I have a lot on my mind, so let's start with something simple: McDonald's has a Twitter account.
I'm not going to link to it, but I will explain why I know it: they promoted a hash tag, #whats4breakfast, which was trending on Twitter yesterday. (Long boring explanation for the Twitter-illiterate - hash tags are phrased starting with the hash tag that are used to identify threads across different Twitter accounts. Often they are used for people discussing a TV show - i.e. #Terriers or #Community - or for jokes or other memes that develop. And now, they are used for advertising.)
A few things that surprised me about McDonald's Twitter account:
1. It's reasonably clever. I mean, it's not clever enough for me to recommend, but it's better than I expected.
2. It's participatory. Somebody's on there full time, responding to every query somebody has about McDonald's new (redacted product that they're selling I won't help market further.)
3. 76,879 people (as of this writing) have asked to be directly marketed to by McDonald's.
Which is kind of weird to me, but I guess they do give aways and things, so maybe it makes sense, right?
The problem, which this is hardly unique or especially symptomatic of, is this: a. social networking is now attempting to serve both its original intended purpose (connecting friends, family, and strangers) and its adopted purpose (a marketing tool for getting friends, family, and strangers to buy things).
b. these two purposes have different, and incompatible, goals.
c. when two purposes come into conflict, the one with more money behind it almost always wins.
I start with McDonald's because it's easy, but it's not fair. The problem is at all levels, much more widespread, much more pervasive.
For example: when I signed up to Facebook, I listed that I was a fan of various films, tv shows, bands, and so on. Why? The usual conscious reasons of wanting to share things I liked with other people, either so they could find common ground or discover new awesome things they weren't aware of.
In one of the 84,256 updates Facebook launched, they converted the "Fan" functionality to "Like", and made it so everything you liked converted to a page. And now, everything you "Like" has the ability to market to you.
Over December and January, I have discovered there are approximately 83 squintillion top ten/twenty lists being made in the world. I have discovered this because every single one of them has been posted by one of the bands, movies, record labels, or DVD labels I "like".
And I do
like them. I just don't want them to be marketed to me everytime some guy in Portugal reckons that their album was the 17th best baile-funk album to come out on label that starts with "Q", or when Quentin Tarantino puts it on the same list as fucking KNIGHT AND DAY as one of his top twenty movies of the year.
So yesterday I decided to clean up my Facebook feed, so instead of seeing 23 posts about movies and bands and 2 posts from friends - which, given that I have friends all over the globe that Facebook was
a great way to stay in casual touch with, I'd see more posts from friends.
And when I de-liked one movie, directed by one of my Facebook friends, that several of my Facebook friends worked on, that is a film I like, but it's a film I hear about several times a week, that I have no doubt I will hear any significant news about whether or not I subscribe to its feed -
- ten minutes later, I received a request to "Like" that film from the director.
I gave in, I liked it again. Because I like the director. I don't want to be rude to him. But now I am just hiding all the posts by that film from my wall. (At least, until Facebook removes that functionality.)
Marketing vs. friendship, Facebook actions as a social obligation. I've seen THE SOCIAL NETWORK twice now, and "Mark Zuckerberg" (whose name I put in quotes because I doubt the veracity of a single thing in that movie, other than the existence of Facebook, but anyway) says at one point - at several points - he doesn't want to monetize Facebook because Facebook has something else. Facebook is cool. And when you monetize it, you lose that.
Now, Facebook has monetized already in certain ways. But my various friends who are marketing their films, bands, and such aren't using Facebook in that monetized way - they're just using it as a marketing tool.
One that, I believe, is about to completely crater in terms of efficacy.
In the past two years, the discussion around independent film (and undoubtedly many other things, but I try to speak of what I know, so bear with me
) has increasingly been around using social media, building audiences, creating a Web presence for your film, and so on. For instance, the top two resolutions for Filmmaker Magazine's New Year's Resolutions For Filmmakers
both involve using social media. It's only at #3 that they start getting into things like watching or making films. Several people have positioned themselves as experts in the field, producing books, giving seminars, writing blogs, and generally talking about how amazing the future is when you crowdsource, leverage your social networks, create viral marketing opportunities .... BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH
That's all great, but how about, you know, making a decent film?
