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When Social Media Becomes Hollow

by Tom Johnson on Mar 29, 2010
categories: technical-writing

I attended Podcamp Salt Lake City ( on Friday for the third year in a row. The attendees have fluctuated. The first year, about 30 attended. The next year, about 90 attended. This year, the attendees decreased to around 45.

Sometimes events just suffer from poor timing. We are all so busy. But I noticed another trend: more and more sessions focused on social media, almost as much as podcasting. Here are a few of the session titles:

  • Client Attraction with Digital Media
  • Using social media to promote your content
  • Leveraging New / Social Media for Personal Branding
  • 5 Killer Press Release Strategies For Your Podcasts

At one point I wondered if the social media club had infiltrated the podcasting crowd. Among the audience, it seemed everyone was genuinely interested in using social media to grow their business.

Thom Allen, the organizer of PodcampSLC, is even considering changing the name and focus of the conference to broaden the scope next year. I mentioned that we could change it to a "Social Media Camp" and include podcasting as a subtrack, fitting it into the larger trend of social media. If we changed that focus, I'm confident we would have 95+ bouncy people attending.

Many of the topics around social media included strategies for increasing your visibility and followers. One presenter laid down a social media methodology: get the reader's attention, ask permission to interact (via a newsletter sign up), build trust with content, and then use that trust to influence decisions. It's the same strategy Jason Van Orden teaches.

Other social media tips recommended by presenters included registering domain names in every social media space available, responding to every Facebook, Twitter, and email reply you receive from readers, and maintaining a presence in all major social media spheres, even the untrendy MySpace.

I'm not a huge social media fan, and during one IM moment with Jane, at home with the kids, she said, "I hate social media." She says she uses Twitter because she wants to interact with her friends, not to "promote her brand." She wants any "fame" to follow naturally from the content she produces rather than from spending 10 hours a day doing social media networking.

Me too. It's not that I dislike Twitter or blogging or podcasting or Facebook or the infinite number of new social sites. For me, it's the idea that social media's only purpose is to grow your business and readership. I dislike the idea that it's all essentially a business motive. You build trust so you can influence others and get them to follow you and subscribe to your newsletter. You engage in social media so you can increase your visibility, so people will link back to you, buy your products and services, and so you can take in more money and increase your product offerings. You engage in social media so you can expand your reach and little by little dominate the world.

When the discussion about social media revolves around this end game, I start to feel uneasy. It's the same ill feeling I had in college when I would speak with business majors. Whereas most of us were engaged in literature or science, business majors seemed to focus only on schemes to make money. Is that how they interpret social media? As another scheme to make money?

I didn't tweet much during the first half of Podcamp because I simply didn't feel like it. After my presentation, I was a bit more relaxed and exhausted at the same time. My brain was numb from having stayed up too late the night before preparing my presentation and fulfilling other assignments. But after I ran into an old mission buddy at Podcamp, things started to turn around. I found a second wind and became much more alive. I started asking questions to the presenters, began posting a few tweets, and overall became more engaged.

When I post a tweet, publish a blog post, record a podcast, or engage in any other form of social media, I don't consciously do it with the intent of growing my readership and increasing my brand or business. I don't engage in social media for the business-motivated end game. I'm not trying to build trust with readers so that I can later influence them with product or service decisions. I'm just expressing and communicating about things I'm interested in. If the consequence is that people follow me and we interact, great. But my actions aren't a ploy for influence. Influence comes from being passionate about something that captures you entirely, not from calculating SEO techniques to maximize visibility on every social media platform.

This year may mark the end of PodcampSLC and the genesis of a "Social Media Camp" of some kind. Businesses looking to increase their social savvy will send their marketing team to learn all about the rules of transparency and authenticity. They'll discover the need for openness and unfiltered interaction with readers and clients. But if the entire social media strategy is built up with an end game of increased sales and customer followers, it will be a hollow endeavor.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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