I Tweet, Therefore I Am… Empty?

What if our newspapers were filled with articles on how to write for newspapers?

What if the only books we printed were books about how to sell books?

What if TV shows consisted solely of monologues about TV?

I doubt we’d have much use for them at all.

So why do we accept it in social media?

The Three Pillars of Social Media Content

If you blog, podcast or otherwise create media for web-based distribution, you probably talk ad nauseam about one of three topics:

  • How to create web content
  • How to monetize web content
  • Yourself

Notice that you probably don’t talk about the subject matter of your content, because your content is its own subject matter.

Crazy, isn’t it?

We blog about blogging.  We market about marketing.  And, when we’re not selling our expertise, we sell ourselves.  It’s the equivalent of painters forever painting portraits of themselves painting their own self-portraits.  I can’t imagine another medium that would exist solely to justify and perpetuate its own existence, and yet that’s precisely what we do here.

It’s ugly.  It’s desperate.  It’s solipsistic.  (Look it up.)  And it makes for one anemic defense of an industry.

It’s almost like social media labors under the suspicion that if it stops talking about itself, it’ll cease to exist.

Which begs the question: does social media exist?  Or are we making the whole thing up?

If a Tree Falls in the Woods and No One Retweets It…

The social side of social media revolves around techniques meant to get others talking about you.  The media side of the equation is less about the form of the content and more about its distribution.  Mobile, web-based, downloadable, subscribable…  These aren’t media forms.  These are means of distribution.

What we have is people using multiple channels to convince you of their own merit, mostly so you’ll talk about them — and, specifically, so you’ll talk about their vast array of expertise, in subjects like…

  • creating content,
  • monetizing content, and
  • themselves

Is it any wonder that people believe Twitter is a wasteland of people discussing airports and breakfast cereal?

Are you shocked when the level of social media discourse reported by CNN or Nightline amounts to the same uninformed, knee-jerk reactions we already ignore when we scan through blog comments, but which the mainstream media somehow thinks represents America’s profound and timely wisdom?

Of course, it aggravates those of us who believe in the potential of social media, and it motivates us to prove the naysayers wrong.

But here’s the catch:

What if they’re right?

Does a Computer Know It’s a Computer?

If our entire medium did exist solely to justify its own existence, surely we’d recognize that lunacy and abandon it for something legitimately meaningful.  Right?

Only if we can diagnose our own insanity.

Look at the blogs you subscribe to, the tweeters you follow and the podcasts you download.  What percentage of those sources focus on something other than social media itself?

Look at your own output.  What do you write or speak about most often?  Is it a topic that has to be explained to anybody who hasn’t heard of Chris Brogan?

Odds are, those odds aren’t good.

So why do we do this?

And what would happen if we didn’t?

I Wrote a Play About This Playwright Who Writes Plays About Playwrights Who…

What if you spent more time writing and reading about a topic other than the web itself?

Who’s creating dynamic media that happens to be online, rather than media that only matters online?

How can you use social media to teach others about a subject besides social media?

(You do have other interests, don’t you?)

Wouldn’t it be great if you didn’t have to perpetually explain what you did to people (and why), because the value of what you do would be obvious even to people who don’t own smartphones and who think Amber Naslund was the bassist in Jem?

I know, it’s a scary idea.  The first rule of Fight Club was “don’t talk about Fight Club,” because if you did talk about Fight Club, then Fight Club might cease to exist.

With us, it’s the opposite: if we stop talking about social media, then we cease to exist.

Or, more specifically, we cease to exist in our own little fishbowl.

But if we’re only special to each other, we’re not really special at all, are we?

We’re just people with make-believe jobs and titles, who invent our own conferences and pay to hear each other speak about speaking about talking about blogging about ourselves.

And call me a cynic, but I think we can do better.

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  • http://www.askdavetaylor.com/ Dave Taylor

    Social Media presents us with tools. It's up to us to figure out how to use it in an interesting and effective manner, particularly given that your definition of interesting and effective is different to mine.

  • http://jackieadkins.com Jackie Adkins

    Interesting post, Justin. Although you're right that “we” (being those who read your blog) mostly talk about marketing, social media, and the rainbows and unicorns they create for companies, I'm not entirely sure what's wrong with this.

    Prior to social media, people talked about what they were passionate about with others vocally, by phone, by email, etc. That included their profession, their favorite sports team, or the new car phone that they just bought.

