Looking Behind the Curtains on the Social Media Stage: Humans Don’t Scale

I’ve been watching this space for a few years now, and I’ve started to notice that the people (often those that we think of that are at the upper echelons) are not able to scale, as a result here’s what they’re doing to compensate:

Many social media bloggers don’t even manage their own accounts, they often hire virtual assistants to do their Facebook and Twitter follows and replies.

Quite of few of those top social media bloggers don’t even answer their own emails, they have a virtual assistant that reviews them, sorts them, and sometimes responds on their behalf.

Many of the top social media news blogs are on a race to see who can publish the fastest, why? whoever gets the earliest time stamp often gets the credit and links from other blogs, and will risest fastest on the techmeme tower or google news gauge. As a result, many of these blogs will publish the headline, then adjust, edit, format, punctuate, and add links to the post in real time.

A few authors that have published one of the thousands of social media books outsource their content to ghost writers who create the majority of the content. Although it’s the headlining author’s name that drives book sales, in many cases they don’t actually write the content.

Many of the top celebrities or top social media names don’t even write their own blog posts and tweets, they may outsource it to others.

So what does this mean? It means the social media space is starting to look like just about every other industry that starts to get mainstream. Social media is often the premise built on 1:1 relationships, and even with technology, that clearly doesn’t scale, and I can relate.

What about me? I’m asked every few days “How do you do it all” my answer is “I don’t, the wheels are falling off” Well you’ve probably noticed I’ve not been blogging much, nor tweeting lately, I’ve been under heavy travel and projects (that I’m behind on). Every blog post and tweet that you see is me, including all the errors and typos that come along with them. I will admit that sometimes, I even updated blog posts after they publish, to polish it up. I skim all my emails, read many, but if I answer, I promise you that’s always me. I may not be good at scaling my social efforts, but I assure you, I’m authentic, warts and all.

I can relate to those who don’t scale well. If you’ve ever met me at an event this last year, you may have noticed dark circles under my eyes, and somewhat of a flustered appearance. I recently had a long talk with a good friend yesterday, when I’m tired from traveling nearly every week, you may notice that I actually draw my strength from within or being online, not always from others. So if I’ve ever came across as a bit messy and sapped, I certainly don’t intend to, I’m just stretched to the limit at times. 

So what happened to transparency and authenticity?  Maybe it’s the econony, with less resources, and more pressure, we’re all being stretched to the limits.  Or maybe, this is the evoluation of every industry, music, art, and film started out simple and pure, then became institutionalized. Or maybe, I just never bothered to look  close enough.

Update: Chris Saad, who inspired me to write this, has responsed from his own blog. Paid content highlights the challenges. This post has generated a lot of discussion from my friends as I meet them in person, interesting.

72 Replies to “Looking Behind the Curtains on the Social Media Stage: Humans Don’t Scale”

  1. Hi Jeremiah,

    This has always been the case, Armin Van Buuren for example issues out his mail adress, MySpace account and now twitter, in his radioshow, urging fans to reach out to him, but off course he isn’t able to really read and reply himself 24/7. As long as artists/bloggers are transparent about it, we don’t seem to care…

    Oh, and “Maybe it’s the econony” should be with an “m” methinks 😉

    Thanks for this post,

    @AnibalDoRosario

  2. Language scales: http://gaggle.info/miscellaneous/articles/wisdom-of-the-language

    Also verification scales (that’s another reason why domain names are valuable – they’re verified… sort of like: the medium is the message — and the domain name is the medium).

    You have to separate the wheat from the chaffe, and link-spam is definitely chaffe. Focus on verified content: and the validation of relevance — see e.g. http://gaggle.info/post/180/context-is-queen

    🙂 nmw

  3. It’s a bit ironic that all the social media experts are talking about engaging customers and listen to what they have to say, but aren’t doing it themselves. What happened to “eating your own dog food?”

    I really do appreciate the fact that I know when I read what you have to say, it’s just that – it’s what YOU have to say. I’ve been reading your blog and following your tweets for a while. If you aren’t able to write as often as others, no sweat. I’ll be happy to wait for you because I enjoy what you have to say.

  4. The questions you raise here seem fundamental to whether social media can stay “social” and remain valuable to those who use it. And that applies fully to those who wish to use it as a marketing tool.

    If we/they try to make it “scale” it ceases to be social. And the value of word-of-mouth to marketers bleeds away with it. The medium becomes another mass, broadcast platform. The “stars” become just some more celebrity endorsers.

