Calling Bullshit on Socialnomics

Like thousands of web surfers, I was recently intrigued by the snappy video promoting Erik Qualman‘s Socialnomics.  I work in social media, so I was interested to read what I presumed would be an analysis of how social media is directly impacting business and the world economy.

Alas, this is not that book.

And I’d be happy to leave it at that if I weren’t so frustrated by what this book actually is: poorly written, barely edited, misleading, misrepresented and unfounded.

And, also, an Amazon bestseller.  (It’s currently #3 in the E-commerce category, #3 in Web Marketing and #6 in Economic Conditions as I write this.)

Those sales were presumably piqued by the video, which has since come under fire for being inaccurate.  It cites statistics that are selectively interpreted and, in some cases, unsourced.  That same fuzzy truthiness permeates Qualman’s entire book, which — considering its sales — means hundreds (if not thousands) of people who don’t know any better may take his claims seriously.  That’s their prerogative, but it might help if someone sheds a critical eye on the book’s contents before they begin to be referred to as facts.

Warning: This is an exceedingly long Socialnomics review.  (It was over 8000 words long before I started editing it down to only the most vital points.)  Casual readers may opt to browse the Basics and Unverifiable Claims sections, while anyone seeking a more detailed analysis may enjoy reading further down the post.

Disclaimer

I don’t know Erik Qualman personally, nor do I know anyone employed at Wiley, the publisher of Socialnomics.  All opinions and assertions I make in this post are solely based on my own reading of Socialnomics, along with some additional web research.

The Basics

First, a pre-emptive apology: if the Socialnomics team never intended to write a book about how social media impacts business and the economy, then I misunderstood the promotions for (and the title and summary of) the book.  In fact, it’s entirely possible the fault is mine; Qualman goes out of his way to avoid practical statistics, and instead seems intent on promoting three messages:

  • It’s a people-driven economy,
  • Social media is making the world a better place, and
  • Profits are less important than brand awareness

Note that Qualman never explicitly states that final premise, but due to the absence of actual fiscal data in this book, I can only presume by exclusion that the “socialnomics” he’s referring to is the exchange of personal relationships, not money.  (Which would be an interesting premise, except that Qualman then spends nearly half the book pitching his own business ideas to the Fortune 500 companies he hopes will read them; see below.)

Let’s also ignore for the moment that the book is structurally and grammatically challenged like few books I’ve ever seen published before.  (Scroll to the bottom for examples.)  Style aside, my primary concerns with the book are threefold:

  • It fails to support Qualman’s stated maxims,
  • It cites questionable and, in some cases, unverifiable data, and
  • It prompts several questions about publishing ethics

For the purposes of this post, I’ve subdivided my critique of the book’s most objectionable passages according to the nature of the offense.  Any bold emphasis below is mine, not Qualman’s, unless otherwise noted.

Unverifiable Claims

Maybe I’m just a stickler for facts, but when I read a book that’s ostensibly about economics — and one that refers to itself* as “a page turning business book aimed toward the same audience as The Long Tail, Freakonomics and Groundswell — I expect to see hard data to back up the author’s theses.  Instead, Qualman repeatedly includes names and numbers that may or may not exist.  Examples:

  • “Million-dollar television advertisements are no longer the king influencer of purchase intent.  People referring products and services via social media tools are the new king…  The end result is that everything from purchasing a baby carriage to drafting a last will and testament is easier and cheaper for the consumer and more profitable for the seller.”  (Introduction, p. XVIII)**

This is a wonderful claim; actual data would prove it.

  • “If a new father sees via social media that 14 of his closest friends have purchased the same brand and model baby seat and they all express glowing reviews, he will not waste hours on research, as it has already been done by people he trusts.  This recaptures billions of hours that can redistributed toward the betterment of society.”  (Introduction, p. XIX)

Qualman’s optimism is outweighed only by his love of hyperbolic numbers.

  • “Is it any wonder that the television audience is shrinking by the minute?”  (Chapter 3, p. 44)

False: Nielsen reported in February that the television audience is at an “all-time high.”

  • “Microblogging’s popularity was originally relegated to teens, but then it quickly gained popularity with adults and businesses.”  (Chapter 5, p. 90)

False:  As has been much discussed in social media, microblogging services like Twitter are fighting an uphill battle to attract teen users, who never utilized these services in the first place.

  • “In the foreseeable future, while e-books will be exceedingly popular, they will be not an absolute replacement in the short term like the music and newspaper / magazine industry has experienced.  However, the popularity will be huge.”

How huge?  How foreseeable?

  • “Interactive games like Second Life and Sims were big for a while, and then their popularity started to wane.”  (Chapter 6, p. 121)

False:  From January to July of 2009, the NPD Group reports that Sims 3 has been the top-selling PC game, with two other Sims titles in the top 10.  (Admittedly, Second Life’s popularity may have waned, but Socialnomics gives no statistics to confirm this.)

  • “Much more helpful and useful [than Amazon's real-time suggestions of what you might like based on your own prior purchases] was Amazon’s introduction of the ability to showcase to users: “People who purchased this book also purchased these other ones.”" (Chapter 6, p. 130)

How much more helpful and useful?  According to whom?  And where can we find the data on how this tool has boosted Amazon’s sales?

  • “Companies should still microblog, because the upside is still greater than the downside…”  (Chapter 7, p. 153)

Really?  Do we have any data to verify that?  Do we even have statistical proof of a real fiscal upside?

  • “Worse than making a mistake is doing nothing.  As someone once said, “I’d rather live a life making mistakes than a life doing nothing.”"  (Chapter 7, p. 181)

I’m not sure which “someone” Qualman isn’t bothering to cite, but I am suspicious of any business book advocating that action for the sake of action — and regardless of the cost involved — is preferable to inaction.

