4 Reasons The Social Media Industry Has a Credibility Problem

Brass Tack Thinking - 4 Reasons the Social Media Industry Has a Credibility ProblemThe world of social media still has a credibility problem in business.

Many people watching this from the outside in don’t understand what we’re doing. Some want to understand, but what they see often in our actions and behavior is enough to raise an eyebrow and wonder if we’re just a bunch of ego-driven teenagers. After all, on first blush, there’s an awful lot of evidence that can point that way. Spend enough time swimming in the social media fishbowl, and you’ll feel it too.

This isn’t about proving ROI. This is about how we conduct ourselves, and whether we approach our own industry with as much professionalism and respect as we’d hope the business industry does. Here’s how we’re hurting ourselves.

We talk too much about the value of our time rather than putting it to good use.

I appreciate and respect posts like this one from Lisa Barone that explain why time is valuable. And she offers some good points as well as some ways to respond to excessive requests for advice and expertise.

But there are an equal number of posts that are just blustering, arrogant and self-aggrandizing rants around how damned important we are (without much consideration for the fact that people’s disrespect of time in general is not unique to our industry). Overall, if we talked as much about how we used our preciously valuable hours and less about how much they’re worth, we might be better able to teach people how to value – and make use of – their own time, and ours.

No one owes us anything. We’re not entitled to awe and respect simply because we work in an emerging industry or on the web. The credibility, trust, and recognition that we so desire comes with time and investment in good work and the eventual and repeated demonstration of same. And there are no shortcuts.

Instead: We need to recognize and appreciate that everyone’s time is valuable, period. There will always be rude jackasses that ignore those social graces, but we are in a wonderful position to share what we know, what we experience, what we learn. I’m thankful to know many people that generously share their knowledge, and I don’t think we can ever have enough people illustrating their questions, challenges, experiences, learnings. As an industry, we get better and more sustainable by learning from each other and outlining paths that others can follow.

We cannibalize our own.

We’re incredibly good at putting people on pedestals, whether it’s the hotshot founder of a startup or a blogger or some kind of micro Twitter celebrity.

But we’re also incredibly good at tearing them down, most especially if they grow to be successful right in front of our eyes. We participate in shaming, flaming, and inciting petty debates over fleeting and over-dramatized issues. We make it cool to visibly and self-importantly tear into people as individuals rather than engaging in constructive dialogue, civil debate, or discussions that center around ideas and approaches.

It’s okay to like someone when they’re an up and comer, but not to support them when they get noticed and recognized for their work? It’s so unsexy. It reeks of envy and petty jealousy. It’s simply unkind. And it sure doesn’t make us look like professionals whose industry and practice are worthy of long-term respect, or the kind of people that others would like to someday call colleagues.

Instead: Debate issues and ideas, but leave the personal attacks out of it. (Of course, the people who most need to do that are likely not reading a post like this, but hey). Make it a point to recognize and appreciate good work, even – and especially – if it’s not yours. Open your mind, and remember that the people you’re throwing rocks at are human, fallible, and most of them are doing their best, too. Celebrate individual success and recognition as advancement for our industry.

We’re intolerant of missteps.

For as much as we want companies to embrace risk and failure in order to succeed with social media, we are so very quick to cry foul (or fail) the minute someone swings and misses.

It can feel very much like we’ve created some kind of exclusive club, a jury of thousands of friend-request-based-peers that stands in judgment of businesses and individuals wishing to join our ranks. We recite mantra, sometimes blindly. And when we see someone venturing into what we feel is our territory, our area of expertise, we’re reactionary, critical, and sometimes downright unwelcoming.

Instead: Catch people doing things right. When they falter, help them learn. Be courageous enough to share your own screwups and what you learned from them. Embrace imperfection and reward strong effort, progress, and improvement. Long term adoption and integration of a new set of business principles has a lot of considerations and implications, and most certainly doesn’t happen overnight.

We talk about conversation, but we focus a great deal on the tools. And, on ourselves.

Mark Schafer wrote a compelling blog post about the fact that he – and we – are talking, but not really learning much about one another. We’re preaching the importance and value of human connection and conversation, but perhaps we’re treating that much more superficially than we think. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece in the New Yorker this week about whether we’re really in the midst of a revolution, because our causes are perpetuated not by the strong ties of community, but by the weak ties of the internet.

I don’t particularly agree with Gladwell’s conclusions, because I think it’s still a bit early in this shift to determine it’s long term impact, and I think that weak ties aren’t without potential in their own way. But both of these articles point out that we’re preaching about possibility and the value of the human element, but sometimes, we’re only succeeding at superficial demonstrations of the connections we so celebrate (presuming that we focus on making connections at all). And we’re enamored of tubes and pipes and whizbangs, treating them as the next great direct marketing channel instead of examining the intent behind their use, and its potential for evolution.

Instead: We need to live the values we preach, even if they don’t easily scale, and even if we have to try and fail and try again. We have to dig into the foundation of why we think there’s a (r)evolution happening, not just how it manifests on the internet. And we have to turn our focus from “what’s in this for me?” into “how does this drive progress for us all?” Idealistic, I know. Every seismic shift in business carries with it the opportunists that will never be anything but. But until enough of us are willing to rise up and keep pushing for that kind of introspection, we’ll be at the mercy of those that are willing to sell their soul for a click or a like or a follow.

What Would You Add?

I’m talking about things I see as broken. I’m offering some suggestions for how we can improve on those things, but they’re not complete by any means, and I need your help, too. I hope you’ll weigh in through the comments, and let me know what challenges and opportunities you see. What makes you proud to be in this industry, and what makes you cringe. Where you think we can be better collectively in order to earn social media a credible, substantive spot amongst the strategic plans of businesses for a long time to come.

Share your ideas?