    I believe your answer is the only one that can work: keep your networks small enough to manage, even if it’s by the skin of your teeth and you need to disengage now and then. And keep you interactions “always you” and “authentic, warts and all.”

  5. The challenge here Tom for those is that scalability often leads to profits. I understand why each of these people outsource or skip steps to reach more people faster and quicker.

    Thanks Rena. I am considering of hiring a virtual assistant in the future for email management.

  6. Jeremiah,

    It is scalable only if you are fortnate enough to be financially independent enough to work on what you want, when you want. Most of us in the real world 1.0 are not that fortunate. I really enjoy your work, but I was wondering when you would blow a gasket. You were cranking some intense prose there for a good, long while. Take a breath, catch up on what’s really important, family, love and the ability to take joy from life in whatever ways work best for you.

    Best Regards,

    MG

  7. Oh, I understand that, but see it as such a cramped, short-term, short-sighted approach to this medium.

    To me, if “faster and quicker” profits are all they’re after from social media, they are chasing what Reichheld calls “bad profits” and (to put it bluntly) they will have to further imitate the old corporate model by constantly looking for new sheep to fleece.

    There is so much more long-term relationship ROI for business people to gain from true, authentic engagement. And social media opens up a channel to make deep connections with as many as you can maintain all around the world. Not mass broadcast media, but networked social media.

  8. Good post on an issue I’ve been pondering for a while. Feeling a bit lacking for an inability to “keep up” with the big dogs, I point to your last paragraph, “So what happened to transparency and authenticity?”

    The power of social media is just that, it’s transparency and authenticity. Using VA’s for administrative help, personal assistance, etc. is one thing. Using ghost writers to create the content (with or without clear disclosure?) as opposed to editing original content, is another. Seems the same as giving Milli Vanilli a grammy for performing songs they ‘performed’ but didn’t sing.

    Not that Milli Vanilli weren’t good performers – many probably would have paid to see them had they known. But we didn’t know – they weren’t transparent nor authentic. Not cool.

  9. Tom,

    I know that many of the top 100 technorati blogs make money just like newspapers or magazines: number of visitors and those that click on ads. They’ll do whatever they can do get on top.

    The readers have become, in some cases, a numbers game. What’s so different about that? nothing really.

    I’m not sure if they are doing ‘bad profits’ but just acting like a business –nearly every business.

  10. Matt Gentile, am I dripping oil?

    Lynnelle, it’s a fight over your eyeballs, something that’s been going on for a long time.

    Chris, I updated the post, thanks, since you were part of the inspiration of this post.

  11. Life’s challenge (social media or not) is balancing priorities for what is most important. Work to live, not live to work. Family, kids, doing good for others, making a difference.

    Social media challenge, though, is keeping it real. I would err on the side of sacrificing scale to protect authenticity. Who you are, what you say, and your POV are what make it unique… how can you outsource that? Trick is being able to productize the knowledge you’ve gained so that the ongoing interaction with your network can be you, but the bills can be paid through selling what you’ve learned and/or developed.

    Thanks for post.
    Maury

  12. Jeremiah,

    Well, sure, that’s exactly the problem with those blogs that have become simply another mass broadcast outlet. They – and the traditional agency-model advertisers who place ads on them – don’t understand the potential of real word-of-mouth that exists when you focus on a comparatively small, but topic-oriented and close-knit network of people. Engage with them. Become part of their network. And let the natural connectivity of your networks being linked to other networks take care of the “scale” problem.

    I know that freaks out the corporate types who delude themselves into thinking that one page view equals all the other page views. That time-on-site equals attention or engagement (as opposed to an interrupting phone call or bathroom break). That the number of comments matters more than who commented, or what the three person exchange of ideas was about.

    They measure what they can, because they can, and ignore what truly matters about the interactions.

    So, bottom line, I still think you’re right to keep your interactions real, authentic, and personal (as Chris puts it) and both you and Forrester will get plenty of value out of it.

  13. I agree with Maury. I’d rather see fewer posts (or more typos) from YOU than hear from an assistant. I understand your explanation of why some people are compelled to go for numbers, speed, etc. — thanks for providing that — but if you are not in that position then I’d like to see you continue to provide valuable content and insights even if slower or less frequently than you (or your readers) might like. Your health and happiness should come first.

  14. As with all the I, We, You and Me’s, it always leads back to Us.

    There is only so much of Us to go around.