  • “There is a [Facebook] fan page for chocolate milk that as of April of 2009 had over 1.4 million fans!  Imagine how much power the user who started that page has with Hershey’s?”  (Chapter 7, p. 183)

And we’ll have to continue imagining, because Qualman doesn’t bother to find out what — if any — “power” that unnamed Facebook user has with Hershey’s.  Remember: this isn’t a book about facts, it’s a book about potential.

  • “In 2000, when there were only a handful of blogs, a post or article would be commented on for about a full week; its half-life would be around three to four days.  Today, given the myriad blogs and the expansion of microblogging tools like Twitter and FriendFeed, the half-life of conversations has been reduced from days to minutes.”  (Chapter 8, pp. 189-190)

No statistics or data are cited to support these claims.

  • “As of January 2009 the AdWords program accounted for roughly 10 percent of Google’s revenue.”  (Chapter 8, p. 206)

To his credit, Qualman actually does footnote this claim with a source: “author’s estimate.”

  • “By the time this book is published, MSN’s [Live Cashback] program could be defunct for several reasons.  Or, it could be a wild success.  That’s not the point.  What we want to highlight is that these are the types of programs that we will see in a Socialnomics world.“  (Chapter 8, pp. 193-194)

So Qualman would prefer we ignore the factors that could torpedo the validity of these programs and focus instead on their mere existence as validation for a socialnomics revolution?

Economics Without Numbers

Qualman talks a lot about costs and profits without always actually mentioning costs and profits.  Examples:

  • In a section detailing Stride gum’s sponsorship of the “Where in the World is Matt?” videos on YouTube, Qualman states: “For the nominal fee of sponsoring Matt’s travel costs, Stride was paid back in millions of dollars worth of brand equity.”  (Chapter 1, p. 28)

But what were those nominal costs?  And how has this sponsorship impacted Stride’s actual bottom line?

  • When discussing Ben & Jerry’s 2008 election promotions, Qualman asserts: “However, because the primary push for this promotion was by sending an alert to their followers on the Ben & Jerry’s Handmade Inc. Facebook fan page, there were few upfront costs, and the action of taking down the promotion was roughly only 20 to 30 minutes of work.“  (Chapter 4, p. 80)

Really?  How few were those upfront costs?  And how rough is that time estimate?

  • “It is estimated that Starbucks spent less than $400,000 for [its 2008 election] promotion, which Oprah quickly paid back by giving it some major coverage on her show as did every other media outlet (including this book).”  (Chapter 4, p. 81)

Estimated by whom, exactly?  And where are the figures that correlate a mention on Oprah with a $400,000 ad buy?

Ad-Hoc Business Advice

One of Erik Qualman’s primary inspirations for writing Socialnomics appears to be his desire to provide unsolicited business advice to companies who might not otherwise pay attention to him.  The book is filled with lengthy passages describing what Qualman believes businesses should do (without supplying convincing statistical arguments to validate his suggestions), or outling elements of current business workflow that Qualman finds personally objectionable, followed by his own free advice on how these things could be improved.

For example:

  • Qualman suggests that social networks could provide an automatic shopping cart and transaction model, wherein they could “take a .005 percent cut of all transactions” for their troubles.  This would enable small businesses to be “up and running in a few hours on a social media storefront, and the fractions of pennies that the social media platform captures from transactions would hardly be missed by that small business, but would be a huge revenue generator for the social media platform when they collect from thousands of businesses.”  (Chapter 1, p. 26)

(Didn’t we see this done in Office Space?)

  • Qualman also sees e-books as the death blow to libraries, but don’t worry; he has some ideas on how they can avoid oblivion.  But they’d better work fast; as he says, “most reading this right now are probably on an e-Reader.”  (Chapter 5, p. 117)
  • Qualman vastly prefers the way ESPN’s Fantasy Football Today podcast integrates advertising into their show, rather than the “old paradigm” advertising model that caused Best Buy to run the same ad for seven straight months on CNET’s Buzz Out Loud podcast.  “What a wasted opportunity for Best Buy!” laments Qualman, who goes on to illustrate how he thinks podcast advertising should be done.  (He also advises that ESPN allowing Matthew Barry to host both their fantasy football and fantasy baseball podcasts is a mistake, because “in our new niche world, Berry should focus on just one sport, because his audience and future competition will.”)  (Chapter 7, pp. 135-147)
  • Qualman takes Hasbro to task for suing the Agarwalla brothers, inventors of the Facebook application Scrabulous, rather than partnering with them or buying them out.  In his worldview, the Agarwalla brothers actually did Hasbro a favor by building a successful web application using Hasbro’s intellectual property, and should have been rewarded, not punished — this, despite the fact that “it is estimated that the Scrabulous game had been generating advertising revenues in the range of $25,000 a month for the Agarwalla brothers.”  (Chapter 7, p. 170 — no reference provided for the revenue estimate)

An Olympic-Sized Problem

Qualman’s disgregard for measurable metrics is further evidenced in his claim that “[NBC] would have been better served opening up their online viewership [of the 2008 Summer Olympics] because:

  • It’s more measurable.
  • It has a younger audience.
  • Users can’t TiVo through commercials.
  • Users are willing to give you valuable demographic information like name, age, gender and so on in return for video.
  • It increases — not decreases — your total viewership, which means more eyes on advertisements.

No data is provided to confirm Qualman’s claims, nor is the disparity between TV and online advertising rates discussed.  Whether or not NBC would be better served fiscally by such a move is secondary to Qualman’s insistence that they should do so simply because it’s possible.

Qualman’s frustration with online coverage of the Olympics extends to Google:

“When lesser-known athletes burst on the scene, the search engines had a difficult time serving up relevant search results.  When the United States’s David Neville dove for the finish line in a gallant effort to capture the bronze in the 400-meters the search results on Google showed an actor / model by the same name, along with a company that could help you find people’s phone numbers.

