Commentary

Hey, Social Media Experts: What You Do Is Worth Nothing!

I know you're probably expecting me to write about Google+ again this week. Sorry to disappoint, but today I'm going Big Picture, to make sure anyone who reads this gets a much-needed feel for what some people think social media people do all day.

The answer? Nothing. Nothing of value, anyway.

And yes, this seems to be the perception even though -- or perhaps because -- IPO-mania has hit social media, making snot-nosed kids like Facebook, Zynga and LinkedIn worth billions, if not tens of billions, of dollars.

I stumbled across this sad truth yesterday when an op-ed piece in The New York Times caught my eye. Written by Thomas Friedman -- "The World Is Flat" guy -- it was called "The Start-Up of You." As the title implies, it was about how, in the 21st century economy, workers have to look at themselves as scrappy, creative start-ups, with the ability "to invent, adapt and reinvent their jobs every day." The springboard for this column wasn't only the dismal 9.2 percent unemployment rate, but also a new book by LinkedIn's Reid Hoffman (and Ben Casnocha), also titled, "The Start-Up of You."

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Said Hoffman to Friedman: "The uncertain, rapidly changing conditions in which entrepreneurs start companies is what it's now like for all of us fashioning a career."

Which is great, if you're us. But not so great if you're not us. Many of the 306 readers who commented on the column rested assured in the notion that most people are simply incapable of the entrepreneurship that Hoffman describes, nor should they waste their time in such unworthy enterprises as social media companies. Further, Friedman said, Silicon Valley isn't all that good at creating jobs when compared to the labor-intensive companies of old.

A sampling of reader comments

C Wolfe, Bloomington, Indiana (comment recommended by more than 750 readers): "The supposed value of social networking companies, or internet companies that serve as mere conduits for what others create, is precisely what's wrong with the economy. They're valued in absurd disproportion to what they actually contribute to society. It's all perception and no substance."

Josh, Oyster Bay, NY: "To be blunt, I think it tells us that the vast majority of 'normal' people are ill-suited to such a career environment. This new world will tend to benefit highly-telented (sic), highly-motivated, highly-energentic (sic) individuals, but it looks like 'average' people (the vast majority of people) will be left in the economic dust."

David Andrews, Middlebury, VT: "As others point out, this vision of economic life basically leads to a small number of very successful, very rich people who have the brains and chutzpah (and luck and power) to make things happen, or get in early with venture capital investments in support of these folks and their projects. The banquet table spread in this vision may be splendid, but there will be a lot of people missing at the feast."

Zeke 27, New York: "This is just wrong. If you want a speculation driven economy with everyone trying to be the next Bill Gates and jumping around every quarter to maximize profits, we will end up right where we are now. the 1%'ers will be eating $100 kobe beef hamburgers while the rest of us live in compounds for the underutilized."

Nancy, Corinth, KY: "Marx was right, altho (sic) he chose the unfortunately obscure locution 'commodity fetishism.' Now we don't even need actual goods, just a phony sense of belonging, while financial manipulators undermine truly productive work and their political puppets do their best to tax it out of existence."

Now, we, of all groups, should know that online comments are the soapbox of the digital age and must be taken with a grain of salt. It's a real competition at a site like nytimes.com not only to write the best comment but also to have your comment recommended the most.

That said, this set of, well, anti-social comments leaves me with two thoughts:

One, that there's a fundamental misunderstanding of the benefits of social networking: it can be a powerful force for charitable works and a jump-starter for all kinds of businesses, from app builders to companies that have found social media lets them succeed in ways they never could have without it.

Two, there's too narrow a focus, when it comes to looking at the entrepreneurial mindset, on technology as the only place one can display one's entrepreneurial spirit. While Friedman, for obvious reasons, concentrated on Silicon Valley in this column, the truth is there's much to be learned from, not the back-end, but the front-end of the tech boom, metaphorically speaking.

I've had the feeling at many times during the current economic malaise that the social media intelligentsia live in a parallel universe from the rest of the economy. This feeling started well before actual valuations were being put on the companies that lead this space; it had much more to do with the can-do spirit that pervades this industry, as corny as that sounds. It's proof that we are still the great, entrepreneurial country we have always been; it's just that, over the last few decades, entrepreneurial spirit and technological innovation are frequently treated as though they are the same thing. The real trick is in unleashing the entrepreneurship of Silicon Valley into the rest of the economy, be it on building a better breadbox or manufacturing a more fuel-efficient car.

I would argue that the missing link isn't that all the smart people spend their time doing "dumb" things, like building new social networks, but that we haven't tapped into that culture enough to have an impact on the rest of the economy.

Now I come to the clumsy conclusion of this column: I have no idea what any of us is supposed to do with the sentiments expressed here, by me, but mostly by Times' readers. I hope, however, it's at least worth knowing what the other half thinks of us. The answer, as I said up above, is: not a lot.

