27 October 2009

Hypocritical Mass: The Big Lie About Twitter

by Freddy Tran Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + Social Media Instructor…

He was fine until he started to use Twitter... (illustration by Andre Koehn, from Wikimedia Commons)

He was fine until he started to use Twitter… (illustration by Andre Koehn, from Wikimedia Commons)

The belief that Twitter is more than just another communication platform continues to spread, kind of like swine flu for media geeks. And like the flu, it’s plunging victims into feverish hallucinations: “Twitter saved the Iranian protestors!” they cry, neglecting the fact that it, uh, didn’t. “Twitter made the Kogi Korean BBQ Taco Truck a sensation!” Yay, a fast-food truck makes money. “Twitter kept us updated about Balloon Boy in real time!”

Oh, waiter, next media fad, please!

OK, I confess, I’m being harsh here because, well, Twitter is so easy to pick on. How often do you get to rip on a company valued at $1 billion even though it doesn’t have a revenue model? If it weren’t for all the hype, I might actually love Twitter.

But there’s one aspect of Twitter culture — not Twitter itself, but the culture that has bubbled up around it — that bugs me on the same level as spam, lipsynching by millionaire popstars, and phony executive quotations in press releases (“I’m proud to announce that I’m pleased with the results confirming that we’re on the right track on a go forward basis”)…

Fake following.

Self-proclaimed social media experts tell us that social media is different from traditional mass media — even superior — because it’s about building relationships. And, yet, Twitter’s most successful users are currently “following” thousands of people. That’s freakin’ amazing. How can I not be impressed by this? I can barely follow a couple hundred. Seriously, being able to manage over 1,000 concurrent relationships should score you a recurring spot on “Heroes.”

For some people, Twitter has become one big hysterical numbers game, where it’s not the quality of interactions that matters, but the quantity of their followers. Apparently, he who dies with the most followers wins. And you know who the biggest perpetrators of this numbers game are?

The self-proclaimed social media experts.

Story Time: The Cocktail Party…

Recently, I wrote a blog post in which I compared social media to a cocktail party:

“People are there to socialize, to share thoughts and opinions and funny cat videos. They’re there to meet new people and to promote themselves. They’re not there to shop… If you crash a party and start shouting, ‘Hey, buddy, you want to buy this?’ you already know what kind of reaction you’ll get.”

A few weeks later, another blog also compared social media to a cocktail party, with the same bit about people conversing and sales pitches scaring them off. So, OK, it’s a big world, and coincidences happen. As I was later informed by the article’s writer, the cocktail party/social media analogy isn’t anything new, probably because it’s so obvious.

But here’s what got my spider-sense tingling: This writer wasn’t some stranger in the vast reaches of the blogosphere. He was someone I knew personally. I had guest-blogged for him earlier. And — you know what’s coming — he was one of my followers on Twitter, where I promote my blog.

I started salivating at the forthcoming debate. (Someone, get me a distemper shot.)

So I confronted him about it, and he denied even knowing about my post, least of all reading it. I believed him. He’s always been a nice guy, and does great work for charity. So I let that be and apologized for suspecting anything untoward. Then he said something that sent me off on a completely different mouth-foaming tangent: he didn’t even know he was following me on Twitter.

And this guy advises others on how to use social media for a living.

Call it Faux-cial Media….

“I follow 6,000+ people on Twitter,” he wrote me in an email. “Unless someone is talking directly to me or about me or I happen to be online at the very moment they tweet — the odds of me seeing anything are pretty remote. It’s just too much noise to sift through.”

This is the same guy who wrote in his cocktail party blog: “If you want to be a part of a community or build a community — you do it online just like you’d do it offline. You mix and mingle. You share what you have — interest, expertise, connections, and your attention.” Except in his case, his attention is divided over 6,000+ people that produce “just too much noise” for him.

I told him that didn’t sound like a cocktail party to me.

He responded, “But it’s a huge cocktail party. And as much as you’d like — you can’t talk to everyone, you can’t listen in on every conversation. You can mix and mingle the best you can, but you’re only going to scratch the surface.”

So basically, I said, your cocktail party is open to the public, and you don’t even know who’s in your house. You claim to “follow” your guests, but when someone later says, “Hey, you’re using the same ideas I told you at the party,” you reply, “Dude, I didn’t even know you were there.” How is that social media?