These poor search results were consistent for many of the athletes, so much so that Yahoo! and MSN attempted to manipulate the results by hand.  Google finally threw in the towel and pushed news feeds and Wikipedia results to the top of the listings for many of the athletes.”  (Chapter 7, p. 157)

Since his background is in SEO, Qualman may have a firmer handle on the previous point than I do, but is he really suggesting that Google search returns should be manipulated in advance of a subject’s relevance, rather than as a response to it?  And is he also intimating that the rise in relevance of news feeds and Wikipedia listings was orchestrated personally by Google, rather than as a result of user interaction?

Rethinking Marketing (and Revenue)

While Qualman might be stingy with his numbers, he’s never slow to tell you how he thinks they might change.  For example:

  • “[O]n sites like Hulu, users are most appreciative of the sponsor, because when they hear that the program was brought to them by McDonald’s they know they owe McDonald’s some gratitude for making it available online for free.  This same message sounds hollow to the viewer via traditional broadcast television.“  (Chapter 7, p. 163)

Really?  Where is the psychological survey to substantiate Qualman’s statement?

  • “[T]he end user is smart — they understand that user generated content is beyond a brand’s control.  If 90 percent is good and only 10 percent is negative, the positive will overwhelm the negative, and the 10 percent will not cripple your brand reputation.  That is a much different philosophy from the past where even the slightest negative news could destroy your brand.  Heck, if there isn’t 5 to 10 percent negative noise around your brand, then your brand is either irrelevant or not being aggressive enough in the space.“  (Chapter 8, p. 205)

Lessons learned: it was actually easier for people to “destroy your brand” before the Internet made information-sharing ubiquitous, but brand leaders should still strive to maintain a 10 percent negative rating.  Gotcha.

  • “If Time Warner or Comcast starts to see more and more people cut their $150 monthly cable television bill, they could react by increasing the fee for the Internet connection or set up pricing models to charge per stream.  We can only hope that competitors and alternatives for high-speed Internet emerge or that policies are put in place to obstruct this type of malicious behavior.“  (Chapter 7, p. 166)

Never mind that Time Warner already tried this once (which Qualman seems unaware of); what should we make of his assertion that — at least as presented in this case — a company’s attempt to offset the loss of income by monetizing other potential revenue streams amounts to “malicious behavior”?  For a book about economics, Qualman seems to have moral presumptions about how businesses should and shouldn’t be allowed to profit.  (See Ad-Hoc Business Advice, above, for more Qualman tips.)

Cavalier Legality

Qualman seems as comfortable offering unverified financial advice as he does unsourced legal advice. To wit:

  • “Companies should leverage existing platforms such as Digg, Delicious, hi5, Facebook, MySpace, and so on, which have already vetted much of the security and privacy gaps.  This also shifts any potential liability to reside with the platform, not the advertiser.“  (Chapter 7, p. 179)

No legal precedents are furnished to validate Qualman’s claim that social platforms are “liable” for any security and privacy gaps — nor are any well-known gaps referenced.  (Evidently, Qualman doesn’t believe that companies or their customers should be particularly concerned.)

  • “[When the Associated Press] requested that Google remove [AP] stories from the Google News feed… legally, Google would have been fine saying your request is unreasonable, but they didn’t.”  (Chapter 8, p. 199)

Really?  Under what precedent would Google have been “fine” saying that?  None is cited.

Questionable Logic

In his efforts to make the case that social media is better, faster and more relevant than traditional media, Qualman prefers stating his own opinion to citing actual data.  For example:

  • “… straightforward and true stories resonate well with consumers as evidenced by Subway overtaking McDonald’s as having the most restaurants in the United States.”  (Chapter 5, p. 102)

Really?  Subway has more franchises because the story they tell is more straightforward and true?  Evidently, economics, demographics and actual menu items are far less important to a restaurant than feel-good marketing.

  • “If we have 1,500 [Twitter] followers, are any of them really listening?  I’d argue that most are not.  However, it’s still a huge marketing tool, and the nobodies are now the new somebody [sic].”  (Chapter 7, p. 150)

So Qualman doubts that most of our Twitter followers are really listening to us, yet Twitter is still a “huge” marketing tool?  Yes.  Here’s why:

  • “If a local plumber has 1,500 followers, even if most of them aren’t likely to be listening at any given moment, as long as at least one person is, that’s all that matters.”  (Chapter 7, pp. 150-151)

Unmentioned:  how many work hours it would take to build and maintain a Twitter audience of 1,500 in exchange for converting one sale.

  • Qualman points out Budweiser’s missed opportunity, noting that “during the 2008 U.S. presidential election, when the Tina Fey “Palin” spots were popular, a brand like Budweiser could have done the preroll [ad on YouTube] and said “if there was a Joe Sixpack drinking game for every time the word maverick was mentioned, you better believe the people playing it would be drinking a Bud.”  (Chapter 8, p. 203)

Here, Qualman seems unconcerned that Budweiser might not want to a) alienate one political party by appearing to favor another, or b) position itself as the beer of choice for people mocking the electoral process.

Fuzzy Math

When he’s not inventing stories to support his claims, Qualman is inventing numbers.  For example:

Let’s perform a quick calculation based on the average number of people that a person on Twitter has following them to underscore the importance of social media.  The old rule of thumb was that a person who had a bad experience would tell 6 to 10 people about it.  The average person on Twitter follows 100 people. If you take that and assume that 10 percent of the people following someone will pass it along, then you get the number 10 (100 x 0.10 = 10).  Ten people will be influenced directly.  If those 10 also have 100 followers and only 5 percent pick it up, then another 50 individuals will be influenced indirectly, and so it goes on down the line.  (Chapter 2, p. 41)

Where is Qualman getting these numbers?  And how do fictional assumptions confirm his theories?  (Also, where is the matching extrapolation of how many people those 6-10 individuals in the original “rule of thumb” would pass a message along to?)

