Right up front I should say that I think I'm suffering from bubble fatigue. I entered the workforce just before the dotcom bubble went bust. Since then, it seems as though bubbles have dominated much of my adult life. If I'm not hearing about a bubble that just burst, I'm wondering if we're in the middle of some bubble that's about to burst. And yet for all this talk of bubbles, there seems to be no talk of a bubble for bubbles.
I mention this because I was a little wary when an editor at iMedia asked me to write about the possibility of a social media bubble. In March, Umair Haque had written a blog post in the Harvard Business Review hypothesizing that we were indeed in the middle of a social media bubble. (Depending on your definition, blogs can be considered social media, but that irony wasn't mentioned in the post.)
At first, I thought Haque's argument was rather silly. After all, in May Nielsen reported that three out of four U.S. households with internet access logged on to social networks. But as I began reading, I couldn't stop thinking about my Facebook page, and Haque's argument that social networks offered a lot of rather "thin" relationships.
A year ago, I couldn't get enough of Facebook. I referred to it as my morning Facebook, as in my morning paper. It was the first site I checked every day, and it was a pretty awesome news report on the people I cared about most. But then something changed. I'm not sure when or why, but the more interesting people in my social network stopped posting as often. Real life friends, who overlapped but had their own social networks, made similar observations around the same time.
Increasingly, the interesting updates were replaced with a growing stream of cryptic -- and at times -- nonsensical messages. Sadly, that trend has continued. I still check Facebook, but when I do, I wonder why I bother. The value of Facebook -- for me anyway -- has gone down over the last year. And that's what got me thinking that Haque might have a point, or at the very least, that his argument was worth exploring with some of the people who live and work inside that so-called social media bubble.
While many people had their own conclusions about whether there is indeed a social media bubble (it was more or less a 50/50 split), just the mere mention of the bubble prompted some rather interesting -- and candid -- responses. I'll leave you to draw your own conclusion about whether we're truly in a bubble (and if you're feeling really social, by all means share those conclusions with the class in the comments section). For now, I'd like to share some of the responses to Haque's post, as I believe they highlight some of the more interesting issues currently facing social media.
Here's a sign there might be a bubble. While the economy is still weak and job prospects for recent college grads aren't what they once were, there's a lot of opportunity out there for millennials with social media savvy.
I see this all the time. On a regular basis, I get pitches from PR folks who are just dying to put me in touch with a "young genius" at an agency they represent. Invariably, that "genius," "guru," or "ninja" has taken over that agency's social media division by reinventing the wheel. These gurus are everywhere, even at a time when companies are said to be 100 percent sober when it comes to hiring decisions. In other words, there's a feeling that something irrational is going on in the labor market for social media specialists.
"The quality of the social media workforce is a direct reflection on the hiring managers, who in many cases have no idea what skills are needed for this emerging role," says Angela Connor, social media manager at Capstrat. "When the role isn't clearly understood or well-defined, hiring mistakes are unavoidable. There's a growing list of people with titles like social media strategist who have never developed any kinds of strategies in their entire career. They know enough about social media to talk themselves into a position that has no real objectives or success metrics and three months in, everyone is miserable."
According to Connor, a big part of what's driving social media to staff up with a less-than-qualified workforce is the misguided belief that millennials are somehow social media ninjas by birth. The result, Connor says, is that agencies and brands place more responsibility in the hands of their interns than they should.
But Connor isn't fully convinced that blind faith in millennials means there's a bubble. Or, at least, she's not fully convinced that the bubble will burst with devastating effect. According to Connor, the first generation of social media workers (those who began working in the field when nobody was talking about social media) are moving up in the world, and that's a good thing. "If these individuals stay true to what they know, maintain a high-level view of both social media and its potential, and continue to be students of the craft, they will set the bar high and make a real difference," Connor says.
I've stepped in deeper puddles
In simple terms, a bubble just means that we overvalue something. Sometimes that thing we overvalue has no real value at all, and sometimes it's wonderfully valuable and a victim of too much hype. It's the latter that probably best describes the way we presently view social media relationships, if indeed there's a bubble at all. That is, those relationships do matter, but probably not as much as we think. Or, put another way, we value them with a universally high appraisal while failing to dig deeper and realize that not all social media relationships are 1) the same and 2) worth very much.
"Social media is amazing for starting relationships and sufficient at basic relationships maintenance," says Mario Schulzke, senior director, digital strategy, at WONGDOODY. "The problem is that people only have a finite amount of time. And many people are now investing that time to a) establish a large number of relationships and then b) maintaining those at a pretty shallow level."
While Schulzke's point is easily applied to interpersonal relationships, it has important implications for advertisers as well. For one thing, charting the social graph (something Facebook prides itself on) isn't going to be a very effective tool for leveraging word-of-mouth if those mouths aren't as connected as advertisers hope. But when it comes to valuing a brand's friends, there's only a bubble if the brand (or its agency) makes it so, says Jonathan Richman, director of social media at Bridge Worldwide.