    Today, social media has evolved how we communicate with others about all of this. Now, we can talk about our jobs, our favorite sports teams, and our new iPhones in a public forum on the Interweb. Simultaneously (and because of the previous sentence), marketers, PR folks, and businesses have become very interested in using social media to market their products.

    So, we're obviously still going to talk about our jobs, so what's wrong with doing that in an evolved manner with social media? Our ecosystem includes folks who talk endlessly about all of this, but you better believe our ecosystem is a very small piece to the puzzle. Just look at the sports world. People are moving away from forums and discussing and arguing about why Lebron choked on blogs and Twitter more and more.

    When it comes down to it, yes, I agree that we shouldn't completely immerse ourselves in social media talk and should also spend time in social media talking about our other interests. But, I don't see anything wrong with social media-ing about social media–it's just talking about the hot topic in marketing, which also happens to be the newest way of communicating.

    Some good conversation going on here in the comments already :)

  • http://www.honeybeeconsulting.com startabuzz

    Thank. Farking. Jebus.

    While what Barry (below) says is true — most people on the Twittah are here looking for pearls of wisdom from Lil Wayne or Ashton Kutcher, or YES, talking about their breakfast cereals of choice — in our little corner of this self-important little niche, we are up to our eyeballs in “how-tos”. How to tweet. How to blog. How to better market. How to be transparent. How to be yourself.

    What the hell?

    Twitter is like Nick at Nite. It's, for the most part, rife with reruns. Every now and then, there's some great new content, but everyone's just churning out the same stuff again and again. I love Twitter (and Facebook, etc.) for the opportunities it gives me to meet new people. I've been able to broaden my business with it, sure, but enjoy talking to the people I “meet” there. That's it.

  • http://www.pushingsocial.com Stanford Smith

    I've had this thought rolling around in the back of my mind for a little while now. It does seem that most of us are in the same echo chamber. We congratulate each other's posts, recycle the same lists, “bump” into each other again and again at the same conferences.

    I guess it comes down to actually being a “content creator” rather than a content aggregator and republisher. Kinda scary – but needed.

    However, @jeffthesensei nailed it for me. Although the tweets on social media basics are important – we SHOULD be exploring and pushing the boundaries of good old marketing. While, we're flogging the platforms to death – many businesses are still practicing crappy marketing. In the end, it doesn't matter how cool twitter is if you can't market.

  • http://twitter.com/emerigent/lists/memberships Emeri Gent [Em]

    Always good to shake up the house. If one minuses the sycophants, the couch potatoes and the yes-people, one gets down to an ever dwindling minority that treat media as something more than just well oiled cash cow or a time wasting opportunity.

    What did Bruce Springstreen's song “57 Channels” actually serve to do awaken the consciousness regarding the quality of television. Today we can add a zero to the original number of 57 and still surf from one channel of waddle to another:

    Bruce Springsteen – 57 Channels

    Our media vocabulary is as large and magnificent as what most newspapers engage in terms of writing to a particular reading age, to do otherwise means engaging media at the small end of the funnel.

    If people want to read what amounts to social media narcissism, that is what they want to read and I guess then pontification continues to have a market. The good thing about knowing what bad is, is for those who seek good things. Otherwise the blind will continue to lead the blind and there a “feet-up” approach to life is I guess what they call “a freedom of choice”.

    That is why the provocateurs or those who challenge society are required but in an age where one can compile one's own menu of attention, where self-help is self-service and where freedom of choice has never been greater, why not just wave the white flag and become wise like King Canute.

    Who needs wisdom if its all marketing anyway. So long as ambition and the need to succeed is the core thing, then critique is simply an exercise in differentiation. This reminds me also of the movie “The Big Kahuna”

    Big Kahuna – Character Dialogue

    What I take away from this is that the “character dialogue” is always fundamental. It is also the language of the individual and social media is mostly spoken about in the language of the tribe.

    This idea of nationality, tribal affiliation, industry keeps us within these ideas. Very few step out of these well worn borders. What sits outside those borders is renaissance. “Social Media” is a label that works so it will attract those who will work it. Renaissance, that, is choice and today there is an alternative to a world of “57 Channels” – which is to define your own quality, even if others ignore it.

    The path least traveled will always be the path least traveled. I say enjoy being one of the few who have found it and the others – it is there own life, their own choice.