  • Qualman is a fan of electronic voting.  In his words: “If the average hourly wage (factoring in white collar) is close to $16, and keeping in mind that drive time along with the physical act of voting takes an average of two hours, the summation is starting [sic].  This is $6.7 billion lost in productivity (210 million x $16 per hour x 2 hours)!  All that could be saved by a few simple clicks online!”  (Chapter 4, p. 85)

Where are any of these numbers coming from?

Citation Needed

Qualman cites dozens of alleged facts in his book without providing attributation for his claims.  This is either the result of laziness or of fiction masquerading as fact.  Examples:

  • “CBS… sends a majority of its March Madness basketball traffic, not to its own website, but to www.facebook.com/brackets.”  (Chapter 1, p. 1)
  • “If what you need is not on the first results page, it might as well not be anywhere because only roughly 5 percent of users go to the second page.”  (Chapter 1, p. 7)
  • “[Rick Sanchez] raised his CNN program to number three, only behind Fox News O’Reilly Factor and MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann’s Countdown.“  (Chapter 4, p. 77)

Number three according to whom?  And in what sense — among shows in the same time slot?  Among all news programs?  Nightly?  Weekly?  (Also, a minor quibble: the MSNBC show is actually called Countdown with Keith Olbermann.  For more examples of Things the Fact-Checkers Missed, scroll down.)

  • “100 billion stories-updates per day are processed through Facebook’s News Feed servers — 100 billion!”  (Chapter 5, p. 90)
  • “Also, with today’s technology, it is still 25 percent faster to read something on a piece of paper than it is to read it from a computer screen, let alone a smaller handheld e-book reader.”  (Chapter 5, p. 115)
  • “A fan of the San Francisco 49ers is more “wine and cheese with a flair for the dramatic” whereas a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers is more “cheese steak, blue collar, and no nonsense.”  [Note: It's possible that Qualman -- or his editor -- has Pittsburgh confused with Philadelphia, home of the cheesesteak; as a Pittsburgher for 12 years, I can vouch that we're more of a Primanti Brothers town.]
  • “Many celebrities have “ghost tweeters.”  (Chapter 7, p. 152 — no examples  given)
  • “Speaking of grandparents, it was estimated that 40 percent of [Scrabulous] players were over 50 years old.”  (Chapter 7, p. 167)
  • “This is radically different from 2001 when banner advertising almost accounted for 100 percent of the [Internet's] advertising revenue.”  (Chapter 8, p. 210)
  • “Online sites now hold 110 million jobs and 20 million unique resumes.”  (Chapter 8, p. 234)
  • “In a study done in Canada of 18- to 34-year-olds, it showed that the average person held five full-time jobs by age 27.”  (Chapter 8, p. 235)

All of these statements may otherwise be 100% true, but in a book where many other facts and quotes are accompanied by the appropriate citations, why aren’t these?

Things the Fact-Checkers Missed

Then there are the out-and-out untrue statements — mostly minor misquotes and misattributions, like:

  • Six Apart (the parent company of blogging platform TypePad) is incorrectly listed alongside Twitter and FriendFeed as a “microblogging technology”  (Chapter 2, p. 35)
  • “In a sign of the times ahead and for the first time since e-mail was invented, Boston College will not be giving out @bc.edu e-mail addresses to incoming freshmen for the class of 2013.”  (Chapter 3, p. 47)

Kind of.  Had Qualman included the attribution for this statement, he might have also clarified that BCU has stopped giving incoming freshmen email accounts.  They’ll still be given email addresses, but those addresses will be forwarded to the students’ external inboxes of choice.

  • “Recall that one of the popular songs of [the 1980s] was Madonna’s “Living in a Material World.”"  (Chapter 3, p. 53)  [Wrong: the song is called "Material Girl."]
  • Craig Ulliott, developer of the “Where I’ve Been” application for Facebook, is consistently misspelled as Craig “Ulliot.”  (Chapter 5, p. 105)
  • Mark Twain is quoted as having said: “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one instead” — a popular inaccuracy; Twain never said it.  (Chapter 8, p. 189)
  • MSN’S Live Cashback program is twice referred to as “MSNBC’s Live Search Cashback.”  (Chapter 8, pp. 195 & 197)
  • Qualman refers to “the Web 2.0 era (starting in 2006),” even though the term was coined in 1999 and popularized in 2004.  (Chapter 8, p. 206)
  • Qualman identifies a “cookie” (in web terms) as an “invisible pixel image,” although Wikipedia defines it as a piece of text.  (Chapter 8, p. 207)
  • Qualman botches the most memorable line of dialogue from Field of Dreams.  While the film version is “If you build it, he will come,”  Qualman quotes it as “Build it and they will come” (Chapter 8, p. 218), which he incorrectly attributes to James Earl Jones’s character.

Fictional Anecdotes

  • “One of the key maxims of this book is that wasting time on Facebook and social media actually makes you more productive.” (Chapter 1, p. 4 — emphasis Qualman’s)

For this key maxim, Qualman fails to provide any supporting evidence.  Instead, he includes the first of many fictional anecdotes meant to validate his claims — in this case, a 2-and-a-half page tale of Sally Supermarket, whose day is obviously (but not measurably) improved by checking on updates from her social media networks while she’s waiting in line at the checkout, rather than “flipping through a magazine she has no interest in,” or “being rude and placing a call on her cell phone.”

