Should Brands Join or Build Their Own Social Network? is the question Jeremiah Owyang raised yesterday on Twitter and in facebook. If you’re a facebook member, you can participate. I am a member, but I’d rather not. At least, not there.
All due respect (and I respect Jeremiah a great deal), I’d rather talk outside the facewall.
Forgive me for being an old fart, but today’s “social networks” look to me like yesterday’s online services. Remember AOL, Prodigy, Compuserve and the rest? Facebook to me is just AOL done right. Or done over, better. But it’s still a walled garden. It’s still somebody’s private space. Me, I’d rather take it outside, where the conversation is free and open to anybody.
So here’s what I think.
First, I’m not sure a “brand” can get social at all. The term was borrowed from the cattle industry in the first place, and will never escape that legacy, now matter how much lipstick we put on the branding iron.
Second, the notion of “brands” either “building” or “joining” social networks strikes me as inherently promotional in either case, and therefore compromised as a “social” effort. Speaking personally, I wouldn’t join a social network any brand built, and I wouldn’t want any brand trying to join one I built. But that’s just me. Your socializing may vary. (And, by the way, if I wear a t-shirt with some company’s name on it, that doesn’t mean I belong to that company’s “network”. All it means for sure is that I’m wearing a t-shirt that was clean that morning. It might mean I like that company or organization. At most it means I have some kind of loyalty — although in the cases of sports teams and schools, the loyalty and sense of affiliation is not to a “brand”, unless you insist on looking at everything in commercial terms, one of which “brand” is. My main points here are that, a) there may be less to expressions of apparent loyalty than it may appear, and b) the social qualities of affection, affiliation or belonging mostly don’t derive from “branding” in the sense that Procter & Gamble began popularizing the term back in the 1930s.)
Third, I’m not sure social networks are “built” in any case. Seems to me they’re more organic than structural. Maybe I’m getting too academic here, but I don’t think so. Words have meanings, and those meanings matter. When I think about my social networks — and I have many — I don’t see them as things, or places. I see them as collections of people I know. The best collections of those for me aren’t on facebook or LinkedIn. They’re in my IM buddy list and my email address book. Even if I can extend those two lists into a “social graph” (a term that drives me up a wall), and somehow federate them into these mostly-commercial things we call “social networks” on the Web, I don’t see those “networks” as structures. I see them as people. Huge difference. Critical difference.
Fourth, the thing companies need to do most is stop being all “strategic” about how their people communicate. Stop running all speech through official orifices. Some businesses have highly regulated speech, to be sure. Pharmaceuticals come to mind. But most companies would benefit from having their employees talk about what they do. Yet there are still too many companies where employees can’t say a damn thing without clearing it somehow. And in too many companies employees give up because the company’s communications policy is modeled on a fort, complete with firewalls that would put the average dictatorship to shame. If a company wants to get social, they should let their employees talk. And trust them.
Bottom line: companies aren’t people. If you like talking about your work, and doing that helps your company, the “social network” mission is accomplished. Simple as that.
One last thing. I’m not saying facebook or LinkedIn are bad. They can be useful for many things, and their leaders deserve kudos for the successes they’ve earned. Still it creeps me out when people treat facebook as “The Web, only better”. It ain’t the Web and it ain’t better. It’s a new, interesting and widespread set of experiments, mostly in technology and business. I’m interested in seeing where it goes. But I’m not drinking the kool-aid.