Hope for 2014: A Social Media Manager Manifesto

What does it mean to work in social media? It's a question worth reflecting on, since the answer is a moving target, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

In 2013, at least, it seems like a lot of the "collective wisdom" of the internet agreed on a few things. 1) Real-time marketing was the "it" idea of the year (largely made most famous by Oreo's Superbowl blackout tweet); 2) Hoaxes emerged as a (if not thekey way to go viral; and 3) Upworthy-style headlines and selling "positivity" are the magic ingredients for social sharing.

There are good lessons to be learned from all this, and there are reasons why these tactics have been successful, but if I'm going to be honest... all of this makes me depressed about the direction of digital marketing and working in social media.

One of my favorite things on the internet is "Condescending Corporate Brand." I love it for many reasons - the lulz chiefly among them - as it grimly highlights the social media tone-deafness of brands. It's a horror-show of what not to do: Scared straight for social media managers. It's a constant stream of everything from crass calls to action to atrocities like this:

Photo via Zeeturn

Photo via Zeeturn

Of course, the dirty secret of Condescending Corporate Brand is that - on some level - the posts they highlight could be considered successful. Successful in the sense that they got engagement and/or clicks, which is all some people who work in social media care about. Oh how I wish it weren't that way - because it ultimately tars all of us working in social media with the same churlish brush - but there's so much daily evidence to the contrary that it's not even worth wishing anymore. 

* * *

I probably should hit pause on my hand-wringing and admit that me complaining about stuff like this is the same as the people who complain that Transformers movies gross more than Coen Brothers movies, that more people watched Keeping Up with the Kardashians than The Wire, and that Creed's first two records sold millions more than Nirvana's first two. What's more important? Artistic/critical "purity" or clicks? "Good" social media, or lots of likes and RTs? Every instinct in my body wants to answer one way, but when I imagine the person asking that question also signs my paychecks, it gets more difficult.

Earlier this month, Tom Scocca wrote a blistering, penetrating, brilliant essay - On Smarm - that, if you are willing to expand his thesis to relate to areas beyond snark vs. smarm, scratches at these questions. A choice tidbit:

The idea of success, or of successfulness, hangs over the whole subject of smarm. It is not true, after all, that the crisis of postmodernity has left us without any functioning system of shared values. What currently fills the space left by the waning or absence of traditional authority, for the most part, is the ideology and logic of the market. Market reasoning is deeply, essentially smarmy. We live, it insists, in a world that is optimized by the invisible hand. The conditions under which we live have been created by rational needs and preferences, producing an economicist Panglossianism: What thrives deserves to thrive, be it Nike or sprawl or the finance industry or Upworthy; what fails deserves to have failed. We all live our lives, we're told, on these terms. If people really wanted a better world—what you might foolishly regard as a better world—they would have it already.

I can't encourage you in strong enough terms to read Scocca's entire essay, because it so well articulates several issues we face today, many of which are particularly relevant to those of us working in the digital sphere. It might be the most important piece of cultural criticism I've read in very long time. It's not perfect, and the main overall point is actually a bit fuzzy, but when it has a line as breathtakingly good as this -When you hear a voice say "Everyone's a critic," listen for the echo: "Everyone's a publicist." - you know it is getting at something that is deep and powerful and endlessly relevant to the world we live in today of personal branding, humble-bragging, cheerleading, and carefully sharing stories and photos on social media that cast ourselves in a better light - all things I am guilty of.

* * *

In so many ways, I wish Oreo had never released its famous Super Bowl blackout tweet, because ever since real-time marketing has become an obsession for a lot of people who work in the digital space. It takes the phrase "join the conversation" to a different level - don't just join the conversation with people who are talking about your brand... join the conversation with people talking about whatever is trending on Twitter at the given moment, because that will get you noticed.

For an endless supply of examples of real-time marketing at its worst, check out this hilariously spot on Tumblr: Real-Time Marketing Sucks.

As Adrian Lee wrote in an excellent piece on The Wire, in reference to the patriotic SpaghettiO from above:

This is the worst kind of opportunistic "real-time" branding that has become all too familiar in our new media age. For every perfectly timed, spur-of-the-moment tweet during a Super Bowl power outage, there are dozens more that feel prepackaged and tired. And then for everyone of those, sterilized by teams of experts and crowd-tested to the hilt, there's one that's in incomprehensibly bad taste, like the tweets by Gap and Urban Outfitters, among others, that encouraged shopping as a balm for Hurricane Sandy.

Every time I go to a social media talk or professional development event, I hear real-time marketing held up as the paragon of what's hot in social at the moment. And every time I hear that, I roll my eyes pretty much out of their sockets. From my perspective, its value is questionable (sure, you may get some likes, RTs, replies and comments, but I don't think you get much quality engagement tweeting about the royal baby with all the other - to borrow a favorite phrase from Condescending Corporate Brand Page - barking seals), it runs the risk of going horribly wrong (endless examples of this), and it's extremely difficult to get the tone right.

Is it really our collective fate as social media managers to be representing a brand and tweeting with strangers about whatever is trending on Twitter at the moment? It doesn't need to be. We can do better.

* * *

What do I hope social media marketing will look like in 2014? I certainly hope there's less "smarm" (using a bastardized definition from the Tom Scocca essay I linked above), in which I mean the pursuit of hollow engagement - the notion that something is successful if people are engaging with it. Especially in the "real-time" space.

I hope that people continue creating things that have real substance, things that make people feel something rather than just get them to mindlessly click like.

Remember - when we compete for attention in the social space, it's not just brands that are advertising on social media... it's everyone.

Most people who use social media use it as a tool to shape people's perception of them. People share articles from the Economist instead of TMZ because it makes them look smarter. They only post flattering photos. They let people know about a promotion at work, but not about professional failures or mis-steps. 

And the best way to fight through the noise and make a meaningful connection with people is to get through the shiny veneer of social posturing and into the deep, emotional reservoirs that exist underneath. And it doesn't only have to tug at the heartstrings. It can be funny. It can make people feel pride. It can make them feel part of a family. It can make them feel connected to other people. It can make them feel nostalgic. It can make them feel happy or sad or wistful. Just as long as it makes them feel something.

* * *

Is this all posturing, and not practice? Am I like the writer Scocca highlights, who encourages people to do feature stories of "obscure" and "unkown" people, while he himself writes profiles of celebrities? Partly, yes. I dance the engagement dance. Facebook's algorithms force us all to, in one way shape or form. And I don't work in social media full time, so it often becomes an afterthought for me. So, so, so many times I've posted something just to post something, I've gone for the cheap "like" instead of the meaningful one, I've Photoshopped some stupid image just to "join the conversation" of whatever is a hot topic at a given moment.

But what can I do but keep my eye on the bigger picture? To quote Toba Beta: "Practice doesn't make perfect. Practice reduces the imperfection." And so I strive to reduce the imperfection, to harness this amazing, messy, chaotic, and enormously powerful tool we call social media in a way that makes me feel proud of the work I do, rather than with a hangdog expression every time I see a SpaghettiO holding an America flag. And if not for the sake of my own professional work, then because I feel the burden of the collective responsibility we share as social media managers - we're all in this together! So let's go out there and rock the house in 2014.

Thanks for a Great Year

Great Social Media Idea: Academic Perspectives on Snow