Actually, I take that back: that's NOT all great. When everybody communicates with an ulterior motive, and nobody can be trusted, the value of that social connection as a "friend" is diminished. They're no longer a friend, they're a target market that you're trying to leverage, they're an opportunity for viral marketing you're trying to engage, they're a statistic on a Facebook page that can be used for ... well, I don't know what, exactly.
Working in the "creative industry" (whatever the hell that means), I have lots of friends who are doing the same, and trying to create their own opportunities. And, generally, I want to support them to the utmost of my abilities. And I don't mean to be dismissive of people marketing their own work.
Because it's hard. It's hard to get people to pay attention to good creative work of any ambition. That's one reason I'm a tireless advocate of stuff that I love. I know how hard people work to get it out there, and I think, for instance, that Glasser should be just as popular as Bjork, that Ben Marcus should be as widely read as David Foster Wallace, that lots of people would live Nigerian disco-funk if they ever heard it, that BEST WORST MOVIE can touch as many hearts as SPELLBOUND, and so on. I'm not delusional - I don't expect to live in a world where Richard Powers is more widely read than John Grisham or where Superchunk sells out stadiums. And I don't particularly want that. I just want people who have compatible tastes with me to get as much joy from things as I do.
But the line between sharing of passion and the marketing of creative works is a near-intangible divide, and once friendship becomes involved, it gets completely paved over. Can you trust my opinion of, say, the film THERE ONCE WAS AN ISLAND if you know that I know several of the people involved with it? Should you? I hope you do: it's an excellent documentary about an important issue told in a human way.
But you, and you, and you, and especially you
have your own projects, and your own friends' projects. They can't all be good. Can they?
And even if they are, do I really want to hear about them every day? Because the key to being noticed is making more noise than every other person. But that just produces a scenario where, in turn, escalating amounts of noise must be produced in order to be noticed. And soon, we are drowning in noise, and the hundreds of posts about band x are lost amongst the thousands of posts about film y, and are soon to be lost amongst the tens of thousands of posts about abstract sculpture z.
(Okay, it's unlikely that abstract sculpture would get that much publicity, but without dreams, what are we?)
This is what happened with MySpace, which was once, in long distant memory, a way for humans to create connections and is now seemingly exclusively used by bands for marketing. And, from where I sit, this is what's about to happen with Facebook and Twitter.
And everyone of us who uses them as marketing tools are hastening this turn of events.
And then, of course, there's this: I have my own projects, and have to reconcile my preferences about usage of social media with not just my basic sustenance, but doing justice to those projects.
To name the big elephant in the room: the film I wrote and directed, JAKE, will be coming out, hopefully, finally, in 2011. (You may have not heard me mention it for a while, and wonder what's going on. Short story: we're working on it.)
Apart from self-serving goals, of which there are undoubtedly many, it's important for me to do justice to the hard and good work that so many people involved with the project put into it. But how do I do that without falling into so many of the traps I've outlined here?
The pragmatic answer that the experts would tell me would be to refine my social media voice to provide a defined valued proposition to my "market", or whatever. But, as I've already hammered into the ground, to me they aren't a market - they're people.
And all I want to do, in terms of social media, is be myself. Share what I love, try to connect with people, maybe get a few laughs. Treat people like I want to be treated.
And as I try to balance things, ultimately I will fail, and undoubtedly annoy some of those who are my Facebook friends (and perhaps my real friends). One thing I've learned over the years is that no matter what you say on the Internet, someone can and will, silently or publicly, judge you in a way you can never anticipate.
But I would like to think that, if we try hard enough, we can remember we're not just talking to a target market.
We're talking to human beings.
(Except for when we talk to McDonald's over Twitter. In that case, I have no fucking idea what we're talking to.)