot.com bust was, or the way the stock market is. The 2001-02 dot.com bust was a classic market collapse in which widows and orphans lost money on a wide array of publicly traded, but vaporous, companies that had imaginary revenues, or none — nada, zilch. (Unfortunately, widows and orphans have now lost all their money in conservative, safe investments, like real estate and bank stocks.)

The only people losing money in the Web 2.0 Bust are VCs and angel investors and individuals who have poured heart and soul and savings (and friends and family savings) and credit-card debt into starting the 20th knockoff iteration of Facebook they hoped would be mentioned on TechCrunch.

More importantly, Web 2.0 Bust will result in many good things: It will once more convince a lot of smart young people that they should pursue careers in other fields — that they should take their incredibly smart minds and find cures for cancer and develop alternative fuels and teach math to inner-city children.

Advice to journalists and bloggers: Don’t be F’d Company 2.0

During the past year, I’ve sorta drifted away from reading TechCrunch and its many imitators. I still subscribe to the feed of Techmeme, but feel certain that will also end if it becomes a Chinese torture drill of drip-drip-drip daily stories whenever a small company lays off a few employees.

Over the next few months — and longer — the easy thing for tech bloggers and journalists to write about will be business retrenchments and failures. Believe me, there will be plenty of layoffs and closings.

But that’s not going to take you anywhere. It’s not what your advertisers want. It’s not what your readers are interested in. Among your readers, there are those who still believe that we’re still in the midst of something that will change the world. That opportunities still exist. The discoveries have not yet been made.

There are still those who believe that hunkering down only makes you equivalent to the traditional media you were supposed to replace.

Cool new technology and creative web ideas are not going away. People are still doing cooler stuff than you can imagine.

Web 2.0 may be busted. But Cool 2.0 is just getting started.

What is Cool 2.0?

I’m not sure. But I feel certain it can’t be explained in less than 140 characters.

Bonus links:

Dare Obasanjo “TechCrunch Turns into F’dCompany 2.0” – Another observation regarding how sad it is that TechCrunch is serving up a steady diet of schadenfreude.

Louis Gray: “The Valley’s Proponents Become Its Critics in Hard Times” – I’m thinking the same thing Louis is thinking.