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Venkatesh Rao, Contributor

February 27, 2009

10 Min Read

I had a big insight today: the word "social" in the term "social media" represents the ultimate in misleading advertising, and is responsible for many failures and a lot of disenchantment, especially within the enterprise. The adjective attracts exactly the sort of people most likely to fail at doing anything valuable with the technology. The sort of extroverted, harmony-seeking, consensus-driven collectivists who think it is all about the group, cutting big-ego prima donnas down to size, and building Brave New Egalitarian Communities that enshrine social justice values. It also explains why thoroughly introverted, unsociable, egoistic and ornery individualists (I am one; among my nicknames in college was "hermit") take to the medium like ducks to water. This conflation of social with sociable, collectivist and communitarian is extraordinarily tempting. Yes, the medium fosters communication and collaboration, but remember, wolf packs communicate and collaborate rather better than sheep. And they compete viciously for the carcass right after. The true nature of social media, the "message" of this medium, is one of radical, uncompromising individualism, within a brutally competitive, bubblegum-flavored Darwinian virtual environment. The "social" adjective is about something else entirely, not collectivist utopia. Allow me to elaborate. The implications are extraordinarily counter-intuitive, and if you don't learn to appreciate them, you will be eaten by the wolves.The Social Media Values TestFirst, judge for yourself. Here is a two-column list, with individualist and collectivist values. Both lists are derived from William Whyte's classic The Organization Man, with the "collectivist" values representing what he called the Organization Man's "Social Ethic" and the "individualist" values being essentially those of the "Protestant Ethic" of the earlier Robber Baron era in America. Which set of values do you think better describes successful uses of social media that you've encountered?


You can extend the list considerably, and there are subtle cases where social media appears to be collectivist at first glance, but is really individualist when you look deeper. Consider creativity and innovation: the "Wisdom of the Crowds" only seems like a collectivism-vs.-genius model. The real insight is that the wisdom of the crowds depends on individualism and "private" knowledge. WoC mechanism designers strive to get people thinking independently during ideation. It is only in later phases of pooling, building-off-each-other and filtration that communication is encouraged. And it isn't to compromise and create consensus, it is to do decidedly non-egalitarian things like ranking or "stock picking" in prediction markets. Early sharing, consultation and convergent debate actually makes the outcomes worse by fostering group-think and convergence to mediocre compromises. Collectivism, unlike WoC, encourages exactly these pathologies. Whyte describes this brilliantly (the guy got social media in 1953 better than many do in 2009!):

In group doctrine the strong personality is viewed with overwhelming suspicion. The cooperative are those who take a stance directly over keel; the man with ideas-in translation, prejudices-leans to one side or, worse yet, heads for the rudder. P1ainly, he is a threat. Skim through current group handbooks, conference leaders tool kits, and the like and you find what sounds very much like a call to arms by the mediocre against their enemies...The most misguided attempt at false collectivization is the current attempt to see the group as a creative vehicle. Can it be? People very rarely think in groups; they talk together, they exchange information, they adjudicate, they make compromises. But they do not think; they do not create...[The] fixture of organization life [,] the meeting self-consciously dedicated to creating a fraud. Much of such high-pressure creation-cooking with gas, creating out loud, spitballing, and so forth-is all very provocative, but if it is stimulating, it is stimulating much like alcohol. After the glow of such a session has worn off, the residue of ideas usually turns out to be a refreshed common denominator everybody is relieved to agree upon-and if there is a new idea, you usually find that it came from a capital of ideas already thought out-by an individual-and perhaps held in escrow until moment for its introduction. Somehow, individual initiative must enter into the group...[We] must remember that if every member simply wants do what the group wants to do, then the group is not going to do anything. -- William Whyte, The Organization Man, 1953.

I will not belabor the point, but even apparent collectivist successes like Obama's social-media fueled victory lend themselves to individualist-ethics analysis.So What's So "Social" About Social Media?Here's why people fall into this confusion. The media are "social" not because they enable sociability, harmony and World Peace, but because people are the medium. You don't connect to people through the medium. The people are the medium to connect you to value. The technology itself is just the material that allows humans to act like a connective medium. Here's an analogy: specific social technologies like wikis and blogs are like metals, it is humans' virtual activity that forms the metal into communication "pipes" that make the whole thing "media." Twitter and email illustrate this best. I don't realy get links to interesting articles through "email" or "twitter," I get them through "people." I don't connect to people (in the sense of "making friends/contacts") through the LinkedIn platform: I connect to people I don't know through people I know, who are also on the platform. Remember McLuhan's big idea, that the "Medium is the Message?" Here's how the algebra works out:


The medium is social because it is made of people, and its "message" is the true nature of people. Love it or hate it, we are products of evolution: we brilliantly co-operate like pack dogs to bring down the bison, and then fight like crazy over the carcass. We groom each other as primates, but owe our brain development in large part to the evolution of social manipulation and exploitation skills. These are the human traits social media amplify.This means all successful social media efforts are fueled by self-interest, not altruism. If it looks like altruism, look again. If it looks "free," look for the hidden economy.Implications: Six Easy Pieces

  1. No Kumbaya: Like I said, the wrong sorts of people get attracted to social media, those who believe it will help make the world more "fair" or remove oppression. I've seen many such well-intentioned and classically socialist do-gooders get excited about social media and then give up in disgust at their failure in the face of what they see as rampant individual glory-seeking, and anarchic free-agent capitalism. When social good instincts succeed, it is by co-opting Darwinism by leveling the playing fields of access to information and capital (examples: and hole in the wall project, which inspired Slumdog Millionaire).