Other examples of Qualman’s fictional anecdotes include:

  • A 3-page story about a guy named Steve, who uses social media to make decisions about buying a baby seat and a new car.  (Chapter 5, pp. 90-94)
  • Karen, who only needs five minutes to spend her IRS refund check on an iPod Nano after seeing a glowing review of one from her friend Sally via her social network.  (Chapter 5, p. 94)
  • Suzy (age 34), who books a $1,400 South American vacation based on the fact that two of her online friends took trips to Chile, thereby saving “hours of painstaking research and the fees of a travel agent.”  (Chapter 5, p. 95)

But the one that stands tall above all others is the anecdote Qualman uses to illustrate his “five pillars” of social media fundamentals — or, in Qualman’s words:

“The best way to look at these five pillars is through a real world example: my Mom’s friends’ summer cheerleading camps, one of the largest in the country.“  (Chapter 7, p. 175-178)

Aside from her first name (“Betsy”), we’re told nothing else about Qualman’s mom’s friend, nor the name of her business.  Nonetheless, Qualman spins quite a yarn about how Betsy used “socialnomics” to create a web tool that would allow her campers to interact online — and which could be used to measure the retention rates of campers in future years.  Despite an abject lack of attribution, even here Qualman can’t be bothered to reveal any statistical data to validate Betsy’s venture.

Personal Interviews

Throughout the book, Qualman includes numerous quotes from people like “German-based social media user Christoph Marcour” and “Heather, a mother of three.”  Who are these people, and how did Qualman solicit their testimonials?  It’s never explained.  Beyond their descriptions, each of them is merely cited as “Personal Interview,” so we’re left to take Qualman at his word when people like “Connie Weatherald, 83, of Stuart, Florida” say things like:

It’s in my doctor’s best interest to make money and he does that by performing surgeries or having repeat business.  That is why I look to my friends with similar issues for advice.  Social media is the quickest, least intrusive and effective way that I know of to do this.”  (Chapter 5, p. 101)

If only all 83 year-olds trusted Twitter as their primary source of medical information…

It’s a safe bet that at least some of the interviewees are people Qualman knows personally.  For example, might “avid Internet video fan Mary Alison Wilshire” (Chapter 7, p. 162) be the same “Mary Alison” in his immediate family that Qualman thanks in his Acknowledgements (p. XIII)?  If so, why go through the trouble of presenting her as an objective case study?

Likewise, personal interviewee “Scott Mueller (37), Oklahoma city [sic]” is quoted in Chapter 8 (p. 217) as saying, “I used [Apple iPhone's "Tracker" application] on my oldest teenage daughter as somewhat of a bribe.  I will get you an iPhone on the condition that you have this Tracker application installed.”  Presumably, this is the same Scott R. Mueller from Oklahoma City who also reviewed Socialnomics on Amazon, crediting the book with changing his opinion on the relevance of social media.

All of which makes me wonder if there’s anything ethically questionable about interviewing friends and family as objective case studies for a business book and then encouraging those same people to leave 5 star reviews on the published book’s Amazon page.  But hey, marketing’s marketing…

Anonymous Sources

Several quotes in Socialnomics are attributed to people… just not people Qualman felt obliged to name.  For example:

  • “At Apple, we generally hire early adopters.  That being said, I was still blown away when we recently hired a 22-year-old and he had literally never sent an email.  Via his iPhone he had always communicated with his friends either by instant messenger, text, phone call, or comments within Facebook.  I believe he is not alone and this is a trend we will continue to see with the next generation,” said a director of Apple iTunes.

That is fascinating, anonymous director of Apple iTunes — especially since the iPhone was released in the United States on June 22nd, 2007, which means this 22-year-old new hire went from never using a digital device before to becoming extremely proficient with one in the space of 2 years.  Hell, I’d hire him too.

Then there’s this quote from “a spokesman for Southwest Airlines,” who claims, “after the first year, we hit the 2 million mark for downloads [of the Ding Widget].”  (Chapter 8, p. 236)  Too bad that same anonymous spokesperson didn’t mention the $150 million in ticket sales generated by the widget in that time — a figure that would have supported Qualman’s claims implicitly, but which I had to track down myself while researching this post.

A Lack of Transparency

In addition to his unfounded numbers and “personal interviews,” Qualman leaves out some other information as well.  For example:

  • He showcases a case study in which EF Educational Tours has “roughly 800 people” following them on Twitter in April of 2009, and extrapolates that to infer (via a query on http://twinfluence.com/) that the EF Educational Tours Twitter account has a “social graph influence” of 8.5 million people.  Questionable as that logic may be, it’s compounded by the fact that EF Educational Tours is also Qualman’s day job — a fact he never states in the text of the book, but does mention in his bio.

Can an author cite his own personal experience as objective research?  I certainly hope so, because Qualman does it several times:

  • He references an inauguration trip co-ordinated by Smithsonian Student Travel (a subsidiary of EF Educational Tours), in which NPR, MSNBC and PBS “immediately replied to Smithsonian Student Travel’s tweet, expressing interest in hearing from… students and teachers.”  (Chapter 7, p. 151)
  • In a section about the potential of “Webisodes” (Chapter 7, p. 174), Qualman’s lone example is the “Life on Tour” series produced by Bunim/Murray Productions for — you guessed it — EF Educational Tours.  Despite having over 6 years’ worth of web video series metrics to solicit, Qualman’s sole reference is to his own (uncredited) work.

Soapboxing

When he’s not ruminating about the future of the Internet, Qualman has hours of suggestions about how everyone from businesses to individuals should be running their lives — and Socialnomics is his bully pulpit.  These tidbits include:

  • “Newspapers should no longer be reporting the news; instead, they should be commenting on the news and what it means.”  (Chapter 1, p. 12)
  • “A high school teacher can’t simply take on the [online] persona of a hooker specializing in sadomasochism without realizing long-term ramifications when this eventually becomes known.  In fact, schools have terminated several teachers for this type of unacceptable social media behavior.“  (Chapter 6, pp. 121-122 — also, no attributation given for bold quote)
  • “It is without question much “cooler” to say you are bungee-jumping in New Mexico than updating your status with “I’m watching the latest adventure reality series.”"  (Chapter 6, p. 122)
  • “Whether we like it or not, or if it is right or if it is wrong, we have to adapt to communication in succinct and salient sound bites.”  (Chapter 6, p. 128)

No word on what would happen if we didn’t, or why “right and wrong” don’t apply in this case but they do in other instances throughout this book.