11 comments about "Hey, Social Media Experts: What You Do Is Worth Nothing!".
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  1. Lisa Padilla from NamePlace, July 14, 2011 at 4:52 p.m.

    Whoa doggie! i like your publication, but for this article, I think you're barking at the wind.

    In response to "Hey, Social Media Experts: What You Do Is Worth Nothing"...

    First: "Nothing. Nothing of value, anyway."

    I get paid every day of the week to do this. I have proof to show the ROI, and to ignore participation in social media will simply leave you in the dust (person, product, or company).

    Second: "IPO-mania has hit social media, making snot-nosed kids like Facebook, Zynga and LinkedIn worth billions, if not tens of billions, of dollars."

    Did you really just say that? It sounded a bit envious. What's your Klout score? (Mine a measly 52, then again they only include 4 networks today). And to your point, that there is no worth, worth is proved for millions of people every second of the day on those networks.

    Last: "The real trick is in unleashing the entrepreneurship of Silicon Valley into the rest of the economy, be it on building a better breadbox or manufacturing a more fuel-efficient car. "

    There is a culture here (Silicon Valley), it's accumulated for a reason. It has a lot to do with technology-minded people, coming from other countries (87% of the population in Cupertino, where Apple is based, are Asian and Indian). Some of the culture stems from the work ethic in those countries (I'll submit that this is higher than for Americans). Those who have to work harder and make something from nothing, those are the ones...it's a culture you can't extract from a place, anymore than bringing back a plastic Eiffel Tower from Paris, France.

    We're weird and open here. It's an incredible mix of highly intelligent people, and crafty street smarts.

    Now, there may be benefits to starting a business somewhere else, but having a strong team of highly motivated people is a big plus. Here's or not, be social.

  2. Jack browne, July 14, 2011 at 7:16 p.m.

    I have liven in Silicon Valley for 20+ years. I have seen Reid wandering around Mt. View talking on his cell.

    The NYT commentors are correct. SV once employed many kinds of people. Now it is only the young elite and much of the work is outsourced to India or wherever is cheaper.

    Search and the Internet have disintermediated millions and millions of jobs and have not replaced them in the US.

    The old SV business of semiconductors is all offshore now and I know many middle aged semi and EEs who have no job. All the HW manufacturing that Solectron did in Mipitas is gone to China now.

    Apple may design a new phone in Cupertino and UK - but the supply chain is at Foxconn and Taiwan.

    The US needs old fashoned manufacturing and production jobs to help reimploy the 15-20 million who are out of work. Every year millions of kids only finish high school in the US. Manufacturing is the only decient job they could ever hope to have, and those jobs are gone.

    Beware the pale horse of class warfare. Both parties push it now and Silicon Valley is living in a fantasy world of riches and billionaires who seem to be saying - let them eat cake (or let them innovate if they want a job) to millions of people who are becomming desperate.

  3. Christi Pemberton from GC Style Magazine, July 14, 2011 at 9:27 p.m.

    What Hoffmans says is true, this is the 21st century job market reality. Part of this reality is....we live in the age of the "disposable worker". You can be laid off at the drop of the hat, because due to automation and advanced technology, a company can still have productivity without as many employees. So it is up to the employees to make it crystal clear to their employer that they can either help that employer make a lot of money, or save a lot of money, through the unique and advanced skills or talents that the employee has. When Hoffman made this statement: "The uncertain, rapidly changing conditions in which entrepreneurs start companies is what it's now like for all of us fashioning a career."...he is probably talking about the fact that for survival in the 21st century workplace...remember the 20th century way of doing business is gone.... we now have to have an "entrepreneurial mindset"..we need to always be learning more about our jobs and how to make it more valuable to the company, how we can use our skills to make our employer more money and save more time, and we have to always evolve. Entrepreneurs have to always think like that for their business to keep growing...and that is "required" in the 21st century job market reality. You can't be average anymore. That day is over because you have to compete with the rest of the world, not just those who live in your city or state.

  4. Christi Pemberton from GC Style Magazine, July 14, 2011 at 9:41 p.m.

    I would suggest everyone to take a look at the recent McKinsey Report, which states, and has the statistics to back it up, that in this century..you need to have a stronger skill set to meet the job market reality and requirements for the 21st century. This is something that the business community is saying as well. We in the U.S. were not prepared to deal with a rapidly changing global economy, and an job market that is more automated and requires higher skill set, stronger general computer knowledge, and problem solving and communication skills,

    My take on this, and what I have seen through experience, is that "now" you really need to have a computer skill set beyond Microsoft Office, you need an entrepreneurial mind set (independent..".reinvent yourself and what you offer" mindset"), and you need to have good problem solving skills and ability to be flexible/adapt to job market changes (which includes having a strong general skill set suited for a 21st century tech-driven global economy --e.g., stronger computer skills).

