8 Harsh Truths about Social Media (and 1 Pretty Awesome One)

Saying that the internet isn’t working for us is like saying the solar system isn’t working for us. It’s our job to learn how it works, and then learn to be smart about working with its nature

In this episode, I talk some lessons I’ve learned from being on the social web for 26 years now. Which is, yes, a pretty darned long time to spend fooling around on the internet.

In this 28-minute episode, I talk about:

  • Why “digital sharecropping” is so dangerous
  • Why you don’t own the conversation — and how you can benefit from it, if you’re smart
  • Why outrage is like meth
  • How the room is bigger than you think it is
  • Why everything on the web becomes 100% visible just at the moment you don’t want it to be
  • Why you should never get into a flame war (but what to do if you need to defend yourself)
  • Why personality matters, but train wrecks die broke
  • How to use natural disasters or other terrible events in your marketing (spoiler: You don’t)
  • The awesome way that social media can make you a much, much better writer (or artist, or musician, or whatever you happen to be)

The Show Notes

8 Harsh Truths About Social Media (and 1 Pretty Awesome One)

Sonia Simone: Greetings, superfriends! My name is Sonia Simone and these are the Confessions of a Pink-Haired Marketer. For those who don’t know me, I’m a co-founder and the chief content officer for Copyblogger Media.

I’m also a champion of running your business and your life according to your own rules. As long as you don’t lie and you don’t hurt people, this podcast is your official pink permission slip to run your business or your career exactly the way you think you should.

The Confessions of a Pink-Haired Marketer have been brought to you today by Authority Rainmaker, a live educational experience that presents a complete and effective online marketing strategy to help you immediately accelerate your business. If you want more details on that, head over to rainmaker.fm/event.

And before I start today, I want to thank you all for such lovely comments, reviews and your likes on iTunes. I really, really appreciate that. They are all very welcome, so thank you so much. If you feel so moved today to add such a thing on iTunes or add a comment on the Rainmaker.FM platform, that would be swell. I would love to talk to you there and reach out to you there.

Today I want to talk about nine things I’ve learned about social media and making a living on the web.

I’ve actually been online since 1989. That’s when I first got involved with the social internet, and the main thing I have seen is … that things have hardly changed at all in 26 years.

I heard a pundit the other day on the radio, talking about the Internet revolution being broken. That the promise of the Internet revolution has not been kept and we have a lot of problems with the changes that the Internet has made to society, to culture, to the economy.

And I certainly see his point, but the issue I have with that is that this whole idea is based on the premise that the Internet owes you something, or that the Internet is capable of promising us something. And if that’s how you are going to approach the web, you are going to have a bad time.

The Internet doesn’t owe the recording industry anything, and it doesn’t owe journalism anything or the government, or you, or me, because it’s not in its nature to owe. It just is.

So saying that “the Internet revolution is broken,” is like saying the solar system revolution is broken, because the solar system is not giving us what we hoped it would give us when we first understood its existence. That’s just not the way the solar system works.

The solar system is the solar system. It runs according to its own rules. It does its thing and we pretty much just have to deal with what we get.

The same is true of the Internet. And one thing the Internet does provide is an unsurpassed collection of tools for small businesses, which is where jobs come from, at least in the US. The Internet gives us an unprecedented set of ways to go out into the world and find people who would like to do business with us. There are some really powerful ways the Internet can be used for that, and that’s a lot of what I talk about day in and day out.

You have to understand how the net works and how to work with its nature. All that the Internet is, is the collective behavior of people who are joined together with modern communication technology. That’s all. It’s just the collection behavior of a whole bunch of people.

So instead of getting frustrated by what it’s not doing for us, or what we thought it would do, that it didn’t do, I want you to focus on the behaviors that are going to get you more of what you want, and less of what you don’t want.

I’m going to dive into some do’s and don’t do’s that I have learned from being on the net a seriously long time. I see the same patterns of behavior over and over again, and there are helpful, constructive ways to work with them and there are destructive ways to work with them. So I am going to talk about both of those today.

#1: Why “Digital Sharecropping” Is So Dangerous

The first one being the pitfall, or the trap, of what has been called “Digital sharecropping.” Digital sharecropping is when you build your entire project or business on somebody else’s platform.

For example, you are a hairdresser and all of your web presence is on Facebook. So your shop hours, your conversations with customers, your deal of the week, everything is on Facebook.

And then next week, Facebook pulls one of its patented little maneuvers that makes us so thrilled with Facebook — if we are business owners doing business on Facebook — and your salon all of a sudden goes from being a happy, thriving busy little salon, to being a ghost town. And all because of a decision made by a massive third party that does not care what you were doing, who you are, or what your business is.

