You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Me Meme: How Social Media Works—And Doesn’t

WE ARE SO over the internet. Most big-think commentary on digital culture these days tends to conclude that the online world is merely a reflection of power structures and social dynamics in the offline world. Predictions of digital utopia have given way to an acknowledgment that we organize our digital networks the same way we organize our personal lives: our blind spots persist, and rather than expanding our worldview, the internet allows us to silo ourselves further. We forge many superficial connections as we sit alone for hours on end. In the worlds of media and politics and entertainment, the little guys stay little, the big guys control almost everything. In web-speak, the internet has become “meh.”

The latest sign that the era of internet triumphalism is over is Social Media Is Bullshit, a new book by humorist and former digital marketer B.J. Mendelson. His central argument is that “social media”—which Mendelson puts in scare-quotes—is not the crowd-driven tool of the common man that marketers and investors and tech commentators make it out to be. He argues that even the most notable success stories of social media—Justin Bieber’s YouTube-propelled ascent, the Twitter-enabled pro-democracy rallies on the streets of Cairo—were really driven by very traditional power players. Bieber was discovered by a Canadian producer, who then got Usher on board, and the YouTube views followed from there. The Cairo protests, he argues, would have happened anyway. The internet-wide backlash against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA)—legislation that was widely reviled by everyone important in the digital world—is credited with getting the bill killed, but Mendelson argues the effort actually succeeded because Google and other companies with considerable traditional lobbying might were also opposed.

We have been duped, says Mendelson, and the deceivers are the usual suspects: the ad men, the marketers—those who are out to make a buck. “Since 2007, the sales pitch from marketers has centered around ‘social media,’” Mendelson writes. “Not coincidentally, this took off around the same time the economy collapsed. When you think about it, ‘social media’ has all the hallmarks of a get-rich-quick scheme, which fits perfectly with the Great Depression-like conditions many Americans have faced since 2007: You don’t need to have any specific kind of skill set to use any of the platforms, and there’s little risk involved.” The success of a few, says Mendelson, encouraged many. The people feeding the frenzy are the businesses that benefit from free, “user-generated” content. “The claim that you need a presence on these platforms, beyond your own Web site, is bullshit,” he writes. Corporations benefit more than users ever will.

The problem with this analysis is that it fails to acknowledge that the use of social media is not a zero-sum game. Small-business owners and writers and all manner of underdogs who promote their work on sites owned by others have many more ways to drum up customers and attention than they did in the pre-digital era. When I was an editor, I used Twitter to find writers for freelance assignments—writers whose personal web sites I never would have stumbled across directly. And when I was fired from GOOD magazine, along with seven of my colleagues, Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr were how we spread the word—which led to traditional media coverage, funding for new projects, and job leads that I’m confident wouldn’t have materialized otherwise. Sure, Facebook gets richer each time I post a link. But I also get traffic and attention.

Mendelson misses one of the major advantages of social media: its scale. In his introductory chapter, he lists the tools commonly associated with the “social media” alongside their 1999 equivalents. Twitter? Just a better AOL Instant Messenger. Facebook? An updated YouTube? The new Sure, there were proto-Facebooks, but how many people used them? YouTube is now the second-largest search engine. There’s no way that had a remotely comparable reach. And the comparison of AOL’s private messaging service to Twitter, which enables 13 percent of Americans to interact with total strangers, is just absurd.

UNSURPRISINGLY, ANOTHER NEW book, The Kickstarter Handbook, is more sanguine about the power of social media to help individuals drum up interest for their passion projects. In this how-to guide to the much-lauded crowdfunding platform, which invites visitors to the site to invest in projects—ranging from a wooden puzzle game that teaches kids about technology to the Impossible Instant Lab, which turns iPhotos into real instant photographs—author Don Steinberg maintains the view that the online world isn’t all that different from the so-called meatspace (that is, the world outside the internet). Kickstarter, Steinberg writes, is “merely a billboard and accounting system—a place to tell the world what you’re offering” and “the work you’ll need to do and the connections you’ll need to pursue are not that different from what you’d have to do in a world without Kickstarter.”

Yet what follows is a very specific set of instructions for figuring out how to set a fundraising goal, how to mobilize your friends and family to spread the word, and how to get strangers (especially strangers with big online audiences) to care. It contains a striking amount of old-media advice, like tips from a publicist on how to create a press release. A press release! It contains a list of “online media outlets that have been friendly to Kickstarter.” I’m sorry, but if you need this book to learn about which blogs cover the same subject matter as your Kickstarter project, you are not going to succeed in getting it funded. It probably would have been better to just ask your friends and family to take out their checkbooks. In that vein, Steinberg stresses that the people who support you IRL (that is, in real life) are the ones most likely to evangelize for your project online. So even while touting the power of Kickstarter, he’s actually promoting a quite staid view (one that social media skeptic Mendelson would probably accept): offline connections are the most meaningful ones.

Sure, real-world connections are supremely powerful—especially, I’m guessing, for the readers of Steinberg’s book. (These are folks who purchased an ink-and-paper tome about creating an online crowd-funding campaign. They are probably not power-tweeters.) But such careful deference to real-world connection plays down the unparalleled power of Facebook and Twitter and their ilk to reinforce offline connections. The idea that you are going to pick up the phone or hold an in-person gathering every time you want your friends to be aware of something in the wider world is now downright absurd. We have quicker and easier ways of staying in touch and sharing information. 

Despite their seemingly antithetical premises, both of these books posit—to varying degrees—somewhat skeptical views of digital influence. Steinberg hesitates; Mendelson is downright dismissive. But I think that Mendelson’s gripe lies elsewhere. Perhaps he should have titled his book “Marketing Is Bullshit.” In the marketing world, he writes, social media holds sway because of “new” metrics like “trust,” “community,” and “engagement”—the corporate equivalent of warm fuzzies. Mendelson notes that none of these metrics have been shown to directly fuel the bottom line, save for the bottom lines of the companies promising to deliver the warm fuzzies. But it’s not entirely clear how this measurement of a few arbitrary metrics is different from most offline marketing efforts. Indeed, in his critique of the marketing niche that’s arisen to deal with “social media crises”—everything from celebrity drunk-tweets to a corporation getting caught editing its competitors’ names out of Wikipedia entries. Mendelson sneers that these mishaps are the same sorts of things that PR professionals have been paid to fix for decades, simply mapped onto the internet. So why do we need a separate name for it?

In the future, as a generation of digital natives rises to the helm of America’s corporations, we probably won’t. But for now, social media manipulation would appear to be a valuable service. How many VPs of corporate communications are aware that only a select community of people can edit Wikipedia pages, and that those people need to marshal a specific sort of sourcing and evidence, lest their edits be reversed? This is not as critical as countering a negative story on the front page of The New York Times or a misleading segment on the Today Show, but it is valuable. And it is undeniably a separate skill from firing off press releases or calling up producers on the phone.

Until then, if Mendelson wants to crusade against the use of Facebook and Twitter as marketing tools, he might want to start with his own publisher. The back cover of the review copy of his book lists the publicity strategy for Social Media Is Bullshit: “National Print Publicity. National Online Publicity. Social Media Campaign.”

Ann Friedman is a columnist for and a cofounder of Tomorrow magazine. Follow: @annfriedman.