"While social media 'relationships' may not have the same level of connection as real-life relationships, they aren't necessarily less valuable, but rather differently valuable," says Richman, who argues that brands are right to assign an economic value to those relationships so long as they don't overpay.
In other words, there's only a bubble if a brand pays too much for its friends. Which means the question of a bubble depends on ROI.
Or, is it really about friends at all?
Friend has become almost synonymous with social media -- and a comparison of the online phenomenon of friending to the real world equivalent often drives some critics to say brands are overvaluing their "friends." But Lori Dicker, CEO of Karma Media Labs, says it's our vocabulary, not our friends, that is failing us here.
"The increase in social channels enables more people to connect with others who have similar interests, knowledge, or passions," Dicker explains. "Because of the increase in opportunities for people to engage, we see more engagement. [Haque] calls this 'relationship inflation,' and says relationships are cheapened, [but] ultimately the relationships are about sharing, and social media provides a conduit for people to connect."
For Dicker, it's not about creating friendships so much as dialogue. So even the notion of measuring the ROI for a brand based on the total number of friends misses the point. Rather, she says, the goal is a robust dialogue between brand and consumer.
If there were a bubble, how would we know?
While it's impossible to tell if you're in a bubble, the idea of looking at the sheer number of "thin" friendships struck Chris Ebbesen, strategy director for imc2, as particularly odd. For Ebbesen, social media mirrors our everyday relationships with one key difference -- it gives us an extremely efficient way to manage and stay in contact with casual acquaintances.
"[Haque] says that social media is producing too many thin relationships," Ebbesen explains. "[But] I theorize that [social media] has only made them quantifiable for the first time. You always had a bunch of thin relationships in life, but they were intangible and out of sight, thus out of mind."
In fact, according to Jim Spinello, SVP for digital services and youth culture at rEvolution, the strength or weakness of a relationship isn't created by social media at all. "The viscosity of the relationship is derived from a formula of trusted sources and mutual interests," Spinello says. "These are easily weeded out or nourished on the web via social media."
In other words, the blowhard I see at every fifth gathering my girlfriend takes me to doesn't mean any more or less to me because we're now "friends" on Facebook. We're casual acquaintances in real life, and we're casual acquaintances on Facebook, too. In the real world, we'd never make plans to hang out independently, and on Facebook, we likely wouldn't either. But on Facebook, there's one key difference: We're more likely to organize around a shared passion because I can choose to get more information on him than I'd likely glean from a quick chat every two months. Of course, there's also the distinct possibility that I'd find his posts annoying, in which case I'd "hide" his updates and put him in a kind of digital penalty box for casual acquaintances.
The P word
But for Patrick Godfrey, founder and managing partner at Godfrey Q and Partners, the privacy debate misses the point slightly.
"Monetizing social networking requires exploiting information that people regard as private," Godfrey says. "The [recent] Facebook privacy blowup wasn't about privacy, per se. It was about money. And Facebook's ability to monetize their 400-plus million connections is in direct opposition to users' desires to remain private."
Does that mean that Facebook might one day have a Pets.com moment? Probably not. But it's worth pointing out that even now, in 2010, many Facebook users are just discovering that the social network's business model involves -- wait for it -- advertising based heavily on information gleaned from their profiles. True, the only shock there is that anyone at all is actually shocked by that revelation. But shocked they are. And with virtually everyone in the U.S. using some form of social networking, it's hard believe that the future of the medium won't somehow be shaped government regulation. And if you don't believe government regulation will have a dramatic impact on the way advertisers conduct messaging in social media, just ask an email marketer out to lunch.
If there's one universal response to the question of a social media bubble, it's been this: "It depends on how you're using social media."
Today, most brands are using social media. But use is a pretty low hurdle to jump. After all, having a Facebook page -- even if nobody monitors it -- is considered a use of social media. My sense is that there are a lot of brands that are doing just that. That is, they've created a Facebook page in response to a meeting where the terms social media and strategy were smashed together so many times that the marketing team came out talking gibberish and everyone else in the company got a clear message: Drink the social media Kool-Aid or don't bother coming in tomorrow.
For brands that pay lip service to social media and expect earth-shattering results, there most certainly will be a day of reckoning. And that day will come when there's a consensus that social media hasn't moved the needle. Of course, in all likelihood, those brands won't say, "Our social media efforts failed to move the needle." They'll just blame social media altogether. For those brands, there probably is a social media bubble. Or, more correctly, from an industry perspective there are lots of little social media bubbles out there. Whether they all pop at once, and to what extent those brands will own their mistakes, will determine whether that "bubble" bursts all over everyone else. And then the question will be: Will the brands that were making good use of social media overreact, or will they remember that the bubble question really does depend on how you use social media?
Michael Estrin is a freelance writer.
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