That pitfall is known as digital sharecropping. And the thing is, social platforms come and go. There used to be this massive network, really popular, one of the first virtual communities what we used to call social media called GEnie.

Genie happened on the servers for GE, and GE was looking for a way to use the off peak capacity of their computer servers. They had all these computer servers that weren’t really doing anything at night when their employees went home, so they thought, “we’ll start this bulletin board or this community, and just let people use our servers at night when no one else is using them.” It was an interesting idea.

Genie was a thriving, thriving community. They had some topic-focused boards that were just tremendous. Some of the nicest, best examples of social media, virtual community I have seen. And then one day, Genie said, “You know, this is sort of a dopey way for us to use our servers. We’re a big company. This project doesn’t really bring in that much revenue.” And they just pulled the plug on it. It was gone. All this community, all these relationships, all this conversation, all this knowledge that had been shared and actions that had been made, overnight, gone.

[Sonia’s editorial note: I mis-remembered the timeline on this slightly, although the overarching themes are right — here’s an article on the precise details if you want to know more about it: GEnie on Wikipedia]

That’s hard enough in your personal life. It can actually be quite heartbreaking in your personal life, and I don’t take that lightly. I don’t say that lightly. The relationships we make online can be real, and rich, and valuable relationships.

It’s doubly heartbreaking when that’s your business, and all of a sudden you have no way to get customers anymore. And customers have no way to connect with you anymore.

GEnie came and went. MySpace came and went. The WELL, which is another community I was a big part of, is still around in a somewhat quieter form, but it’s not what it was. But it could go. It could go away.

Social platforms come and go. Facebook is probably not going to be the exception to that rule. It’s very strong now and it will probably be very strong next year. Where’s it going to be in five years? I don’t know. Nobody can tell you that. Truly, nobody can tell you that.

Social media is a content promotion platform for our business. It’s not an original content platform, and it’s not where your business lives. It’s super valuable. It’s very valuable. It’s a wonderful place to go talk to people, and especially to listen to people, which sometimes businesses get a little confused about. But it’s not where your business lives.

Build your business on your own site, your own domain name, on a platform that you can control. Something like self-hosted WordPress is terrific. Put your content on a platform you can control.

That is exactly why the Rainmaker Platform is built on WordPress, on your domain, and it’s completely controllable by you. If you decide you don’t like it, you can move it to your own self-hosted platform. You can do lots of things with it.

Decisions that the third-party company makes should not be able to tank your business by making your site go away, or by imposing a lot of restrictions on what you can and can’t do with it.

#2: You Don’t Own the Conversation — But You Can Benefit From It

As I said, social media does provide an awesome place to have conversations that are going to benefit your business, but that takes us to number two. Which is: You don’t own the conversation, you benefit from the conversation.

A lot of people online start to think that the conversation belongs to them. That the conversation about their business in some way belongs to them, and then they start thinking they can control it. And people go very sideways when they get into that space.

Conversation online is not something you can control. You can influence it, and mostly you can show up and take part in it. You can show up, be somebody worth listening to, and get your voice heard. But it’s not necessarily going to go your way.

People are not necessarily going to agree with you and, most frustratingly, people are going to say things about you that aren’t true. People are going to say things about you that are not fair. That is part of the deal. You don’t own the conversation.

What you want to think about is how can you benefit from the conversation. And the best way you can benefit from the conversation is listening. Listen to what kind of problems people have that you might be able to help out with. Listen to perceptions maybe about you as an individual or your company or your organization or your profession, that might not be fair but the perception is there, it has to be dealt with. What could you speak to about who you are, what you do, how you do it.

The web provides an incredible opportunity to listen to the public zeitgeist, the public pulse, the public shared brain. Sometimes that shared brain has unpleasant little corners of it and sometimes it has amazing insights.

So think about that. Think about participating in the conversation. Do show up. Do make your voice heard. Do be a reasonable, calm, sensible voice in the shouty Internet, but also listen to what people are having trouble with.

#3: Outrage Is Like Meth

The third thing I have learned from being online for an awfully long time is that outrage is a lot like methamphetamine. It’s cheap, it’s very addictive, and it is incredibly toxic.

And unfortunately outrage is the most readily available and commonly used fuel on the net. And that is slightly more true now, than it was when I got started.

We have these outrage machines. Facebook is a big one, but it’s not only Facebook. There’s a great, very clever blogger named Julien Smith, who says:

Oh you are a blogger, what do you complain about?