Points for Style

Everyone has an opinion, and since Qualman’s book appears to be comprised primarily of his, I think it’s only fitting to include a few of my own here.  Thus, let’s acknowledge some of the inelegant turns of phrase, cryptic observations and general literary clumsiness I found so head-scratchingly amusing in Socialnomics:

  • “This book does not need to be read like a sultry novel, nor should it be.” (About This Book, p XV)
  • “A salient example of this is…”  To the detriment of Thesaurus advocates everywhere, Qualman’s book unendingly repeats the phrase “a salient example.”
  • “Even if you believe that life with social media is worse, you cannot argue that social media has forever changed the way in which we live.”  (Chapter 6, p. 120 – emphasis Qualman’s)
  • “[W]ith so much information flowing this way and that, it is extremely difficult for a person who is well rounded to stand out in this new world.”  (Chapter 6, p. 121)
  • “Once you decide, be quick and be decisive.”  (Chapter 7, p. 181)
  • Qualman later weaves a metaphor starring “a shepherd (company) watching over his flock of sheep (customers/users).  In this analogy, a fence breaks, and the sheep suddenly have access to a new pasture (social media)…  The shepherd (company) is uncertain about what to do and decides not to go into this new pasture to find his sheep.“  (Chapter 7, p. 185)

Precious as this parable may be, it’s logically unsound on numerous levels.  As a non-shepherd myself, I can’t speak from experience, but my gut tells me that one of the basic rules of shepherding is to shepherd the sheep; why would there be uncertainty?  Rather than jettison this analogy for one that makes sense, Qualman presses forward, again demonstrating that he has no understanding of a shepherd’s primary job description:

“Even if you decide not to herd your sheep, you should be in the new pasture helping to guide your sheep away from dangerous cliffs and waterfalls.“  (Chapter 7, p. 186)

Or, in other words, shepherding the sheep…

So…

How can a book whose arguments are this poorly constructed, and which contains this many typos, grammatical errors, unchecked facts and spurious claims still be sold legitimately?  If this is how stringently Wiley edits their books on social media, I can’t help but wonder if the fact-checkers on their other best-sellers are any better…

Also, from a strictly organizational standpoint, I found it mystifying that the chapters were named in the header on each page but not numbered, whereas the citations were listed strictly by chapter number, not name.  This necessitated repeated re-checking to verify which chapter I was actually reading while attempting to find validation for the author’s claims.  (Perhaps someone was hoping to make this as annoyingly difficult as possible?)

But… Why?

So if I thought the book was this bad… why write about it?  Simple:  I believe in the potential of social media to effect significant cultural change in the world, and when books like this become the kinds of bestsellers that threaten to be taken seriously, it diminishes the legitimacy of an entire medium.  Not that I begrudge Erik Qualman or Wiley their opportunism.  As Qualman himself says in the summary of Socialnomics:

“Making multiple mistakes within social media is far better than sitting back and doing nothing at all.”  (Socialnomics Summary, p. 241)

And sometimes those multiple mistakes can add up to a bestselling book.

* That description comes from the website American Novel, which purports to celebrate the American novel but — since it’s run by Qualman himself — currently spotlights Socialnomics on its homepage and includes the above description.

** NOTE:  All page numbers referenced in this post cite the initial hardcover printing of Socialnomics; future editions (since their existence seems inevitable) may be numbered differently.

  • Anonymous

    You bring up a thousand good points and I think you are spot on. Qualman in saying his writing is not perfect has nothing to do with the points you make. I help small and medium sized business get more business if I can by getting them on the front page of Google if they are in a long tail niche. In those cases it can be fairly easy because of a well organized thin site that is SEO optimized and I work cheap but for the more competitive areas like: dentists, chiropractors, attys etc. it’s a ton of work (100′s of hours) and constant vigilance to keep them ranked and I use a pile of offshore labor at much lower rates or I couldn’t possibly service them and give them good results. nI think we are heading toward a convergence of all the technologies but the rave around some of the social media stuff is completely unwarranted and I really appreciate the immense amount of work you did with this post. I acknowledge you for it and tip my hat to your indepth anaylsis.

  • Anonymous

    You bring up a thousand good points and I think you are spot on. Qualman in saying his writing is not perfect has nothing to do with the points you make. I help small and medium sized business get more business if I can by getting them on the front page of Google if they are in a long tail niche. In those cases it can be fairly easy because of a well organized thin site that is SEO optimized and I work cheap but for the more competitive areas like: dentists, chiropractors, attys etc. it’s a ton of work (100′s of hours) and constant vigilance to keep them ranked and I use a pile of offshore labor at much lower rates or I couldn’t possibly service them and give them good results. nI think we are heading toward a convergence of all the technologies but the rave around some of the social media stuff is completely unwarranted and I really appreciate the immense amount of work you did with this post. I acknowledge you for it and tip my hat to your indepth anaylsis.

  • Anonymous

    You bring up a thousand good points and I think you are spot on. Qualman in saying his writing is not perfect has nothing to do with the points you make. I help small and medium sized business get more business if I can by getting them on the front page of Google if they are in a long tail niche. In those cases it can be fairly easy because of a well organized thin site that is SEO optimized and I work cheap but for the more competitive areas like: dentists, chiropractors, attys etc. it’s a ton of work (100′s of hours) and constant vigilance to keep them ranked and I use a pile of offshore labor at much lower rates or I couldn’t possibly service them and give them good results. nI think we are heading toward a convergence of all the technologies but the rave around some of the social media stuff is completely unwarranted and I really appreciate the immense amount of work you did with this post. I acknowledge you for it and tip my hat to your indepth anaylsis.

