It's all social. Is it really?

4 February 2009

On the eve of Facebook's fifth birthday, it must have sounded like a great slogan: "All media is social and all social is media". This nugget, will apparently turn up in an Edelman white paper but was trailed on Steve Rubel's blog yesterday.

Other than the fact that the phrase is nonsense - noun meet adjective, adjective meet noun - only one half of Steve Rubel's assertion is even vaguely true. "Media is social": I can buy that, although if you talk about media consumption, then it's still possible to make distinctions between what is social - things that people remark to each other on - and stuff they just consume. But so much of what makes a story, video or podcast successful lies in the social web that forms around it. Rubel argues:

"We've seen time and again that social networks like Facebook, Friendfeed and Twitter are now essential sources of news and information for millions. This is particularly true around big events and breaking news.

The upshot is that today it's impossible to draw a line between social media and traditional media - it's all one.

When we get to the other half of Rubel's assertion, it all goes pear-shaped. "Social is media"? George Orwell would have loved that one. Social what? Social interaction? It's a classic ploy from the school of rhetoric. To make sense of the phrase, you have to make an assumption, which allows the creator of the phrase to turn round and claim: "You are Teh Stupid. You have misunderstood me."

Whatever it's really meant to say, the phrase underlines the continuing assumption among marketing types that no part of life is free from the promotional campaign. Weddings are social events but nobody expects the visitors to start recommending brands of nappy. Amway, Herbalife and Tupperware - they all tried the social sell but few have been willing to emulate them. They function more as reminders of how the introduction of commerce into social circles can disrupt how people view each other.

It's interesting how social marketers rarely refer to these pre-Web 2.0 word-of-mouth marketing schemes. Facebook's Beacon didn't learn these lessons. There would always be people who would happily sign up to it because they were fans of brands, of films, of products. But the majority were always going to be uncomfortable with the idea of being used as advocates for brands.

Even within a social network such as Twitter, there are fine distinctions between what people treat as personal and what might legitimately be seen as media. But there are no codes to separate these messages, just the context in which they appear. Social-media marketers will continue to step into bear traps until they lose their obsession with media and begin to comprehend the fine separation between public faces and their closer relationships.