And it’s really true. We use the Internet to gripe. That’s a thing that the Internet has always been used for. And outrage — violated moral standards — are a big, big fuel on the web.

We love to share what makes us outraged. The problem is, it kind of corrupts everything it touches. It’s very tempting. It’s very tempting to use a lot of outrage in your social media presence, even in your messaging, your advertising, your marketing. Just be really wary of it because it is addictive and it is toxic.

#4: The Room Is Bigger Than You Think It Is

And that leads me to the fourth thing that I have learned — at some pain to myself — over the years, which is that the room is bigger than you think it is.

I was quite delighted to hear punk legend Henry Rollins, who was the front man for Black Flag, talk about this exact idea in a conversation he had with Brian Clark .

Let me talk about what that means.

Now if you are going to be giving a talk in front of the NAACP, that is not the time when you are going to roll out that racially insensitive joke your uncle Ben loves to tell at Thanksgiving, and he tells it every Thanksgiving and he laughs at his own joke, and everybody else thinks it’s mildly amusing.

Because that would be dumb.

It’s not about political correctness; it’s about having some common sense and some good manners. You don’t use material like that in front of the audience. That is denigrating. Only a dumb or incredibly insensitive person would do that.

So here’s the thing about the Internet. Whoever it is that that word choice or joke or whatever it might be, happens to be denigrating is standing right in front of you. The room is bigger than you think it is. There are more people listening in than you think.

Which means No, you can’t make dumb jokes at the expense of ethnicities or identities or orientations or whatever it might be, because that person is standing right in front of you. That person is right there.

And there are a lot of casual slurs that we have gotten into the habit of using, and I am not going to repeat them because they bother me and I don’t want to be part of that. But there are a lot of casual words that we do still encounter all the time.

We encounter them on YouTube, we really encounter them in the YouTube comments. And they are hurtful and they are toxic. And they are not necessary to the conversation.

So I want you to just think about that, and think about the fact that the person who would be offended by that remark — and sometimes offence gets a bad wrap and people say, “Oh, everybody is so offended by everything.”

Like I said, outrage is meth, right? It’s cheap, it’s addictive, and it’s toxic. Fair enough. People are ready to be offended by small slights.

However, I’m going to argue that a racial slur is not a small slight. It’s a big deal. It’s incredibly rude, insensitive, and it’s dismissive, and it denigrates people on a basis of something that is totally irrelevant to who they are as a human being.

So if this is a habit that you have, or a habit that you occasionally fall prey to, you need to really work on just getting this out of your habit stream.

It’s funny how often people will do this when they are nervous or intoxicated and their little control part of their brain is not working so well. Don’t do it. Don’t make the racial remark. Don’t make the joke.

And certainly do not, if you do make such an error, do not come in afterwards and get huffy about how people don’t have a sense of humor these days and everyone gets offended by everything. You made the mistake, cop to it, say “it was a stupid, dumb, slip of the tongue and I don’t think it’s cool and I don’t think it’s cool that I did it” and move on.

#4: Everything On the Web Becomes 100% Visible Just at the Moment You Don’t Want It To Be

That leads me to the fifth thing that I have learned, and I have really learned this on the web, which is that everything on the web becomes 100% visible at the exact moment you don’t want it to be. It is the darnedest thing.

Why is this? Because outrage is the most available fuel on the web.

If you say something that angers someone, hurts someone’s feelings in a way that offends their sense of outrage, all of sudden you just gave it a big dose of rocket fuel.

Even if — and I have seen this happen — you have people who only have a tiny handful of people, let’s say in their Twitter stream, just a couple of friends and neighbors. They say something that has a little bit of this outrage fuel attached to it.

Well, I promise you, one of those people in those 23 people in their Twitter stream has a much larger audience, and that person retweets it. Repeats what you said.

The thing about the Internet is no matter what your privacy lockdowns are, everything on the web is very easy to duplicate and share. So it doesn’t matter how tight your security settings are, if somebody in your social media following, circle, whatever it might be, chooses to violate your privacy and share that, there is not a thing you can do about it.

And so the person with 23 followers gets retweeted by someone who has 1,000 followers. And that person has somebody really influential who follows them, who has 10,000 followers. All of a sudden it’s on the front page of The New York Times.

It happens. It happens every week on the web, in one way or another.

The thing that you do not want to be visible, becomes 100% visible on the web, just when you would rather it just be quiet.

So think about that with your presence on the web. It goes directly to the things we have been talking about.

#6: Never Get Into a Flame War (But What To Do If You Need To Defend Yourself)

And the sixth thing that I have seen again and again, this is probably the truest constant on the web, is beware of wars, because they are easier to get into than to get out of.

