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Water Is Wet: The Faux Truths of Social Media

By:   Date posted: April 23, 2012

marketing-truthUnited Airlines breaks a checked guitar. Weird goings-on at Taco Bell and Domino’s. The Iranians hold a flawed election. Motrin produces a dumb mom video. The Comcast repair guy falls asleep on the job. Goldman Sachs is run by a bunch of S.O.B. capitalists. These topics caused firestorms of passion and frequency on social media platforms…only to be replaced by other firestorms, and then all but forgotten.

That’s because they were announcements that water is wet, telling us little to nothing that we didn’t already know. They’re illustrative of the faux truths that characterize much of what we “learn” on social media.

To believe that much of the stuff matters that gets tweeted, pinned or otherwise shared across social media platforms first requires that you misunderstand the history of brand communications and the future of peer-to-peer (P2P) communication.

Your parents (or maybe grandparents) might seem like hapless Luddites, but they were once young and clued into the latest topics and technologies. Granted, TVs were often powered by tubes instead of transistors, and there were only three broadcast channels from which to choose, but what is the past to you was the future to them. They cared about the important issues of their day, got involved and shared their opinions and hopes with one another. Their “networks” for communicating were many and their media varied, and they were in some ways more meaningfully social than we are today (their tangible involvement in clubs makes our virtual involvement pale in comparison), and their “trends” lasted longer than a nanosecond.

Ever hear that communications was “one way” back then, or that the world is different today because companies and institutions have to “listen” to people? It’s a lie. Nothing has changed. The behaviors in question are a product of human nature, not the Internet, and the qualities of curiosity, concern and community that drive them are, too. Our technology just amplifies some things while lessening others, and creating a few artifacts that are exclusive to it. The net outcome, however, is a new version of what’s quite old, and I’d offer that the things we should care about most are the ones that are more familiar (and proven) versus the ones that require us to rewrite our understanding of sentient life on our planet.

The fact that social platforms are often used to restate the obvious, or weigh in on it, is no surprise. People did it while meeting in London coffeehouses or Roman baths. Monk scribes wrote exclamation points on the margins of medieval manuscripts. But just as doing so is an old tradition, so is relying on one another to vet truth and take actions collectively (which have more weight than acting solo). Companies and institutions have never been perfect or necessarily right in how they listened and responded to people, and our P2P technology is a tool than can be used to address those shortcomings.

The future of P2P tech has nothing to do with a service person showing up late for a home visit, a hotel room air conditioner making a rattling noise or somebody’s hamburger not being warm enough when served. All of that falls into the water is wet category. Disappointments, but no surprises. Stuff that’s irritating, but that we already knew.

The real future is being written by how it’s used to share and address things we didn’t already know, or that require collaborative action. We’ve seen it applied in political organizing, both for election campaigns and NGO issues. Disaster relief agencies have used it to locate victims and coordinate activities. Shareholders and interested individuals use it to affect the policies pursued by corporate management. People react to revelations about companies or governments that were previously kept secret, and thereafter prompt real-world reactions, like students organizing to reopen death-row legal cases or people agitating for closure of Guantanamo prison.

These truths prompt actions that go beyond viewing, posting and sharing. The future isn’t Web 2.0, it’s Real Life 2.0. Truths are what make such experiences possible.

As an agency or client person, I think you should ask yourself how involved you are in contributing to truths, whether about your brand, your industry or the world in which your business operates. What makes your social involvement necessary, and not just a “nice to have” akin to using another channel for your marketing? How do you propagate truthful information — not “content” or some other placeholder term — that empowers and inspires your consumers to make better, more durable decisions? Does your social involvement reveal new truths relevant to your consumers’ lives, or does it look inwardly at your brand and occupy them with stuff about, well, branding?

Social technologies are as valuable as the uses to which we put them. The faux truths that percolate up almost incessantly are not what we should worry about. For instance, if you’re getting lots of complaints about something, it’s more than likely something you already knew about. We should stop trying to claim it means more than it does.

Maybe it’s time to take social media seriously, and explore ways to find and encourage real truths? My gut tells me it’s what your consumers are looking for.

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Jonathan Salem Baskin has nearly 30 years of marketing experience, which means he all but chiseled his first campaign on a clay tablet. He ran marcomm for Blockbuster, Limited Brands, and Nissan, and has served clients around the world through his own consultancy, Baskin Associates, Inc., a marketing decisions consultancy, since 2003. Jonathan has authored four books, including his newly released "Tell The Truth," writes regularly for Ad Age, blogs on his own sites, and otherwise strives to make the world a better place for brands (or was it visa versa)?

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