    Great post. Glad you wrote something like this.

  15. Thanks for your post Jeremiah,

    Such authentic view brings new elements in focus and make me think that a social media is also an human and a natural media. Made by an human for other humans. This includes emotions, stepping back and diving in. If we want media that are truly social we should be willing to accept and relate with different paces and rhythmes.

    G

  16. Hey Jeremiah,

    I’m new to the 2.0 space and social media. Its fun, its fascinating and it transforms businesses from the inside out. And I am grateful to be a part of it – but I, like you, find it very difficult to keep up with a fulltime writing schedule for Forrester, consulting requirements,grueling travel schedules, emails,voice mails… Don’t get me wrong- I am very grateful to have “this” as the challenge (vs not having a job) but…

    I often find its days between when I have time to interact in all these channels. And I want my interactions to be from me, to be authentic, to be geniune. And I empathsize with the question of nonscalability– my wheels are also falling off. It feels like something’s got to give. I am just not sure what yet..

    thanks for saying what I was feeling!
    @drnatalie

  17. Jeremiah,

    First of all, thanks for all the great content. Yours is one of the few blogs I subscribe to via RSS anymore. Which brings me to my comment…

    Those who are outsourcing their writing are essentially taking themselves out of the game IMHO. Smart readers will detect poor/unoriginal writing quickly, and stop paying attention. There are very few blogs that I read via RSS these days, with the remainder reaching me through my social filter (Twitter). I now have a team of experts that filter and share the best posts with me in real time (thanks!).

  18. Jeremiah,

    I do at least 3 seminars a week on sales and marketing and you’re the first one I tell all of my audiences to follow on Twitter. You’re authentic and it shows. Here’s a poem my Dad shared with me (paraphrased):

    “So many people seek to be Masters, and so few seek to be a servant, yet it is the one who serves others that is eventually called Master. The Master is up late working weekends and Holidays while others rest and play.”

    Your authentic leadership doesn’t go unnoticed. It’s what it takes and it is greatly appreciated. I agree with Brian Remmel (above)the other guys will stop paying attention and stop connecting authentically. In the end real leadership will prevail.

    Cheers!

    Shane Gibson (@shanegibson)

  19. So here’s the rub. People like yourself and David Armano have, intentionally or otherwise, become brands. (Brands as in companies, not ‘personal’ brands). Your ‘stock’ is information, your ‘production process’ is ideas generation and your ‘product’ is communication. Brands and companies either choose to scale and sub-contract to meet demand or choose to remain as exclusive one-man-bands. If you choose to grow you will need to maintaun your brand values (like authenticity) through quality control (jsut like any other brand). Good luck.

  20. Jeremiah,

    We all know that in business bigger numbers are usually better even if the average quality suffers. It just depends on how much quality control you can afford and still do your jobs authentically. Sounds like reality is setting in.

    I think it’s seriously time for you to write your book!

    Dennis

  21. Jeremiah, thanks for one of the most thoughtful and personal posts I’ve seen anywhere in a long time. You describe beautifully the point at which a strength can become a failure. The very fact that personal attention is finite gives it most of its value. Like machine carving instead of hand carving the wood of the chair. The soul goes out of it. Sure, you can sit in it, but it’s become utilitarian. I believe it’s theoretically possible to mix industrial communications with personal, but if you do, it’s important to recognize and disclose each–to yourself most of all. Even if you don’t, people who are paying attention will feel the difference. Ultimately, people who outsource dilute their influence for money. That’s a choice. Most people who wear Armani don’t look past the label; they couldn’t even recognize it if you took the label off; so many people reading a “brand” blogger won’t notice the outsourcing, the lack of personality, they just know it’s (fill in brand). It’s tempting to, in the face of an increasingly transparent, exploding world, to try to interact with all of it. In the end, I think most people will find more fulfillment and value when they limit and focus themselves. Thanks again. Cheers- Chris

  22. Social media is very time consuming, you go for it or stay away ( and be gone). The key is that the whole organization has to change around you, in order to make the best out of the new way of working. I myself struggle every now and than with the same problems, however my organbization is changing very fast, leadership is different, we trust each others more and simply organizes ourselves differently (so e.g. the regular monday-management team meeting has been abandoned) giving me more time to work on these new opportuinties. And with succes I can say…
    However, you are a true leader, you can and must show emotions and be an example to us all. Keep up the good work and thank you for sharing this post with us!