  • Anonymous

    You bring up a thousand good points and I think you are spot on. Qualman in saying his writing is not perfect has nothing to do with the points you make. I help small and medium sized business get more business if I can by getting them on the front page of Google if they are in a long tail niche. In those cases it can be fairly easy because of a well organized thin site that is SEO optimized and I work cheap but for the more competitive areas like: dentists, chiropractors, attys etc. it’s a ton of work (100′s of hours) and constant vigilance to keep them ranked and I use a pile of offshore labor at much lower rates or I couldn’t possibly service them and give them good results. nI think we are heading toward a convergence of all the technologies but the rave around some of the social media stuff is completely unwarranted and I really appreciate the immense amount of work you did with this post. I acknowledge you for it and tip my hat to your indepth anaylsis.

  • Anonymous

    You bring up a thousand good points and I think you are spot on. Qualman in saying his writing is not perfect has nothing to do with the points you make. I help small and medium sized business get more business if I can by getting them on the front page of Google if they are in a long tail niche. In those cases it can be fairly easy because of a well organized thin site that is SEO optimized and I work cheap but for the more competitive areas like: dentists, chiropractors, attys etc. it’s a ton of work (100′s of hours) and constant vigilance to keep them ranked and I use a pile of offshore labor at much lower rates or I couldn’t possibly service them and give them good results. nI think we are heading toward a convergence of all the technologies but the rave around some of the social media stuff is completely unwarranted and I really appreciate the immense amount of work you did with this post. I acknowledge you for it and tip my hat to your indepth anaylsis.

  • Anonymous

    You bring up a thousand good points and I think you are spot on. Qualman in saying his writing is not perfect has nothing to do with the points you make. I help small and medium sized business get more business if I can by getting them on the front page of Google if they are in a long tail niche. In those cases it can be fairly easy because of a well organized thin site that is SEO optimized and I work cheap but for the more competitive areas like: dentists, chiropractors, attys etc. it’s a ton of work (100′s of hours) and constant vigilance to keep them ranked and I use a pile of offshore labor at much lower rates or I couldn’t possibly service them and give them good results. nI think we are heading toward a convergence of all the technologies but the rave around some of the social media stuff is completely unwarranted and I really appreciate the immense amount of work you did with this post. I acknowledge you for it and tip my hat to your indepth anaylsis.

  • Dmitri

    In the immortal words of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe – “God is in the details.” Based on your review I decided to pass on tonight’s book launch party here in Boston.

  • http://www.socialnomics.com Erik Qualman

    Justin:

    Thanks for reading the book. Sorry it didn’t live up to your expectations and was actually a source of frustration. I would love to discuss with you if you have time. By no means (as you point out) is my writing perfect and I’m always looking to improve.

    Best, Erik Qualman

  • ben

    wow, you really dislike the book eh ?

    i actually found it very useful.

    even if, as you say, bits of it are ‘fuzzy’, i really dont think that this alters the basic trends and culture that we are experiencing.

    b

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  • http://www.rockcheetah.com/blog/ RobertKCole

    Justin – Thanks for referencing my blog post regarding the accompanying video. I believe we share the same sentiment – there is little reason for these not to be thoroughly researched, accurate and well written presentations.

    Wondering if you took him up on his offer to discuss the issue – I think it would be very interesting to learn if he plans to a) make corrections in a second edition, b) reclassify the book as fiction, or c) write a follow-up tell-all on how social media can be used to manipulate an audience to digest inaccurate propaganda…

  • http://www.justinkownacki.com Justin

    Robert: Erik and I have emailed, and although we continue to disagree about the relative merit of Socialnomics, I believe it’s fair to say that he sees my (and, by association, your) dissatisfaction with the book — and its presentation — as a matter of opinion rather than a strict line separating good from bad, right from wrong, useful from misleading, etc.

    I can also add that Erik has been quite genial during these exchanges, which is more than I can say for a number of people whose work I find to be even more catastrophic.

  • http://www.bzzmatters.com Tim Piazza

    Justin, your critical review of Socialnomics is valuable for setting a higher standard for those who pontificate on social media and influence. Seeing your critique makes me think twice about how I might write a book were I in the author’s seat. It would be interesting to see what you might come up with if you were to take on the challenge to write a tome of your own.

    In reading the claims made by Erik Qualman, though unsubstantiated, there is nothing about Qualman’s claims that contrast with my own observations and experiences. In other words, I think the thrust of Erik’s message is spot-on.

    I must take issue with the way you disprove unsubstantiated claims. You disclaim Qualman’s comment about “the television audience is shrinking” by quoting a CNN article based on a Nielsen press release and report. Nielsen has a vested interest in showing optimistic numbers and casting them in a favorable light. Other more credible sources show that television viewing has been reduced as people have increased the amount of time spent on the internet.

    Thank you for raising my awareness of Qualman’s book, Socialnomics.

  • http://www.justinkownacki.com Justin

    Tim: In my opinion, it’s the substantiation (or not) of claims and case studies that separates a serious work from a batch of opinions. Socialnomics may be spot-on in terms of its central theses, but without verifiable data to back those claims up, I see it as a collection of blog posts masquerading as a definitive analysis of a business trend.

    Of course, you’re also right to question my basis for substantiation. But by doing so, you also raise an equally contentious issue: facts (and their sources) can always be skewed to suit anyone’s argument. You believe Nielsen has a vested interest in propping up TV numbers, while I believe Qualman has a vested interest in inflating Internet numbers. Either of us could cite sources that would support on side or the other, but in the end, each reader will still form his/her own conclusion based on his/her own preconceptions + an evaluation of the facts presented.

