Why Marketing Threatens the True Promise of Social Media - 01/07/2011

Why Marketing Threatens the True Promise of Social Media

Douglas Rushkoffis the author of Life Inc: How Corporatism Conquered the World and How We Can Take It Back, out this week in paperback from RandomHouse, as well as Program or Be Programmedfrom ORBooks. Follow him on Twitterand Facebook.

Social media is everywhere, and it is finally accepted as much as, well, as much as the Internet (itself. Sadly, though, in reaching this level of ubiquity, we have ended up surrendering the real promise of this medium.

I fought for so many years to convince people that the Net was a social medium in the first place. Until recently, everybody seemed to believe that "content is king,” and that all this messy socializing between people was of little value. It was all about getting people onto a sticky website so they’d make purchases. Their conversations and innermost thoughts were once considered utterly un-monetizable.

But thanks to Twitter, YouTubeand Facebook, social media has arrived as a justifiable expense for businesses looking to do whatever it is that’s intended to replace advertising. And as a result, people who should know better -– many of us who have some understanding of how social media actually works –- are busy working for companies who want to turn this social landscape back into a marketplace.

This isn’t about pointing fingers or laying blame. It’s about stopping ourselves before it is too late. We still have a chance for social media to generate the biggest change in how culture and commerce operate since the invention of the printing press. But it will require that we recognize what is so special about it, how it disrupts the status quo, and why it’d be such a shame to give all this up without a fight.

A Historic Opportunity

The most disruptive feature of social media is that it allows us to connect with one another relatively directly. (Even Facebook’s architecture of central servers is completely unnecessary for social networking to occur, as new tools like Diasporaare quickly demonstrating.) The direct connection via media –- for socializing, or even for commerce — has been controlled by both governments and businesses for the past 600 years. That’s right: This is our best opportunity in six centuries to connect with our peers via technology without the oversight of powerful interests.

After the fall of the Roman Republic, Europeans spent close to a thousand years living under the awful oppression of feudalism. There were lords who owned all the land and peasants who worked on it.

Nothing much happened until merchants started traveling around and spreading the innovations from one area to another. People became good at particular crafts and started selling things to one another, developing little marketplaces that slowly grew in size. Towns developed their own currencies based on grain and other commodities, and people started to get rich.

They had liberated themselves from absolute dependence on the landowners and created a peer-to-peer economy. They got healthy, bigger than at any time in history until the 1980s, and they worked less than four days a week. As a result of the rise of this new "bourgeoisie,” the lords had less power and money. They decided to crash this new economy.

Local moneys were declared illegal; people had to borrow "coin of the realm” from the central treasury. And if that wasn’t enough, local business was also stifled. Instead of working for themselves, people had to become "employees” of one of the king’s officially sanctioned monopolies — what we would today consider "corporations.” People got poor, conditions got worse, the plague broke out … you know the rest. We call it the Renaissance, but it was really the end of a peer-to-peer culture and economy that has never been matched. Until now.

The Potential for True Peer-to-Peer Culture

With the web — and more specifically, with social media — we have the chance to engage with one another in the ways that could restore a P2P society in which people create and exchange value directly with one another. Instead of depending on corporations for jobs, goods, and even investment, we can work for and with one another. Instead of relating indirectly through centrally constructed mythologies and brands (you’re a fan of Nike, too?!) we can relate directly with one another.

The real possibilities of social media, however, are quickly devolving to the limited applications of social marketing. In the past 20 years, I watched open source get reduced to the corporate-friendly concept of "crowd sourcing,” and my own concept of "viral media” get watered down to "viral marketing.” I refuse to watch the social promise of interactive media get redefined by those hoping to make a fast buck off our Facebook friendships. Not without a fight.

Instead of connecting to one another, we are increasingly connected to and friended by the same old brands and institutions that the Internet once stood a chance of upending. And worst of all, we the people are getting into the act, learning to sell our friends to the highest bidder. Whether it’s a Zynga game inviting us to turn over our address books for points, or an advertiser offering us a chance to win a prize for "friending” them publicly, we are now in the business of marketing our friendships to those who hope to exploit the bonds we have created with others. In doing so, we reduce the real value of those bonds, as well as the entire potential for peer-to-peer connection.


The real opportunity of social networking looks a lot more like Burning Man and WikiLeaks than it does like P&G’s word-of-mouth campaign or whatever Twitter is hatching in its new analytics lab.

We are building the social organism together. That’s all the Internet has been doing from the beginning. But it seems as soon as we develop a new tool or strand of connectivity, it is hijacked by business, robbed of its power, and then replaced by mechanisms that connect us to things, rather than people.

Will social networking finally accomplish the Internet’s real goal? We have yet to see. But in the meantime, how we use it — and what we think it to be — will go a long way toward determining its fate.


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