  23. Hmm.. yes – the downside of personal branding. Companies are not expected to represent the concept of social/personal media, but are expected to do what they can to keep up with the trends and technology. However – if you use your own name to espouse the benefits of being personable and social – then you risk damage to you own identity (never mind reputation) when you can’t keep up.

    However – there are also major issues regarding the employee social/work balance being irreparably upset once employees start using their Facebook profiles for customer support etc… then the individual is representing the company in the social media space, and there are implications beyond just whether the individual is representing ‘well’ and toeing the company line. What happens when that person quits or is dismissed? Who ‘owns’ the profile? Who is monitoring the conversations and how? What about direct messaging? What about privacy? All things that are going in my social media strategy doc, but that I haven’t seen tackled on others…

    Thanks for the post though Jeremiah – thought provoking stuff.

  24. Funny you should mention this, I’m at the tail end of uploading a few dozen videos and some articles to my private member group about this. I started outsourcing my email about two years ago, it was the combination of a bout of illness and the fact that I hate email. But I disclosed that I was outsourcing, and what to do to get me. I think that’s the key component, disclosure.

    Because people can tell if they’re getting you or Brand You. Ultimately it comes down to a choice, if you’re lucky enough to have the money to be able to control your time. (If you don’t the choice is made for you, outsource or control your growth for quality’s sake) I’d advise people to pick a few things to focus on and be their authentic selves there – give as much as is reasonable for you, and learn to manage your time.

    There are tools that help spread out your workload across the day so that 15 minutes of tweeting, and social sharing looks like it took all day. You can have days/times when you’re “on” and have social office hours and turn the rest of the time off. If your clients and customers are real people with jobs and businesses, they are likely to understand your challenges. If your audience is that big, you can have a big shared account like big brands like Comcast, where your team is responding, and a smaller, talking account where it’s just you and expectations aren’t so high.

    Of course it’s a different thing for people who are using social medias to be publishing empires, though I think disclosure is still key.

    At any rate, it’s great to hear from you. I personally don’t care if there’s a month between your blog posts as long as I get the good stuff from you. I wouldn’t mind seeing the weekly guest blogger here even, because I know whoever you chose would bring great content.

  25. Now you’re making me think again, Jeremiah.

    Personally? I don’t buy the “first to the headline” wins argument. As with all forms of “news” media, only one can be first so at some point those who wish to play in that field have to understand that thoughtful and interesting analysis will be what sets them apart from the crowds — not being first but being best.

    That said, I appreciate your genuineness and willingness to spread yourself a little too thin to ensure that those who look to you get YOU, not just someone writing in your name.

    I can’t imagine anyone posing as me. It would be too difficult for them! 😉

  26. Seems many of use were thinking many of the same things about the growth of twitter. My experience is personal,while yours is professional, but I have seen it in so many others’ blogs, tweets, etc…That inspired me to write about why I was so grumpy, and it resonated immediately, as this post has! Take a look (if you have some time – ha!): http://www.lizasperling.com

  27. Jeremiah: I will say that you have not lost your value to me, personally. Many have. They become the ultimate echo chamber and for always talking a good game about community, become so high-level that they can only assoicate with others they deem on or above that level.
    Much of it is quite sickening to watch. When I presented at WordcampRDU this past Saturday, I shared my thoughts on those who become so big they no longer value the folks who helped get them there. They are never present in the comments on their blogs and ask of you with no plan of giving anything in return. These people are going find themselves upstaged by the more authentic types who aren’t solely focused on the fame and notoriety. Take some time to decompress, but keep being real with us. It is greatly appreciated. I’d rather read your typos any day as opposed to your virtual assistant’s perfect post.

    Angela Connor | @communitygirl

  28. You have to ask yourself the question, “what role does social media play in my life?” Even as a (sort of) professional, I know there are more important things.

    I don’t try to keep up. I dip in and out. Otherwise you go nuts. I also don’t mind not blogging or tweeting if someone is paying me (either in coin or in Whuffie) to do something else. I use social media like any other entertainment/education medium– for my “spare” time, not my obsession.

  29. The social media gurus and superstars are quickly moving from the role of teacher to one of a corporate appearance. The line between personal interaction and marketing strategies is getting further and further apart. One of the top social site teachers simply got too big for 1-to-1 interactions and as her social activities become too much she acknowledged that she had begun using an assistant to tweet and post for her.