  2. The "Diffusion Editorial:" Free publicity isn't. Marketers are phenomenally excited about the possibilities of Twitter and other word-of-mouth amplifiers. It sounds like "impressions for free." But if you recognize the individualist, Darwinian nature of social media, you know you're not getting publicity for free. Through me, you get past spam filters. I take my cut. Call it the "social margin." The apparently "free" tweet just paid an attention tax because I added a comment that drained some attention away from you, even if I said something totally positive. The cost to you is that you have to design your meme, at much higher cost, to resist mutation from piggyback editorializing and be infectious (a characteristic which, oddly enough, gets labeled "viral"). And the net impact will only be your partial share of the total attention generated, minus the part of the attention that went from potentially-positive to negative because of the overall, socially created "Diffusion Editorial." If you want to control this, you'll have to pay to hire much smarter creative staff and inflate the impressions you are shooting for.

  3. Freeconomics, not Free: In case you didn't notice, the noble "Information Wants to be Free" rhetoric of Richard Stallman is dead. "Free" is now a strategic and hard-headed business choice within an expanded space of business models. Once you factor in Stone-Soup economics, advertiser-pays and pay-it-forward dynamics, and extreme loss-leader and upsell-to-premium strategies, free is just sophisticated economics, as Chris Anderson says. Linux and Wordpress are no more "free" than highways, public parks and "buy one get one free" schemes. You just aren't seeing the invisible web through which these things are getting paid for. You are paying too.

  4. Communities of Competition, not Communitarianism: If you love collectivist utopias, "community" probably evokes visions of farmers' markets, co-ops, kibbutzes or unions to you. Think again. The most successful communities are far more like Lord of the Flies or Survivor. A few "social capitalists" are reaping ENORMOUS dividends while the vast majority are bottom-feeders waiting for their chance. And this is the way it should be. Vast communities of roughly equal ba-baaing sheep are interesting to nobody (except wolves). It is the gambler's instinct for disproprtionate rewards (in terms of monetary or social capital) that creates competition and value.

  5. The Long-Tail Isn't What You Think It Is: The "Long Tail" too, is often mistakenly considered a virtual version of that theatrical temple to 18th-century-nostalgia, the American Farmers' Market. Vendors you meet at farmers' markets are in it not for money, but for their values. Organic, cruelty-free, artistic, fair-trade, diversity, holistic, what have you. As a structuring of the economy, the "Long Tail" is much more primal. It is no more than a set of value-free conditions which shifts the balance of information assymmetries (and therefore power) among aggregators, distributors and producers of information work. The result is something more like a real Darwinian bazaar, the sort where vendors compete viciously and are liable to kill one another over customer-poaching disputes.

  6. Seek Trade, Not Awe: Probably the BIGGEST mistake people make. by thinking in terms of collectivist values is to make up horribly misnamed concepts like "thousand raving fans" or "Tribe." Unlike many delusional types, Stephen Colbert gets it: his "nation" is a tongue-in-cheek anarchy of anti-authoritarian types, unlike the earnest flock of believers that Bill O'Reilly rules over. These concepts do refer to real things, but the connotation of unthinking, sheep-like following is misleading. Yeah, you might attract a lot of these, and even make some money off them, but the borderline-moronic adulation isn't worth a whole lot. Where you can really accummulate social capital is in the corners of your network where you inspire not gushing awe, but a spark of self-interested curiosity. This intelligent Darwinist, if you get him or her on your side through a productive and ongoing exchange of value, is worth ten sheep who pay you a dollar a year in AdSense clicks. Literally. I'd gladly take a hit of 10 in my RSS subscriber base in exchange for a great, regular commenter. And I'd take a hit of a 100 for a great regular guest blogger.

I could go on, but a word to the wise is sufficient. This "social media is not really social in that sense" idea takes getting used to. I myself was long puzzled by how unreasonably natural an apparently "social" medium felt to me, a certified and implacable anti-collectivist. The powers-that-be at my workplace once saw fit to send me to a leadership course, where of course, I scored "ornery, stubborn, recluse" on all those tests for sociability and introversion. I avoid parties and committee work like the plague, and I never yet met a consensus that I don't itch to disrupt just for the hell of it. And I am not alone -- most social media mavens I've met seem to be like me. I usually find them by butting heads with them somewhere, and then making up.The lesson is unequivocal: radical individualists of the world rejoice. Despite all appearances, this is YOUR world.Venkatesh G. Rao writes a blog on business and innovation at, and is a Web technology researcher at Xerox. The views expressed in this blog are his personal ones and do not represent the views of his employer.

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