One of the most interesting threads of 2009 sort of blew up this past week over at Marc Davison’s place when he posted a heartfelt mea culpa about his past cynicism about social media. Various heavy-hitter commenters came by and a full blown debate erupted. Oh, it’s good stuff!
But there was one topic within those dozens of comments that I think deserves a bit more examination, and as I don’t want to hijack Marc’s thread, I thought I’d talk about it here on Notorious.
I’ll admit to starting it, since I asked in the comments:
I’m extremely torn on this “reason to provide courses and education” on Social Media… since the core essence of social media is to be yourself. You need lessons for that?
And Bill Lublin of SMMI (who incidentally personifies the word mensch) responded:
@Rob: People can always benefit from training that teaches them how to more clearly communicate – too many messages don’t have the intended impact or result – and that’s part of what our training does. We spend a really long time on some theory because we believe that while McLuhan was right about the medium being the message, the medium is not the purpose – the message is, and working on how to deliver the message better is important. You’re an amazingly articulate man, and perhaps from that perspective its hard to realize how much goes unsaid, or is misspoken by well intentioned people. Because of the differences in the “psychological bandwidth” of the various SM tools, it gets even a little more complicated and frankly there are a huge number of people that create unintended consequences. I agree with you that a lot of SM information is not applicable to every situation but that doesn’t dismiss the need for people to reach a level of ‘conscious competency’ in their SM interactions so that the response they actually engender is the response they intended. But so far, our students have responded really well to the course material and presentation – and as I said earlier in this too lengthy response, I think it makes them better at communicating outside SM as well. [Emphasis mine]
Bill always makes me think, which may be a dangerous thing actually…, but it’s a good thing. And here’s where my thinking leads me.
Social Media: USENET or Media?
I have written in the past about social media, and my personal beliefs about what it is, and that thinking has evolved over time as well without changing any of the original beliefs. As I see it, social media is merely the latest iteration of “networked communications” that Cluetrain Manifesto first talked about. Here is Cluetrain on the origin of the Web itself:
Well, OK, a few things did happen in between. One of those things was that the Internet attracted millions. Many millions. The interesting question to ask is why. In the early 1990s, there was nothing like the Internet we take for granted today. Back then, the Net was primitive, daunting, uninviting. So what did we come for? And the answer is: each other.
The Internet became a place where people could talk to other people without constraint. Without filters or censorship or official sanction — and perhaps most significantly, without advertising. Another, noncommercial culture began forming across this out-of-the-way collection of computer networks. Long before graphical user interfaces made the scene, the scene was populated by plain old boring ASCII: green phosphor text scrolling up screens at the glacial pace afforded by early modems. So where was the attraction in that?
The attraction was in speech, however mediated. In people talking, however slowly. And mostly, the attraction lay in the kinds of things they were saying. Never in history had so many had the chance to know what so many others were thinking on such a wide range of subjects. Slowly at first, a new kind of conversation was beginning to emerge, but it would achieve global reach with astonishing speed.
The quiet revolution that was not televised when the Internet took hold was a fundamental shift in distribution of knowledge and information from one-to-many to a many-to-many model. Veterans of the Web saw this back in the green phosphor days on Usenet newsgroups, on IRC, on BBS’s. Facebook and Twitter haven’t changed that. Slick iPhone apps haven’t changed the essence of networked communications.
There is, however, an alternate vision of social media — one that focuses on the second word in that name: media. This vision does not trace social media to the days of Usenet and bulletin boards, but to previous technological advances in media. What predates Facebook is Television, and what predates Television is Radio, and the printing press before that, all the way back to smoke signals I suppose. The idea then, is that new technology requires new talents and skills. What worked on radio does not work on television: the Nixon-Kennedy debates proved that decisively. The skills of the newspaperman does not translate to radio disc jockey. And the marketing skills of the pre-Internet days are not adequate to social media.
One has to make a choice here. Either one believes that social media is the latest iteration of networked conversation a la Cluetrain, or one believes that social media is the latest marketing channel like television before it, radio before that, and newspapers before that. You cannot have it both ways.
On Training and Education
My question about needing lessons on social media comes from the background of believing that social media is Usenet in a different form. Because every semi-adult human being converses all the time with other human beings. Watching my four year old constantly ask me questions, or constantly pipe in to talk about how cool is Spiderman shoes are, even when his mom and I are trying to have a conversation, I am really struck by how fundamental this need to talk to other people is.
In my worldview on social media, a social media training session would last a maximum of five seconds: “Just be yourself.” The rest of it is learning the tools — the technical details of WordPress, of Facebook, of Twitter. In this worldview, if the social media stuff that you’re doing is making you look bad… then the problem isn’t with your messaging — it’s with you. I’ve become rather fond of saying “social media isn’t what you do, but what’s done to you” because more and more, I believe that the truth of a product, of a service, of a person shines through in the end.
In the mediacentric worldview, however, extensive training and education — coupled to natural talent — are necessary. Nowhere is this more evident than in our dying journalism industry as reporters and editors struggle to adapt to a medium that doesn’t obey the rules they learned and grew up with. In that worldview, one might have to go to school for years to learn how to do social media properly. Messages have to be tailored to Twitter; a refined voice has to be found for blogs; just the right note of seeming personal without actually being yourself has to be struck.
Bill appears to embrace this latter worldview, because his focus (and the focus of SMMI) is on the message. He speaks of desired impact or result, and working on how to deliver the message. It makes sense since SMMI is the Social Media Marketing Institute, and marketing is essentially concerned with shaping an image, shaping a brand, shaping a message, to drive sales and revenues. Another way to look at it, I suppose, is to call SMMI the Social Media Marketing Institute.
Note that I am not knocking marketing — hell, I make my living doing marketing and advising other folks on how to do marketing. I <3 marketing. 🙂 But the different worldviews result in vastly different focus. To use the 4-P’s of marketing, I believe that social media (as a new USENET) emphasizes Product; Bill and SMMI emphasizes, I think, Promotion. Both, of course, as marketing, are subject to evaluation, to demands of showing ROI.
The Challenge of Metrics
The proof will always be in the results. So let us take for granted that social media education and training is extremely valuable and useful, that it helps people who don’t understand the particulars of the medium to adapt their messaging to it.
There should, then, be a measurable difference between the Before and After.
Social media training, according to Bill, should lead to ‘conscious competency’. Okay, how shall we measure the result and impact?
Say I’m a newbie, and my messaging sucks ass; I’m throwing up blogposts and tweets left and right that are doing me real harm. How should we measure such harm? I now go take the SMMI course (or some other social media training course). How is the improvement, the conscious competency, to be measured? Is it in “engagement” metrics of Facebook friends, followers on Twitter, or readers of the blog?
In other words, what is the difference between someone who has gone through social media training and someone who has not? Is that difference meaningful in a business sense (higher revenues or lower costs)? How will we know?
In my worldview, being yourself in a networked environment, putting yourself (or your product/service) out there warts and all, and engaging in meaningful conversation should lead to an improvement in the Product. There is no attempt to massage the message, no attempt to shape opinion — more of a Show and Tell, followed by Listen and Fix. That’s what I would measure: Is the product superior today compared to yesterday because of social media? Can we support that improvement via sales or cost efficiency? I say yes to both.
For the mediacentric worldview, I’d like to know how we might evaluate the effectiveness of the message formation, messaging techniques, and the like. That would tell us how to evaluate the effectiveness of social media training and education.