  • http://www.drmani.com Dr.Mani

    Hmmm… you probably just intensified every socmed expert's existential angst, Justin! :-)

  • http://www.sheilconsulting.com Dr. Astrid Sheil

    Thank you. I think you have just announced, “The emperor has no clothes.” Recently, I have been working on something my students have named, Project Reverberate (http://www.projectreverberate.org). It's our first attempt at using social media to raise awareness and donations for a very worthy organization–the Andre Sobel River of Life Foundation (http://www.andreriveroflife.org). I have a class of 50 students and we have tweeted, blogged, and facebooked our friends and relatives to death, and have discovered that social media is not the end-all-be-all. Instead, what is working is picking up the phone, making appointments with possible sponsors for the event, speaking to church groups, and setting up a table outside the student union to get people interested in attending the launch party on June 2. I think I had stars in my eyes believing that social media is the magic bullet we've all been waiting for forever. It's not. It's a tool that helps extend what you are doing, but it does not replace traditional methods and channels of networking.

  • http://www.webtrainingwheels.com Lucy Beer

    Ha. I love this because it's so true. You say “I think we can do better.” What do you suggest?

  • http://www.shawnchristenson.com Shawn Christenson

    There ARE writers that write about book writing. And the ones that are GREAT are known and help many people aspiring to write learn how to do it BETTER. But it doesn't mean all book writers essentially are writing to keep themselves as a whole in business. People are using Social Media for many things. Those using it to describe how effective Social Media is – well I'd want to learn from someone doing it, personally.

    It's just such a young medium – that the cream is still rising to the top.

  • http://bradmarley.com Brad

    This is spot on. I likensocial media sites like Twitter to high school. There are cliques, for sure, and many of us long to be a part of them. But those outside their realm could give a crap what they're doing.

  • http://mikecandoit.com MikeRohrig

    Unbelievably you just wrote about how to write.

    I came across this from a link on Twitter. In the end your post seems like link bait but if it's not I think you should follow some different people on Twitter, blogs, and wherever else. I don't follow people you describe so I don't see the social media world like that.

    “What if our newspapers were filled with articles on how to write for newspapers?

    What if the only books we printed were books about how to sell books?

    What if TV shows consisted solely of monologues about TV?”

    There are plenty of books and magazines on how to write. There are videos on how to make videos. And there is so much more. If you don't like your friends then get new friends.

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  • http://nathanhangen.com/blog Nathan Hangen

    Dude! My hero, that's all.

  • http://www.gretchengary.com/ Gretchen Gary

    This post made me laugh out loud. Good job! I love it. And yes, the first rule about social media is don't stop talking about social media. But I think that's the same for any industry.

  • http://johnmclachlan.ca/ John McLachlan

    This was fabulous. It explains how I've been feeling lately but not been able to put my finger on it. It's like we're swimming in a big stinking pool of our own filth but we don't get out of the pool.

    Well done!

  • Mr. Polite

    Why do you have two spaces after a period? That's for 20th Century manual typewriters.

  • troygroberg

    So far off the mark. I think the problem here Justin is that you are following people who write about writing and who post about posting. Maybe even a few who comment about commenting. Just change who you follow. There's a great big world of other things out there.

  • Jason

    Good point, but isn't that what you are doing now as well?

  • mhbartow

    the problem, as I see it, is that two types of people make up 95% of Social Media. The people that use social media to talk about social media – they have a built in audience, then there are those that talk about Justin Beiber and the Lost finale – they too have a built in audience. Ironically those that use social media to talk about a separate industry or function are the only ones that nobody listens to.

    The “Bieber Set” is bored by those folks, and the “Experts” are too busy talking about why they are better to care. Its a tough nut to crack.

  • http://tdhurst.com tdhurst

    Yet you're speaking at 140tc, which seems to go against everything you've said above, as it's a conference designed for a few presenters to speak to many audience members.

    While I'm sure your topic isn't social media, aren't you a part of the very problem you're condemning the rest of us for?

    (Although I completely agree and want to fucking punch the next person who blogs about tweeting via Facebook connect.)

  • http://tdhurst.com tdhurst

    Stop asking others and think for ourselves would be a good first step.

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  • jeffthesensei

    And therein lies the actual problem – way too many people explaining social media and not nearly enough actually doing it or evolving it to align it for business. particularly big business.

    Try going to any Fortune 500 and telling them you are a “social media expert” right now. The laughter you receive as they show you the door is breathtaking. Big companies are already wary of anyone talking that game. SMEs and get rich quick consultants – not so much.

