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Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

Time Event
4:15p
"Who controls the present ..."
I heard Erik Qualman do a presentation on Socialnomics: How Social Media Transforms the Way We Live and Do Business at the December 2009 meeting of the Social Media Club of Chicago (along with Shel Israel talking about his Twitterville), just a couple of months after it came out. I suppose it's a testimony to the book's popularity (and my on-going poverty) that I was unable to get connected with a “reasonably priced” used copy until just this January … notably, getting to it after I'd read his new book Digital Leader.

While this is a very good book for its time (it's amazing how a book that's not quite 3 years old at this point can feel “dated” already), but it suffers from the author's evident excitement over Barack Obama (whose campaign, admittedly, did make significant use of Social Media tools) ... were the Obama election just one case study among many (it gets its own chapter, and the Obamas have more mentions than anything else in the index), it would be less of a problem here, but, as it is, this imparts to Socialnomics something of the same "irrelevant" feel that most political books have within a year or two of their publication.

The book starts off with laying some groundwork about word-of-mouth information distribution, and how communication systems are changing …

We have shifted from a word where the information and news was held by a few and distributed to millions, to a world where the information is held by millions and distributed to a few (niche markets). … While {the} traditional mediums were still trying to grasp how to handle the upshot of blogs and user-generated content, social media suddenly came along, causing yet another significant upheaval in the status quo.
Once this basis has been established he moves into “behavior”, outlining two types, “preventative” and “braggadocian”. The former of these can be brought down to the phrase “Live your life as if your mother is watching.” … and is, basically, the herald of the recent dystopian “self-edit or else” vibe that one needs to conform to social norms and expectations or be indelibly branded a pariah (since, as he also notes: “What happens in Vegas stays on You Tube”). The latter is the trend to documenting one's existence via Social Media tools, and how various “generations” interact with these. In both of these chapters there is a lot of “what's good for society” at the expense of the individual, side-by-side with case studies from various businesses. This segues into the political chapter:

In 2008 … several companies gave away freebies on Election Day. Generally most marketers steer clear of anything political, but in this case, the brand marketers wanted to be a part of a community, and the community in this instance, thanks to social media, was the American community. ...This is the sense of community that human beings long for, and it is something that isn't lost with social media. In fact, it is part of the reason for social media's meteoric ascendancy in our lives. Face-to-face interaction still can't be beat, but social media does help you feel part of a community. It is even able to help keep an intimate community feel on a national or global level.
This at least had an interesting bit about how search engine traffic can serve as a predictive measure of future events, from emerging pop stars to patterns of flu outbreaks (before they're recognized as outbreaks). There is a rather dystopian spin here too, talking of ways the government could become more involved in our daily lives. The next sections are about how people prefer to get recommendations from peers rather than marketing messages from companies.

The 30-second commercial is being replaced by the 30-second review, tweet, post, status update, and so on. Not all great viral marketing ideas need to originate in the marketing department – businesses need to be comfortable with consumers taking ownership of their brands. The marketers' job has changed from creating and pushing messages to one that requires listening, engaging, and reacting to potential and current customer needs. And it's not just marketing that changes; businesses models need to shift. Simply digitizing old business models doesn't work; businesses need to fully transform to properly address the impact and demands of social media.
Again, most of the illustrative stories here are specifics of how various companies did or did not succeed in using Social Media and associated web technologies … the details are interesting in context, but really not suitable for extracting as examples here … ultimately, the over-all tone of Socialnomics is very much that of an introductory volume for business people who may not have any experience with Social Media, but are quite conversant with advertising and marketing challenges.

As much as the assorted business "snapshots" here provided fascinating illustrations of how Social Media affected the success or failure of numerous companies, I was disturbed by the "meta" implications of some of the over-riding themes. Qualman keeps returning to the at least the suggestion of personal sublimation to the Society … he refers to “The Death of Social Schizophrenia” positing that having a private self and a public self is a symptom of a disease and that one needs to make one's personality and activities “transparent” and congruent, “for the good of society” ... with the obvious implication that if one's personal orientation, attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs are not “approved”, one will be shunned by the less-individualistic masses (or at least their HR department keepers).

Admittedly, I suspect that most people reading this book wouldn't even notice the "dystopian meta themes" running through Socialnomics, but they were ongoing "nails on a chalkboard" to my Libertarian sensibilities. Unlike many of the Social Media books I've read, this is very much oriented as a business “primer”, so the feeling was less that of enthusiasm for the new technologies of communication and interaction, and more looking at how these could be brought to bear on beating the competition. As noted, it's been very popular, and is currently widely available in a paperback edition. This certainly has worthwhile material in it, and I'm sure that I'm an "extreme outlier" in my visceral reactions to the societal spin I found implied in it, but I don't think this would be near the top of my recommended Social Media reading list for general audiences, although it might be an ideal intro book for MBAs and fans of big government.


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