    At that point the whole situation lost credibility for me. Not knowing if posts and replies are really coming from a person or from a canned list of responses that her assistant types in for her changes my perception of the value of that particular interaction.

    I’m not in the same league as some of the heavy hitters on the social sites and I get overwhelmed by trying to keep up! I don’t know what the solution is, but I do know that people who built their success on being accessible and on the one to one feeling that social sites provide, are in danger of losing that very element that made them successful.

    The wonder of the internet is that it allowed people to scale their efforts through technology and automation to produce results far beyond what they could do on their own. The bottom line is that personal interaction is not scalable. There is a breaking point where you simply cannot do any more work in a day. It will be interesting to see how this falls out as more and more teachers and gurus find themselves on the other side of that gap, no longer able to provide the same personal service that built their reputations.

    Of course, I have no doubt that sooner or later something new will come along and make the whole Web 2.0 fad a thing of the past.

    Peace,
    Bob

  30. I hear you, Jeremiah. I’ve given up even trying to scale, and I’m nowhere close to the level of the upper echelon types you mention. I’ve decided I want a few hundred connections, and that’s about all I can even fathom tracking with any semblance of regularity.

    Frankly, I think the social media movement has devalued the concept of relationships to some extent. A comment on a blog, a follow on Twitter, a friend connection on Facebook–none of these are relationships. Relationships develop over time, when people make an effort to interact.

    We’re fooling ourselves (and our clients) if we believe we can form relationships without a significant investment in time.

  31. You raise an excellent point, the best part of social media is the human component but its very difficult to maximize it without losing the message in the signal to noise ratio.

  32. It’s so much easier for a corporation to devote the necessary resources to keep up than it is for an individual that it’s inevitable that the current model will drown.

    Interesting to see hybrids of connectivity, algorithms, and talent arising around definable needs–justanswer.com will sell a professional answer to questions around technology, health, etc., and Aaardvark (vark.com) is trying to efficiently and minimally invasively ask your friends questions on your behalf (“best Chinese restaurant in Palo Alto.”)

  33. I like your blog the best and I’ve been reading it regularly for about a year and a half. First when I was an intern at a PR firm, then as an unemployed musician, then as a delivery driver, and now as an intern at a PR firm again.

    It’s personal and you’re honest and your writing isn’t an extension of your ego.

    I saw you’ll be at the internet strategy forum in PDX – you should get away and come hang out with my band, dude!

    Cheers!

  34. One of the attractions of social media is that it’s largely free to join the conversation. The problem is, it’s only free in terms of currency, not time.

    To borrow an metaphor for scalability from Nicholas Taleb’s book, Black Swan, you can line up 1,000 Twitter users in a stadium and, while the number of followers (scalable) may vary wildly from one person to the other, the number of hours each person has in a day (non-scalable) doesn’t differ at all. Same thing translates to all social mediums.

    As a beginning business blogger, I find it interesting that I share the same challenge with you: how to budget my limited hours between keeping social channels open and doing my paid work.

  35. This is an interesting discussion. When thinking about scale, I always think about the marginal unit. In that sense, humans do scale – to a point. If I think about the quality and efficiency of the unit of work practice certainly makes “better”. I was watching a bit of Wimbledon this morning and thinking about how many times has Roger Federer hit a forehand? I bet his last forehand at Wimbledon yesterday was more efficient and powerful and accurate than his first many years ago. However, his next may not be any better.

    So, in the social space I think that people do scale, to a point. They can gain efficiency and quality with practice. A seasoned, practiced communicator can probably maintain many, many more relationships with high quality interactions than a newbie. They just can never personally maintain an infinite number of connections.

  36. Jeremiah,

    You hit it out of the park. The work load is tremendous and it can be overwhelming. Yet the fact remains, in order to remain true to the concepts of Web 2.0’s architecture of participation–you have to participate. My hat is off to you for continuing to write your own prose, tweet your own tweets, and show up as you.

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  38. When you are building a social media structure, you should follow one of the cardinal rules of selling: meet them where they are.Your design process helps you to clearly understand your target audience. Now you just need to learn where they are most likely to hang out so that you know where to build your presence.

  39. I think one of the most important thing about being a recognized social media blogger is interacting with your readers, i hate the fact that people use these virtual assists and dont even bother answering email it would be so much better in the long run. I totally agree Jeremiah and I think its great that you at least read all your emails if its only skimming, at least its better than letting them go to rot.

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