The First Rule of Social Media: Nobody Knows Anything

It’s increasingly rare that I read something in an actual printed magazine these days. But one of these exceptions is Fast Company, which I’ve been reading since it’s emergence sometime in the late 90s. I guess you could say we grew up together, because I had just started my first company and, despite all outward appearances, had no freaking clue what I was doing. Fast Company served as a beacon for me in those days, so I remain loyal as a way to say thanks.

Anyway, in every issue there’s always a paragraph or two that jump out and make me nod my head in violent agreement. The latest of these moments comes from an article in the latest issue by Baratunde Thurston, former director of digital for the Onion. The basic premise is this: when it comes to social media strategy, nobody really knows what they’re doing. Nobody.

To wit:

…Today, the platforms you ‘need to be on’ change every few weeks. Facebook Groups are out and pages are in. No, Pages are out and Subscriptions are in. Tumblr is the new black, and email is actually the best social network. Tom from MySpace has returned…on Facebook. And what on earth is your Pinterest strategy? Oh, you don’t have one? Congratulations, you just unlocked the Irrelevant Businessperson Badge on Foursquare.”

Even if you do manage to figure out your platform of choice, he says, there is little comfort or stability to be found in the decision. That’s because the platforms don’t want to share all of their rules and methods out of a well-founded fear that some of us out there will abuse that knowledge. Or maybe, Thurston says, they don’t even know themselves what those rules and methods are. “Social media services seem torn between protecting their users, empowering their users, selling out their users, and annoying everyone.”

Another problem is that it’s really difficult to measure engagement, especially in dollars. Until Lady Gaga, Skittles had the record for the most likes and comments on a single Facebook post. But no one has any idea if that translated to sales. Michael Lebowitz, CEO of Big Spaceship (the ad firm behind the Skittles campaign) sums it up this way: “Anybody who says they can track that is in a bubble.”

Thurston echoes the point, albeit in a slightly different manner:

“Now try measuring that. What is success? Impressions? Clicks? Mentions? Sales? Viewers? Some new unit based on a dopamine meter and backdoor API installed in the user’s hypothalamus? Yes! Let’s call that metric “feelies!”

So we have this conversational medium, about which there is an ungodly amount of conversation. But the bottom line is that the only value to be found in all the chatter is the fact that we’re all trying to find our way together. And all of this searching and analyzing and struggling there are bound to be insights gained.

So just like I looked to Fast Company as my point man for modern business back in the 90s, I think we’re all looking to social media in the same way. And just like that rocky journey I undertook, the most important thing we can all do is make mistakes faster, apply what we’ve learned and share the results with the community at large. It’s the only way any of us will get a handle on the bigger picture that we’re in the process of creating.