    Social Media is a gold rush with a lot of prospectors with a little plot of digital land, a shovel and not much else.

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  • http://janetfouts.com Janet Fouts

    True, there are too many consultants and not enough implementers but that doesn't bother me. I'm one of the implementers…

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  • http://businessmindhacks.com AlexSchleber

    The problem IMO starts with the word “(Web) content”. It's always felt lifeless and commoditized to me.

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  • http://www.burghseyeview.com Hutch Jr.

    What's up Justin, I've heard you express this feeling before. I agree about the presence of the social media about social media content in blogs and podcasts and I am bored by it. I enjoy some tehnical type content that helps those of us with jobs in areas other than web design, content and other tentacles of this thing we all enjoy. I consider myself a talk show host when it concerns my podcast, and as far as twitter goes I'm just a voice. For you and the younger amongst us, you need to realize although yinz think this is all some new thing, it's really not it's just easier and more widespread. Twitter is kind of like CB radio on steroids, when looked at on a social level, but even on a commercial level some businesses used it. The only thing that has changed about folks communicating with one another is the technology. Ham radio operators (like me) had the internet before the internet via bulletin board systems (bbs) using vhf and hf packet radio burst transmissions. I know people use twitter comercially and the ability to spread information exponetially via numerous retweets is exciting to communicators (Iran comes to mind). Anyway I'm rambling keep up the good work

  • http://claydevoute.blogspot.com Delaney

    I've been thinking this lately, too, and I've just started ignoring the “5 tips for SM success”-type posts and focused on creating content that can live in multiple formats. Remember, both Twitter and Facebook could conceivably disappear tomorrow. If you've put all your marketing eggs in either basket and suddenly that basket disappeared, would you still be able to justify your salary to the boss?

  • SexCpotatoes

    I totally do this all the time. Wasting tweet characters, & whoops, did it right ^there^.

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  • http://www.twitter.com/TheGirlPie @TheGirlPie

    While I can see an armchair contrarian's point & purpose for this post, and I am not guilty of these charges, I respectfully disagree. And I offer this POV (as an avid reader/consumer/user of online material):

    Social Media is a Tool, like Broadcast Media before it.

    Each Tool exists regardless of what is said/written/broadcast about itself.

    It's fun to whine: “600 TV/Cable channels and nothing to watch!”, but just as the Tool of Broadcast Media delivers so much more than programs about making TV programs, the Tool of Social Media is used in as many ways as we want or invent.
    TV is used by plenty of others besides TV Producers.
    Blogs are used by plenty of others besides Social Media Writers.

    I get riches from the sites/blogs I choose to return to for more (edutainment, facts, resources, information, new POVs, etc.), and I love discovering new ones, like linking here for the first time, from a Penelope Trunk post. I'm not in her field, I'm not in your field; yet I've found value in your works via the Tool of Social Media (linking/social proof/comment conversation/etc.) And I can continue to via the Tool of So/Me [and it's really about "So/You" ] using RSS, email subs, following you guys on twitter, and meeting new people in your comments.

    Theater troops DO attract audiences with productions of NOISES OFF via in-person delivery.
    Radio stations DO attract listeners with PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION via radio waves.
    Pen and paper DO attract readers with HOW TO WRITE, from tips to tomes, via ink and pulp, (and maybe a shop, a lending library or a supportive friend.)

    I can't believe that Social Media would cease to exist if bloggers, podcasters or other online content creators suddenly stopped sharing “how to create content,” “how to monetize content,” and/or their personal stories and perspectives. Just like the Theater, Radio, and even hardback Books do not stop when their offerings extend “off topic.”

    But I can clearly see that the niche of contrarian, and a post poking the Tool that delivers both the post and its readers, is an excellent choice for attracting the Social of tweets/links/comments, via the Media it requires to do so. Smart choice.


  • AlexandraCojocaru

    To me, the fact that we're using SM to talk about SM is just circumstantial – people still aren't convinced it's not just a time-waster and a a medium with no ROI whatsoever. We still need to legitimize it.
    It will son be over, hopefully! :)

  • Anonymous

    To me, the fact that we’re using SM to talk about SM is just circumstantial – people still aren’t convinced it’s not just a time-waster and a a medium with no ROI whatsoever. We still need to legitimize it.nIt will son be over, hopefully! :)

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  • bbratt

    I think you’re all proving his point.