His response to this:

“I think it is an issue of volume…not disconnection. I can’t control who follows me on Twitter, other than to block those that are offensive. So yes, I guess it is open to the public, much like FriendFeed is. People subscribe to me…and create that base of listeners. I think it’s courteous to follow them back. I use twitter to share resources, to connect with friends and colleagues (and readers I have not met) in @messages and DM messages… I also use it to search for topics and follow up with people, usually in a DM conversation. But, to respond to or track what a few thousand people are saying….for me personally would be impossible. But…the bigger issue — how does someone manage the volume of noise/communication is a worthy one. Lots of people have kicked it around but I don’t think there is any one right answer. If you have it all figured out and manage it all without anything slipping through the cracks, I applaud you. I don’t have it that well tooled.”

Ah, but there is an easy and obvious way to manage it all: don’t follow 6,000+ people. Period.

Auto-following is NOT being “courteous”; it’s LYING about having an interest in others — particularly if you don’t have a clue who you’re following. And if you’re a social media advisor telling people that Twitter is all about paying attention and building relationships, following others without even knowing that you’re doing so is hypocrisy at its finest.

Again, he defended himself:

“If I only followed a couple hundred people (and if only a couple hundred followed me) I would not be able to contribute as significantly to projects… which have raised over $25K for charity.”

That’s a completely fair and noble point, and I commended him for using Twitter for a worthy cause. But just because one can make money or promote a cause on Twitter doesn’t make it “social”; it makes it just another marketing platform, as the spammers who infest Twitter would readily agree.

What’s more, occasionally communicating with people through direct messages isn’t “social”: that’s business as usual.

Web 2.0verrated…

The social media experts have concocted this myth that, until Web 2.0, businesses spent thousands of years in hermetically sealed cocoons, spitting out products blindly, not knowing or caring who consumed them, and ignoring messages from customers.

Veteran marketer Ron Shevlin noted this about companies socially interacting with customers:

“…for years, firms have been ‘listening to customers’ (market research is hardly a new field), ‘offering their knowledge’ (plenty of salespeople in stores and in call centers have helped me make product decisions), and providing ‘interesting content’ (I’ve received excellent newsletters from Vanguard and Fidelity for years).”

Indeed, once upon a time, a business person would occasionally have to play golf with prospective clients. These days, I guess it’s OK just to occasionally DM them.

Despite all the bluster, Web 2.0 simply introduced different ways for businesses and customers to interact. Indeed, I would argue that social media has made communicating with corporations more difficult than ever since it’s created “just too much noise to sift through.” For example, I had to use old-fashioned email to get this social media expert’s attention, since he didn’t respond to my tweets.

Back in the days of yore, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and the Web didn’t exist, I used to contact corporations by snail mail and phone — and I almost always got responses. Now, thanks to social media, corporations have to either hire several (or even hundreds) of customer service/social media reps, or they have to avoid customer contact as much as possible. Even the Web 2.0 sites have to do this: quick, try to find a phone number or even an email address for customer service at Facebook or WordPress. Be sure to bring a snack — it might take a while.

Mass Movement…

Those most successful at using Twitter to promote themselves have learned that the “social” part is unwieldy. Because it’s impossible to track or respond to the tweets of thousands of people, the emerging “best practice” is to treat Twitter as a traditional mass medium. Got 6,000+ followers? No problem. Occasionally talk to a few to show that you’re paying attention. This will also serve to excite your other followers into thinking that they, too, might be able to interact with your holiness. But most of the time, issue one-way statements about your views, your relationships with other famous people, your special offers, and where your fans can check out your latest books and articles. Sound familiar? Yeah, it’s called talk radio.

In other words, for all its social features, Twitter is simply the hottest thing to hit broadcasting since Howard Stern.

Now, let’s be honest here: using Twitter as a broadcasting tool is perfectly cool if it serves your business goals or raises awareness of a worthy cause. Who says you have to be social on social media? Oh, right, the social media experts do…

I contend that the word “follow” has lost all meaning except to new Twitter users, and that “auto-following” is an oxymoron that’s worse than not following at all — it’s the big lie practiced by some of Twitter’s biggest users. The Twitter consultants can write all the didactic articles they want on how to use social media properly, but if they don’t even know who they themselves are following, they’re no different from a multinational bank, government bureaucracy, or other institution that treats its customers as numbers. Such cold impersonal treatment is unfortunate but expected from a giant corporation; it’s abhorrent when it comes from a social media advisor.

So beware of any social media expert who claims to follow thousands of people. And if your social media consultant has his Twitter account set on auto-follow, it’s time to get a new consultant. As much as they claim to be on the cutting edge of communications, they’re just traditional marketers feeding you a bunch of lines, 140 characters at a time.

Update 7/8/2013: Twitter FINALLY gets rid of the auto-follow function.

Related Articles:
Words of, uh, Wisdom: How to Score More Twitter Followers
Not Weird Science: Social Media in One Word
The Authenticity Movement: A Totally Bogus Journey


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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

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