And of course, the greatest thing ever written on this was a comic by xkcd, the gist of which is, the first stick figure says, “Are you ever going to come to bed?” And the second stick figure says, “I can’t. Someone is wrong on the Internet.”

(You can see the comic here: Duty Calls.)

This is really the truest thing about the web that has ever been created in any art form, and probably that will ever be created.

You need to watch your temper. And I’m not saying you can’t get mad, and I’m not even saying you can’t even get outraged, because there are outrageous things that happen. There are outrageous cases of bullying or other things that people do on the web that are unforgivable, and shouldn’t be forgiven. They should be called on the bad behavior.

But controlled anger is much better than losing your temper.

So if somebody is actually threatening you. If you have a true bullying situation where someone is making threats that are scaring you, you need to get law enforcement in and you need to take it very seriously and don’t just say, “Oh, it’s just the Internet.” I really want to stress that if somebody is threatening you or making you feel unsafe, call law enforcement. Do not mess around.

If someone is just saying horrible things about you, you can do two things. One is, you can take them to court, or two, you can turn down the volume.

What you don’t want to do, and what people do do is, they say, “Well, I’m not going to take them to court. That’s overreacting. So I’m going to create a troll account and I’m going to infiltrate their Facebook group.”

Okay, no. Really. Don’t do this.

Don’t harass people online, do not get into endless flame wars and endless bouts of name calling. Even if you are right. Even if someone is wrong on the Internet, it is toxic to you and it’s a horrible waste of your time to get into flame wars with people.

If it’s a law enforcement situation, take it to them and let them help you get it resolved. You know, if it’s so egregious that you have to take them to court, then take them to court, but don’t take it to the web. Turn off the screen, and walk away.

People are going to be wrong. People are going to be unfair. People are going to say things about you that are totally unfair, untrue, and malicious. And that is part of the deal.

So how you deal with that part of the deal? There is a lot of ways you can do it but what I don’t want you to do is get into a massive Internet based flame war, because that just doesn’t tend to ever work.

You won’t teach them a lesson. You won’t shame them into realizing they are a horrible person. It just won’t work. It doesn’t ever work. I have never seen it happen.

If you wanted to try and get them into a conversation, sometimes that works but a lot of times it doesn’t work. You could do that if you want to, but don’t get into wars with the Internet as your battlefield. Nobody wins. Nobody ever wins those wars.

#7; Personality Matters, But Train Wrecks Die Broke

So the seventh thing I have learned from being online a tremendously long time is that personality is important, but train wrecks die broke.

And what I mean by that is that dull content is going to sink. Dull personalities are going to sink.

There is one big boring player on the Internet, and that’s Wikipedia. And Wikipedia already has boring all sewn up. So you can’t compete with them and I can’t compete with them. They have got a corner on boring, and they do it very well.

You know, more power to them. This is not putting down Wikipedia. The whole point of Wikipedia is not to be interesting, to have flavor, to have personality. That’s against their charter. That’s great. They do a great job at what they do.

You are not Wikipedia. Interesting and useful is what is going to get you what you want. And being interesting because you are a complete disaster and a train wreck is not how that works. And I have seen a surprising number of people do that.

They get on social media, and Twitter is particularly bad for this, and Facebook also definitely has its share of people who just get on, they start to rant and they pick fights. They get into flame wars.

I will say, one thing I have learned on the Internet — you can call it number nine and a half — is, don’t get on the social web when you are intoxicated. It’s just not a good idea. You are not going to do smart things.

If you have to have a personality, being a train wreck is not what this is about. You want to be a likeable authority. You want to know what you are talking about, especially if you are on the web for some kind of a business purpose — to find more clients, to build the case for your business, to create content that helps people understand who you are and what you do.

Be a grown up, but be an interesting grown up.

Please don’t be a train wreck. Nobody wants to do business with train wrecks. They get a lot of attention. They might get 100,000 views but they are not doing any business. So that’s not who you want to be and you know, if that’s part of your persona online, I would strongly encourage that you shape it up.

#8: How to Use Natural Disasters Or Other Terrible Events In Your Marketing (Spoiler: You Don’t)

Number eight is so dopey, I almost don’t want to tell you, except I see it all the time, so I think it needs to be said.

If somebody dies, don’t use it in your marketing.

So what this means is, do not do your your social media marketing around massive, horrible natural disasters that kill people. No Hurricane Katrina marketing, no Hurricane Sandy marketing, no marketing that involves any kind of mass shooting or anything majorly bad that happens.