    Since the job market offers less guarantee for finding and keeping a job, you need to be able to have something that you can do independently to fall back on (e.g., freelance work)...and everyone has a skill or talent that they can cultivate as a "side job". This economy is not soft hearted and it will take no prisoners. The government, businesses, and whomever else can not guarantee you a job or guarantee that you will keep your job...less now than ever...so, as a country we have to wake up to that and think more like an entrepreneur whether we build a company or not.

  5. Stephen Rowe, July 15, 2011 at 7:22 a.m.

    Catherine,

    You missed the most obvious. Here are people who are using a vehicle, a newspaper, that is the "old" social media, participating on an upgraded piece of which, the comments section, or blog, to say that "The supposed value of social networking companies, or internet companies that serve as mere conduits for what others create, is precisely what's wrong with the economy." The irony of all of this is so far beyond belief that you couldn't even see it.

    Think of it this way, the New York Times does not create the events, they just make "comments" on them, and usually they get that wrong in some way. In some instances they give you their opinion on events, which used to go in the editorial section, but these days they through in with the "hard" news to give you the impression that their opinion is "hard" fact. So what have they created? A vehicle to sell you ads in to raise revenue. Because of innovations and now because of social media they have to have an on-line edition in which they allow people to make "comments", kind of like what people do on Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.

    Social media is only a progression or an extension of the old media that has been out their for hundreds of years. So there is really no difference between the newspapers going public for the past 100 years or so and facebook going public now.

  6. Cathy Taylor from MediaPost, July 15, 2011 at 10:59 a.m.

    Thanks for the comments all. Was very curious to see what people thought of this.
    In response to Lisa, if you go back and re-read the story, I think you'll see that you mischaracterized what I think. I don't think what we all do is worth nothing or that people who build social nets and take them public are snot-nosed, but there are a lot of other people who do think that.

    Cathy

  7. Dennis Yu from BlitzLocal.com, July 15, 2011 at 5:15 p.m.

    Not being able to measure the value and saying it's worth nothing are two different things entirely. We would argue it's the former.

  8. Mark Burrell from Tongal, July 15, 2011 at 5:53 p.m.

    Spectacular article and comments! I think the bigger point is that Silicon Valley and entripreneurs are incentivized to not follow the status quo, be critical and analytical and to find better solutions. Those solutions are often disruptive or antithetical to the manner in which a large corporation is accustomed to conducting business.

    I also think there is an unfortunate mass generalization of what ""social media" means and this smug belief by thise in the establishment that it has no real value. With the prediction by Cisco that 50 billion devices will be connected in 2015, you can be damn well sure that there will be a number of companies creating a value off these devices. It's not all passing leisure time and promoting consumption. It is bridging ideas, innovation, creativity, communication and expediting disruption. Big businesses better not rest on their laurels and ignore this stuff. Cheers for Friedman and Catherine!

  9. Suzanne Sanders from S2 Advertising, July 15, 2011 at 6:41 p.m.

    What's better for a Society a few millionaires or a thriving population of happy middle class people. I don't about all of you folks but I have friends who can't find jobs because there job has been outsourced to another country or worse yet it's been automated so there is no reason to talk with anyone anymore. Now we can just order our product over the internet and get it in a couple of days or even download straight to our smart phones. I was just telling one of my best friends that I could right a paper on how the internet has ruined our economy but first I have to go get my I-pad....

  10. Kevin Horne from Lairig Marketing, July 17, 2011 at 11:11 a.m.

    Two reactions. 1: One reason we feel you do "nothing" is that every one of you who even thinks about social media calls yourself an "expert" and thinks he/she has reinvented marketing.

    2: Quite a leap to go from Freidman's article to concluding that social media is at the core. Is it because he chose to talk about Silicon Valley that threw you? The creators of Zynga, Foursquare, Groupon et al. are not "social media experts" but the kind of scrappy folks Freidman is using as exemplars. To think he means that garden-variety one-man-shops showing businesses how to set up a Facebook or LinkedIn company page is our ultimate solution is to have missed his point completely. But it certainly is on par for how "experts" overvalue their contribution...

  11. Howie Goldfarb from Blue Star Strategic Marketing, July 17, 2011 at 4:49 p.m.

    Many people use social media to connect with other people. Some people work in Social Media. When i read the comments from the people who work in social media of course they claim significant value of the platforms and technologies. But people who don't work in Social Media believe otherwise. It has been a massive failure for marketing. Decent for some customer service. And excellent for listening (at least for twitter and blogs).

    It really is a people to people platform kind of like the cell phone. And while facebook is dying while their valuation on paper keeps going up....I think of the peak of the Subprime real Estate market. There is a mad rush for some VCs and start ups to go public and cash out before everyone else catches on and gets back to reality.

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