A Placemaking Journal

Everything is Multiplied: Social media as tool, threat and total waste of time

So I’m checking out the debut of the Onion News Network and two things occurred to me:

First, sadly for the Onion writers, cable news is inoculated against parody. What passes for news and analysis on most cable shows satirizes itself. Hence Jon Stewart’s brilliant strategy of curating and juxtaposing actual news clips for The Daily Show. Stewart is almost single-handedly reintroducing irony in the post-ironic era.

The second thing that hit me was that social media as a topic for satire is similarly transcendent. The lead story on the Onion News Network was about how terrorists crashed the Internet by inviting social networkers to download, friend and tweet an awwwww-inspiring image of a piglet in rain boots.

Bam! There goes the world’s communications networks.

That's adorable! And deadly. Click to watch video.

But what’s so outrageous about that? It can happen, man. Social network entrepreneurs are already pushing the envelope. Last week,, which monetizes celebrity endorsements via Twitter, announced that by hooking up Charlie Sheen and a company that recruits interns (stay with me, now), it generated 412,000 clicks in 48 hours and attracted 74,040 applications for internships.

Also paired on Twitter by were Khloe Kardashian and Old Navy. Khloe’s sponsored tweet: “Want to know how Old Navy makes your butt look scary good? Ask a Kardashian.”

See what I mean about the challenge to satirists?

Kardashian: Twitter + Backside = Marketing Gold. Will it do the same for you?

Amid the craziness, I sense anxiety among many of the folks I work with over how they’re supposed to cope with the rapidly changing environment of social media. Here’s my advice: First, take a deep breath. Then, go to Home Depot.

Stand in the aisles and consider the array of stuff, mostly tools and construction materials and assorted gadgetry to make the application of tools to materials easier. Now, think about this: Does the purchase and application of any of this guarantee a better construction job? Even more to the point, are you suddenly a better carpenter or plumber with the purchase of new tools?

You still have to know what you’re doing as a designer and builder, right? You still have to have a plan and a strategy for implementing it. And you still have to be a good enough manager of the process to adapt to sudden change and facilitate the integration of a bunch of separate pieces into a coherent whole.

Social media choices are rapidly overflowing the shelves of the communications equivalent of Home Depot. Choose the right tools for the right time and place, and you can accelerate productivity and add value to what you can offer customers and citizens. Choose unwisely and you increase costs without growing revenue and potentially undermine your brand.

Bob Garfield, who enjoys bonafides in both adversting and journalism, writes about this regularly. Here’s a recent Garfield blog post on the topic.

Let’s take this a step farther. There is an important impact difference between social media tools and the Home Depot variety. And this can’t be overstated. Social media are multipliers. Everything gets better or worse much faster thanks to viral networking. Good-bye, wiggle room.

Here’s how I see the challenges and opportunities for people concerned with building and sustaining community in this new environment:

  • Web-enabled communications tools, especially Twitter and Facebook, are means to ends — not ends themselves. They have to be integrated into broader communications strategies that are fundamentally unchanged since early humans told stories around campfires.
  • Key elements of those strategies also remain the same: Identifying and understanding target audiences, framing the storytelling in ways that resonate with those audiences, and leveraging stories to inspire action. This is an exercise in branding or brand support. Here’s what my PlaceMakers colleague Scott Doyon says about how that applies to placemaking, especially for municipalities.
  • The chief advantages of social media are speed and cost-effectiveness. Because of their viral capabilities, these tools can expand highly resonant messages from a tiny core network to a world-wide audience in minutes. So they can inspire action — or resistance — in dramatic ways. Consider the recent action in North Africa and the Middle East.
  • However, the speed and effectiveness of viral storytelling vary with the degree the message resonates. There’s a reason that social media apps use words such as “like,” “fan” and “follow.” They are recruiting devices for ideas and personalities people are predisposed to have feelings about, whether the feeling is admiration or revulsion or bemusement at piglets in rain boots.
  • The combination of the advantages of rapid fan recruitment and low costs empowers insurgencies and revolutions. Social media are spectacular organizing tools for small, underfunded groups hoping to undermine or merely annoy established entities like governments and companies. Which is great news for revolutionaries and grumps. Not so great for governments, companies and other establishmentarian organizations, including those that are not necessarily evil but just have less compelling, more complicated stories to tell — and, therefore, fewer predisposed fans.

Here’s the bottom line: If you’re already having a tough time connecting what you do with what customers or citizens value, you can’t tweet your way out of it. In fact, viral speed and lowered barriers of entry into the marketplace of dissent and ridicule mean more trouble for you.

So: Before you add a social media specialist to your communications team, close the promise/performance gap. Create happier customers, who become champions and defenders of your products and services (including government services). Then you can tap into their social media connections to spread the word.

If you want to join in this social media and community planning discussion, check out the National Charrette Institute’s March 23 webinar on “Social Media for Planners, Advocates and Consultants.” I’ll be joining a panel moderated by NCI executive director Bill Lennertz and including Julia Thompson, communications director for the Portland Office of Sustainability and Planning, and Jeff Wood, new media director for Reconnecting America. The webinar begins at 10 AM PST/1 PM EST. Beyond that, Scott Doyon and I will be conducting our own webinar — Managing Message and Media in the New Normal — on July 21.

–Ben Brown

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