I saw a marketing automation company that ran just a generic marketing message and they used a trending hashtag. I’m sure this is part of their software. They used a trending hashtag and they just put their unrelated marketing message in with the hashtag #ferguson. Which of course is the hashtag that is used to talk about the ongoing series of demonstrations, the police shooting of an unarmed young man in Ferguson, Missouri, and the very painful and difficult aftermath of that event. It has nothing to do with marketing automation.

So first, just putting your plain old marketing message along with whatever the trending topic is — even if it’s something about Kim Kardashian’s backside — it’s spam.

Nobody wants to see your marketing message if they want to look at Kim Kardashian’s backside, right? No. It’s spam. You are intruding on the conversation in an unwelcome way. You are a pest. You’re a plague.

So A), don’t do that. Don’t just ride your marketing message alongside irrelevant hashtags or other social media tools. and B) anything tragic, don’t use in your marketing, unless it’s extremely relevant.

So if you have a product, a storm window that could protect your house, your safety, and your belongings in a serious storm, you could very respectfully talk about that, but you have to really be careful. You don’t want to be an ambulance chaser. Nobody likes that person. Nobody wants to do business with that person.

So really be thoughtful about it. The number of small businesses that come up with these theoretically, lighthearted, jokey little marketing messages attached to things like major hurricanes is just a stupid, stupid thing to do.

Again, the room is larger than you think it is. So you are over there in California and you have a clothing boutique and you do “#hurricanesandysale, 50% off all dresses,” — the room is bigger than you think it is. There are all kinds of people on the east coast who have been directly affected by this hurricane, some of whom have lost people they love or lost their homes. The room is bigger than you think it is.

So if somebody dies, don’t use it in your marketing. It should be obvious. It is not obvious because people do it all the time. So I am telling you.

#9: The Awesome Way That Social Media Can Make You a Much, Much Better Writer (Or Artist, Or Musician, Or Whatever You Happen To Be)

And now time for the last thing I have learned. I have been talking about what not to do, and a lot of negative things, so I want to talk about something positive.

Social media is a great way to write every day. Or if you make videos or you make podcasts, or you draw cartoons or you create animation, whatever you do, whatever your expression is — social media is a great way to do it every day and share it with other people.

That is the best way I know of, whatever kind of artist you are. You paint pictures, or you make music. That is the best way I know of to get a lot better at what you do. A lot better at what you do.

There was a great project that the group They Might Be Giants did many years ago, and they did it so long ago that they put it on a telephone answering machine, just to give you an idea.

They would record a little song every day, like a 15 or 20 second song every day. Then they would leave it as their message on their answering machine. And they had a delightful tagline, which was, “Free when you call from work.” Which I thought was clever and adorable.

And they did this for some extended period of time, and they got a lot better at writing and recording music, because they did a small project every day, that they knew was going to be shared with a large group of people.

The Internet is an unbelievable tool for doing that. So if you are a writer — whatever it is you do for expression — do it every day and share it on the web.

Sometimes people think it doesn’t count. Sometimes people think, “Well the writing I do on social media doesn’t really count as writing every day.”

But of course it counts. You are putting something into words, expressing an idea and then you are putting it out in front of an audience and saying “Is my idea clear or is it muddy? Am I confusing people? Am I making people angry when I never intended to do that? Have I chosen my words carefully? Have I chosen my tone carefully? Have I mastered this art of connecting with other people using the written word?”

And again, it applies to every art form, or expression form you can think of.

The social web is a dynamite, dynamite place to get a lot better at what you do. So do it. Take advantage of it.

Do what you do every single day, share it with the world with these unbelievable tools.

Don’t get hung up on some imagined promise that the Internet made, that it didn’t keep. Do cool things, share them with other people and get out there, be a good and honorable person on the web. And the things that you want are going to start to manifest.

The Confessions of a Pink-Haired Marketer have been brought to you today by Authority Rainmaker. Authority Rainmaker is a live event, it’s an educational experience that presents a complete effective online marketing strategy. And what that does is it will help you immediately accelerate your business. It will help you find customers and turn fans into customers.

Don’t miss the opportunity to see Dan Pink, Sally Hogshead, punk legend Henry Rollins. I will be speaking, Brian Clark will be speaking and a lot of other really smart cool people live. And of course, the secret sauce is building real-world relationships with the other attendees, including me and I personally would love to connect with you there.

So if you have some time in your schedule in Denver, Colorado this May, I would just love to absolutely meet you. You can get the details at rainmaker.fm/event and we really look forward to seeing you there.

Thank you everybody. Take care. Thank you for your time and attention. This is Sonia Simone with The Confessions of a Pink-Haired Marketer.

Thank you guys so much.