    As for how I’d approach the authoring of a book on Internet economics… well, if I’m ever offered that assignment, I’ll let you know how my thought process evolves. ;)

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  • http://localmarketingtucson.com/ thejakestershow

    You bring up a thousand good points and I think you are spot on. Qualman in saying his writing is not perfect has nothing to do with the points you make. I help small and medium sized business get more business if I can by getting them on the front page of Google if they are in a long tail niche. In those cases it can be fairly easy because of a well organized thin site that is SEO optimized and I work cheap but for the more competitive areas like: dentists, chiropractors, attys etc. it's a ton of work (100's of hours) and constant vigilance to keep them ranked and I use a pile of offshore labor at much lower rates or I couldn't possibly service them and give them good results.
    I think we are heading toward a convergence of all the technologies but the rave around some of the social media stuff is completely unwarranted and I really appreciate the immense amount of work you did with this post. I acknowledge you for it and tip my hat to your indepth anaylsis.

  • http://localmarketingtucson.com/ thejakestershow

    You bring up a thousand good points and I think you are spot on. Qualman in saying his writing is not perfect has nothing to do with the points you make. I help small and medium sized business get more business if I can by getting them on the front page of Google if they are in a long tail niche. In those cases it can be fairly easy because of a well organized thin site that is SEO optimized and I work cheap but for the more competitive areas like: dentists, chiropractors, attys etc. it's a ton of work (100's of hours) and constant vigilance to keep them ranked and I use a pile of offshore labor at much lower rates or I couldn't possibly service them and give them good results.
    I think we are heading toward a convergence of all the technologies but the rave around some of the social media stuff is completely unwarranted and I really appreciate the immense amount of work you did with this post. I acknowledge you for it and tip my hat to your indepth anaylsis.

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  • mediaman

    Well written piece Justin. I appreciate your adherence to the concept that a well written analysis is based on verifiable facts. Qualman may be spot on with all of his theses, but what are they worth without cited sources and substantiation through the concepts of others? It is in fact what traditional writers disapprove in the blogging community. There is no way to verify anything without doing the research yourself.

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  • PaullyFierce

    I definitely agree with you on all points you have made, Justin. I noticed from the start how very elementary this book was. I’m currently writing my senior project on the effects of social media on social standards, marketing and public relations, and let me say, my professor would never allow for me, or any of his students, to hand in an essay written like this…so i was very surprised when a self-proclaimed professional (author) on the issue, and publishing house published such a poorly-written book. he had good points, but again, in university we are always required to present facts along with citations. the biggest things that really bothered me was reading fictional examples, that in my case, i wouldn’t relate to (like sally supermarket, for example). i understand we all make up our own example to prove our points, but in a book that claims to be geared towards improving fortune 500 companies, i found very unprofessional. on a personal matter and through experience, his claim that “social media actual makes you more productive” is far-fetched–to which he conjures up the sally supermarket example. i have had experiences of friends helping me out with certain things via status updates, but i definitely don’t think it makes you more “productive”…on the the contrary, i personally find social media (and many of friends agree–proof via their facebook status updates) distracting, and contributing to procrastination. another fault i observed was in his “eye-opening statistics” (pg 261) he fails, yet again, to present sources for each of his 42 presented “facts”…the one that made me want to discredit the book completely was #28: “do you like what they are saying about your brand? you better”…i literally said out loud “What the hell does this have to do with statistical facts?!” i’m sorry, but i thought the book was written by a teenager. college teaches us to write way better than this, so i was very disappointed. if you want to read a very well-written, well-rounded, source-presenting book, get “The New Rules of Marketing and Public Relations” by David Meerman Scott. he, at least, explains the writing style of his book, and doesn’t just throw you in the mix of things…very good read and great content. n

  • http://justinkownacki.blogspot.com Justin Kownacki

    Thanks for the feedback, and the book suggestion. I’ll admit, I’vernsteered clear of most marketing books written by social media prosrnbecause there’s very few of them who deliver tangible meaning (IMHO),rnbut I keep hearing good things about Scott’s work, so I may check itrnout yet. Cheers!

  • http://www.sevgibuyusu.com Sevgi Bu00fcyu00fcsu00fc

    Thanks for reading the book. Sorry it didn’t live up to your nexpectations and was actually a source of frustration. I would love to ndiscuss with you if you have time. By no means (as you point out) is myn writing perfect and I’m always looking to improve.u00a0n

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_QBCLXTU7MKIB3GLPRJFGGV2TEA Frederick

    I had this forwarded to me recently and found it pretty interesting, even now, two years after the fact. I too am the type that is pained greatly by opinions published as being based on fact when those facts can’t be substantiated or are out-and-out inaccurate. But I have to say that when it comes to business, and marketing in particular, it’s all subjective. I’ve known several true, successful entrepreneurs, and every one of them went with their gut, holding the statisticians, many of whom were naysayers, in total disdain. And although I’ve worked not far from executive management in dozens of Fortune 500 companies, I’ve yet to see one run by accountants that was successful. When is the President of the United States effective? When we think he/she is. When does our economy thrive? When the mass hysteria swings positive. Why bother attempting to accurately quantify the subjective? The world is soft and squishy, despite the left-brained world’s attempts to force it into a quantitative model. Sorry ’bout that, accountants, actuaries, et al. So being a moderately active Facebook user myself, I have to say that Qualman rings true with me. Qualman rides the tide of public emotion and perhaps attempts to pave something of a path for it, and accurate or not, that’s what makes things tick. Maybe an update on the approximately second anniversary of this post?

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  • just wondering

    I wonder if you could substantiate how “it diminishes the legitimacy of an entire medium.” (But…why?).
    In my understanding, social media is populated by the people; no amount of commentary (factual or interpreted, from layman or thought leader) is going to change that, until the medium changes. And it will. It’s the nature of human-made tools to evolve or dissolve into a the black hole of redundancy.

  • http://justinkownacki.com/ Justin Kownacki

    When discussing social media, “legitimacy” should probably remain in perpetual quotes. Whatever legitimacy the field does have is either experiential or data-driven, but this is a book with minimal verifiable data or experience. And when the social media realm embraced this book as “proof” that social media “works,” it didn’t do its own questionable existence any favors.