What was it that Margaret Thatcher said? “Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”
Oh, social media. How you have opened the connections between corporations and the public, helped so many find purpose and their “people”, given a voice to ones who were once ignored, and, frankly, opened a whole can of disgusting, slimy, unscrupulous worms. Or maybe Pandora’s box of horrible wonders? Or released the Kraken? Whatever the metaphor, oh wow, what a web we’ve woven.
I suppose I’ve been actively participating in “social media” for around a decade. Long before we called it that, that’s for sure. Ryan introduced me to the wide world of the internet (beyond my email doors) back in 1998 and I’ve never looked back. I blogged on Xanga before “blog” was a household word, joined Facebook when it was still strange to see your high school sweetheart all grown-up and filled-out, and have been on Twitter for over four years now. Things have changed a lot since I first ventured into these waters. I don’t want to sound like a Negative Nelly and say it’s gone downhill, but with the introduction of large companies/ads/paid content/sponsored updates into what used to be a space for people to connect with others, share human experiences, write, and simply be, well, it’s just different. In some ways that’s fantastic and in other ways it’s infuriatingly not.
Having run a fairly successful small business for just over five years, I was privy to different sides of social media. As a product-offering entity, many people followed or became a fan of my pages in the hopes of receiving discounts or (more often) free product. And for awhile, I was certainly happy to oblige, in the name of furthering our reach and increasing business. But at the end of the day, the majority of the freebies we handed out were much like dust in the wind. When I was nearing the end of my time with my business, I attended a conference where I handed out a product to some attendees. Meant for my friends with whom I’d connect at the event, I found that utter strangers had no qualms about approaching and descending upon me with grabby hands out, snatching the products from my bag. I felt like Nemo; a piece of tasty grub. I hated it. Those weren’t friends, they weren’t “connections”. Those were swag-hungry beasts I wanted nothing to do with. I literally took a step back from my own bag and watched people crowd around it, digging through like animals, searching for their own freebie (can I add here that they were worth maybe $8 retail? Not really worth the struggle).
Now, having been on the consumer side of the situation has been interesting, too. I’m often invited to PR events where a company has decided to host some “influential”, socially active types in the hopes that they spread the word of some product through their social webs. This was incredibly fun for awhile, I admit it.
Who doesn’t love something free? I know I’m a fan of “gifts”, but at what price? We all know nothing is really free, right? So what’s the hope here? That we, the attendees, encourage others to pay for the products or services we’re offered for free. It’s the same with reviews, right? They hope we love the item(s) enough to use our trusted voices to sell to others. They hope we use our friends. It isn’t free. There is an expectation. I encourage everyone to revisit Mauss’ theories in The Gift.
This weekend on Twitter, there was a discussion about this type of event. It seems that while once upon a time, the events stirred interest, whereas they now stir feelings more akin to anger, resentment, jealousy and frustration. I’m fairly sure this is the precise opposite of the intention, right? There’s a lot of talk of muting hashtags and link sources, so if this is happening, what’s the end result for the companies hoping to expand their reach? I’d say it’s time we take a look at how (and to whom) things are being doled out, don’t you? What’s the point in building resentment instead of interest?
There are a lot of people bragging about numbers of followers; what does this really mean to brands? There are also many people out there buying followers, so if you haven’t grown a base of really fabulous connections/friends on your own, what good are those numbers? Brands are desperate to connect with the true influencers, but when bloggers band together to boost each others’ traffic, does that really help a brand? The same circle of a few hundred bloggers can’t possibly positively affect sales, can they? When someone on Twitter tweets incessantly about a party they’re invited to and half their followers mute them and the message dies, lost in cyberspace, what’s the point?
It seems to me, that those squawking loudest about how “influential”, “PR friendly” or “connected” they are, are the ones with the least to truly offer, yet the brands are lapping it all up and handing out the swag. So, why? Those who are honestly, genuinely connected are the ones unwilling to use their followers as a commodity through which they garner these perks. If you have to tell people you’re influential, chances are, you probably aren’t, or we’d already be aware.
It’s a funny thing, because someone like Ryan, who doesn’t have even a third of the followers of some “influencers” I know, has in reality influenced more people than anyone I know, in truly substantial ways. His reviews of vehicles have sold at least five cars that we know of. (My father bought a Cruze thanks to Ryan’s review, our nanny bought a Veloster because of him, and a coworker bought a car immediately after hearing Ryan’s thoughts on it, off the top of my head.) Countless other people have come to him for advice, taken him seriously, and followed through with advice he’s given them on so many topics. But is Ryan invited out to lots of events? Thrown swag? Offered perks? Not usually, no. Though he has built relationships with some brands, he’s certainly not wooed, and you’ll also never hear him talk of his so-called “influence” or brag about connections. Interesting, right?
It’s hard to be on either side of this relationship now, I find. I only attend the events I really, truly want to attend. I don’t need anything free badly enough to sell out my Twitter feed and annoy my followers. I’m not interested in being an advertising conduit through my own voice, and my opinions aren’t for sale. But sure, I love being a part of fun events, I adore trying new products and of course I am very happy to share what I love. People know that when I say I like something, it’s an honest opinion. I want that to always be the case. But oh, who doesn’t love a party?
But I won’t beg. I won’t kiss any posterior. I won’t cheat the system to fake a following. I don’t want to make anyone feel left out or less-than. And I sure as hell won’t stand around comparing numbers that mean virtually nothing to the majority of people in the world. Because really, if I have to tell you I’m important, I’m not.
So where does this leave us? I really don’t know. But what I do know is that it has left me with an extensive list of muted hashtags and “friends” whose feeds I used to love reading before they became part of this new Borg.