There are a lot of questions floating around about whether or not it’s possible to apply methodical analysis to business uses of social media, including buzzword-rich realms like content strategy, permission marketing, social media marketing, online community, virtual reality, PR 2.0, and whatever the hipster term of the week might be.
The diehard old school will tell you that conversation can’t be measured, that information wants to be free, and p.s. take poison and die.
(See Bill Hicks’ hilariously bitter and profane riff on advertising, Twittered by DoshDosh and not remotely safe for work unless your boss has a very good sense of humor.)
There is a traditional belief among social media oldsters (some of us have been doing this since the late 80s, god help us) that normal business ideas like ROI have nothing to do with the brave new world. It’s too weird, it’s too chaotic, and it changes too fast.
This view basically holds that online community is like a vast, 24/7/365 Burning Man, each participant vying with the next to be less predictable, less ordinary, and less interested in any conceivable commercial engagement.
Here’s my take
There is some truth to the oldster view. You can think of social media as a kind of hopped-up primal ooze, with various critters evolving out of it in no predictable order.
Trying to run predictive quantitative analysis on a MySpace or Facebook or Twitter campaign is a sucker bet. And a blog or content/community strategy isn’t like direct mail–the results aren’t linear. You can’t build a mathematical model and start plugging numbers in, unless your spreadsheet has a way to quantify "8th dimension," "monkeys" and "naked girls riding bicycles."
Taken as a whole, the social media world is not manageable or predictable. It’s a swirling ocean of chaos. The fashionable 5% of social media is in love with the weird, the disturbing, and the radically new.
Consider Boing Boing
Once you get the sensibility, it’s not hard at all to predict a Boing Boing story. But it’s impossible to manufacture a Boing Boing story (there is nothing on earth that shines brighter than faked weirdness). And it’s impossible to know how getting onto Boing Boing would affect your business.
Other than a brief but massive traffic spike, none of us knows what a Boing Boing hit would bring. "Make something Boing Boing likes" is a strategy for dopes, unless you’re doing it for the pure fun of doing it.
But, you know, there’s a lot of social media that is not Boing Boing. There are stay-at-home parents who blog about air freshener. (Really.) There are a whole bunch of normal people with day jobs who blog about their commute, or the jeans they like best, or who they’re thinking about voting for.
The great secret of social media is that most of its participants don’t have much desire to drop acid and wander the desert wearing only a feather boa.
Because social media is vast (and growing at a breathtaking pace) and populated by human beings, it’s inherently unpredictable. It’s a classic chaotic system. The weirdness of social media, on the other hand, has been overstated.
Sure, you can still find magnificent weirdness if you know where to look, (and some of us dig that) but you can also find rather nice, normal people who just want some good advice, some useful tools, and a place to hold a conversation. Possibly even about air freshener.
Flickr Creative Commons image by MikeLove