Social Media’s Reality Distortion Field


With special thanks to Arment Dietrich. A version of this post appeared on the Spin Sucks blog Feb. 21, 2011.

The discussion thread on last month’s “Why Brogan’s Bigger Ear Marketing Is Wrong” Spin Sucks post got me wondering whether the social media industry operates within a self-generated reality distortion field.

As Gini wrote in that post, Brogan “extols wisdom about using Twitter and Foursquare searches to find people who are in bookstores. When found, he suggests tweeting those people to see if they can find your book in the store. And hence, a conversation is born.”

Brogan framed his experiment as an orthodox social media “listening” exercise, but how was it materially different from unsolicited, cold-call telemarketing – or the virtual version of a department store perfume spritzer? To me it seemed like garden variety marketing without the social. Yet many of the comments were deferential and affirming.

As I thought about it further, I began looking back at some of the foundational manifestos of the social media movement. The dust jacket copy for Joseph Jaffe’s 2007 Join the Conversation declared, “Today, every person sees thousands of advertisements a day – and totally ignores the vast majority of them. Yet, companies still spend billions of dollars each year yelling at customers who don’t want to hear it.”

Replace the word “advertisements” with “social media messages” and you’d have the preface for an updated 2011 edition. Except now Jaffe advises companies to “flip” the traditional sales funnel, effectively converting social media into a megaphone for a small group of influential current customers to yell at potential customers.

Citing startling findings in the new “Social Break-Up” research from ExactTarget and CoTweet, Jay Baer recently observed that “Regardless of platform, receiving too many messages from too many marketers is a very likely cause of subsequent break-ups, throwing dead weight over the side of the social and email ship until it floats again.”

User-generated or big brand-driven, yelling is yelling. Has marketing simply evolved from an impersonal, relentless, ubiquitous loudmouth into a well-intentioned, relentless, ubiquitous loudmouth with better people skills?Consider how fundamental social media doctrines like “conversation,” “community,” “listening” and “engagement” — once so fresh and empowering – are currently practiced:

  • Conversation = Automated feedback requests, and corporate blogs and Facebook pages that read like press releases
  • Community = Affinity groups of deal seekers and sweepstakes enthusiasts
  • Listening = Market research
  • Engagement = Recruiting and rewarding key influencers as brand claques

Reality Check

Thought leaders and practitioners genuinely believe they’re upholding the original underpinnings of social media marketing – human, trust-based, relational. Yet current practice is also forthrightly commercial – operationalized, ROI-driven, transactional. That inherent tension is not the problem, though. Complacency is the real threat: the belief that gimlet-eyed self-interest will not take root with consumers, and they will continue to contribute their insights, recommendations, credibility and loyalty to companies for free.I can imagine a tipping point where customers stop participating in surveys and ratings, and start asking marketers, “If my opinion is truly valuable to you, what’s it worth? And it better be more than a sweepstakes entry.”

That might never happen. But will we be prepared if it does? 


  1. Great. Now I not only want to say, “Hello. I’m Johnny Cash” when I get up to a microphone, but now have this stuck in my head.

  2. shatterboxvox says:

    I always think of you with a song on your lips. Never thought it would be this one 🙂

    I hope you enjoyed your visit to my humble blog 🙂

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