When will social media begin to crumble under its own success?
I've been asking myself this lately as the hype behind social networking, blogging, and user-submitted content continues. When articles start appearing like this one about how scrappy amateurs turned their blogging hobbies into raging successes, and reports like this one about how social news site Reddit turned personality into cash nearly overnight, my dot-bomb sense really starts tingling.
First, let me be clear: I'm not saying social media, user-submitted content, and blogs are bad things. And I'm not saying it's all going to disappear in a puff of smoke generated by the flames of irrational exuberance. Not at all. This stuff is here to stay. What I'm saying is there are increasingly more signs that the blunt-force application of social media to everything from ketchup to business analysis to politics might contain the seeds of its own downfall, at least as far as marketers are concerned.
Why? Because the drive to commercialize social media due to its overwhelming popularity and potential for highly targeted advertising and its "goldmine" of behavioral data may be just the thing that drives people away. As more trustworthy amateurs see the potential to get paid for what they're doing, the high-minded ideals that underlie the entire concept will be undermined.
For most folks, social media's value is that it's social. It revolves around the idea that anyone can be a publisher, anyone can create networks of like-minded people, and real users/fans/aficionados/what-have-you are more reliable than the Big Media we increasingly distrust. The charm (and value) of blogs, user-submitted reviews/ratings, and homegrown videos is they're real and created in a somewhat innocent state that's more trustworthy than those created to make money. In short, social media is valuable because it's authentic and not sullied by ickiness like the profits that can only be gained by kowtowing to advertisers or pushing a secret (presumably evil) agenda. Social media is raw and from the streets. It wears its views on its virtual sleeve.
Above all, authenticity is about trust. We trust our friends on our various social networks because we believe them to be real. On business social networking sites such as LinkedIn, that reality might include a profit motive, but everyone's aware of it. We trust reviews on sites like Epionions or blog postings about a new product's coolness because we trust the person who wrote the review is someone like us, someone who just wants to share her opinion with the world. (A recent Agency.com study labeled this influencer an "uploader.") We may find the user-submitted content in the online game we're playing hokey, but at least it's created by hokey folks just like us. And those YouTube lip-synch videos that make us cringe also make us smile. When we watch them we recognize ourselves (and what we do when we think nobody's watching) in all their grainy Web cam glory.
We trust social media because it appears to come from a place of pure altruism, from a perceived desire to make the world a better place, to make us laugh just because laughter is good, to pass on some knowledge we've gained to help others. But when that trust is broken, watch out! You only have to look as far as the brouhaha over flogs or lonelygirl15 to see how quickly indignation and betrayal can flash through the Web. People don't like it when they find out they've been had.
But these are obvious examples. What's coming into the intersection of social media and advertising will be a lot subtler and lot harder to detect. While paid shilling has been institutionalized by companies such as PayPerPost and paid social news uploading has become an integral part of Netscape, new developments that add more financial incentives to social media are just starting to appear. Video site Blinkx is getting ready to unveil what amounts to "AdSense for video," allowing targeted advertising to be served based on video content. Google's new "Pay Per Action" advertising model means bloggers who drive actual sales based on traffic from their posts will be rewarded. And commercial "crowdhacking" on social news sites such as Digg has become an established reality.
Why should all this make you worry about social media's future? Because inserting the profit motive into social media chips away at the very foundation on which the social media revolution is based. Once it's possible to get paid more based on how well someone can push a product on his blog, include high-value keywords in his "amateur" videos, or drive direct commercial action based on what he writes, authenticity and trust begin to break down. Even if someone's truly doing something out of the goodness of his heart or the desire to express himself, knowing he might get paid for his views or content makes us all distrust him a bit more.
Today, many of us view social content from a standpoint of trust. But as commercial interests intersect with social media, that trust will erode. And when trust goes, so does social media.
Already advertisers are starting to realize social media and user-submitted content can be problematic. But we must be careful about how we interact with social media. We must continue to recognize why social media exists and use it cautiously in our advertising campaigns. Otherwise, we just might kill the goose that's laying the golden egg.
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Sean Carton has recently been appointed to develop the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce, and Culture at the University of Baltimore and is chief creative officer at idfive in Baltimore. He was formerly the dean of Philadelphia University's School of Design + Media and chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.