I Am Not a Guru

“Nor do I play one online!”

The “I am not a ” phrase is often used as a disclaimer when one is giving advice. Especially in online contexts having to do with law, in which case the IANAL acronym can be used, and understood.
I’m not writing this to give advice. (Even though I could!) I’ve simply been thinking about social media a fair deal, recently, and thought I’d share a few thoughts.

I’ve been on the record as saying that I have a hard time selling my expertise. It’s not through lack of self-confidence (though I did have problems with this in the past), nor is it that my expertise is difficult to sell. It’s simply a matter of seeing myself as a friendly humanist, not as a brand to sell. To a certain extent, this post is an extension of the same line of thinking.

I’m also going back to my post about “the ‘social’ in ‘social media/marketing/web'” as I tend to position myself as an ethnographer and social scientist (I teach anthropology, sociology, and folkloristics). Simply put, I do participant-observation in social media spheres. Haven’t done formal research on the subject, nor have I taught in that field. But I did gain some insight in terms if what social media entails.

Again, I’m no guru. I’m just a social geek.

The direct prompt for this blogpost is a friend’s message in which he asked me for advice on the use of social media to market his creative work. Not that he framed his question in precisely those terms but the basic idea was there.

As he’s a friend, I answered him candidly, not trying to sell my social media expertise to him. But, after sending that message, I got to think about the fact that I’m not selling my social media expertise to anyone.

One reason is that I’m no salesman. Not only do I perceive myself as “too frank to be a salesman” (more on the assumptions later), but I simply do not have the skills to sell anything. Some people are so good at sales pitches that they could create needs where they is none (the joke about refrigerators and “Eskimos” is too much of an ethnic slur to be appropriate). I’ve been on the record saying that “I couldn’t sell bread for a penny” (to a rich yet starving person).

None of this means that I haven’t had any influence on any purchasing pattern. In fact, that long thread in which I confessed my lack of salesman skills was the impulse (direct or indirect) behind the purchase of a significant number of stovetop coffee devices and this “influence” has been addressed explicitly. It’s just that my influence tends to be more subtle, more “diffuse.” Influence based on participation in diverse groups. It’s one reason I keep talking about the “social butterfly effect.”

Coming back to social media and social marketing.

First, some working definitions. By “social media” I usually mean blogs, podcasts, social networking systems, and microblogs. My usage also involves any participatory use of the Internet and any alternative to “mainstream media” (MSM) which makes use of online contacts between human beings. “Social marketing” is, to me, the use of social media to market and sell a variety of things online, including “people as brands.” This notion connects directly to a specific meaning of “social capital” which, come to think of it, probably has more to do with Putnam than Bourdieu (PDF version of an atricle about both versions).

Other people, I admit, probably have much better ways to define those concepts. But those definitions are appropriate in the present context. I mostly wanted to talk about gurus.

Social Guru

I notice guru-like behaviour in the social media/marketing sphere.

I’m not targetting individuals, though the behaviour is adopted by specific people. Not every one is acting as a “social media guru” or “social marketing guru.” The guru-like behaviour is in fact quite specific and not as common as some would think.

Neither am I saying that guru-like behaviour is inappropriate. I’m not blaming anyone for acting like a guru. I’m mostly distancing myself from that behaviour. Trying to show that it’s one model for behaviour in the social media/marketing sphere.

It should go without saying: I’m not using the term “guru” in a literal sense it might have in South Asia. That kind of guru I might not distance myself from as quickly. Especially if we think about “teachers as personal trainers.” But I’m using “guru” in reference to an Anglo-American phenomenon having to do with expertise and prestige.

Guru-like behaviour, as noticed in the social media/marketing sphere, has to do with “portraying oneself as an expert holding a secret key which can open the doors to instant success.” Self-assurance is involved, of course. But there’s also a degree of mystification. And though this isn’t a rant against people who adopt this kind of behaviour, I must admit that I have negative reactions to any kind of mystification.

There’s a difference between mystery and mystification. Something that is mysterious is difficult to explain “by its very nature.” Mystification involves withholding information to prevent knowledge. As an academic, I have been trained to fight obscurantism of any kind. Mystification seems counterproductive. “Information Wants to be Free.”

This is not to say that I dislike ambiguity, double-entendres, or even secrets. In fact, I’m often using ambiguity in playful manner and, working with a freemasonry-like secret association, I do understand the value of the most restrictive knowledge management practises. But I find limited value in restricting information when knowledge can be beneficial to everyone. As in Eco’s The Name of the Rose, subversive ideas find their way out of attempts to hide them.

Another aspect of guru-like behaviour which tends to bother me is that I can’t help but find it empty. As some would say, “there needs to be a ‘there’ there.” With social media/marketing, the behaviour I’m alluding to seems to imply that there is, in fact, some “secret key to open all doors.” Yet, as I scratch beneath the surface, I find something hollow. (The image I have in mind is that of a chocolate Easter egg. But any kind of trompe-l’œil would work.)

Obviously, I’m not saying that there’s “nothing to” social media/marketing. Those who dismiss social media and/or social marketing sound to me like curmudgeons or naysayers. “There’s nothing new, here. It’s just the same thing as what it always was. Buy my book to read all about what nonsense this all is.” (A bit self-serving, don’t you think?)

And I’m not saying that I know what there is in social media and marketing which is worth using. That would not only be quite presumptuous but it would also represent social media and marketing in a more simplified manner than I feel it deserves.

I’m just saying that caution should be used with people who claim they know everything there is to know about social media and social marketing. In other words, “be careful when someone promises to make you succeed through the Internet.” Sounds obvious, but some people still fall prey to grandiose claims.

Having said this, I’ll keep on posting some of thoughts about social media and social marketing. I might be way off, so “don’t quote me on this.” (You can actually quote me but don’t give my ideas too much credit.)

8 thoughts on “I Am Not a Guru”

  1. Quick! If you act now we will send you the special “Marketing your social media skills” for the low, low price of $19.95. If you call the number at the bottom of your screen within the next five minutes, we will send you a second package for free, on “How to act like a guru” (restrictions may apply). You can’t afford to go one more day without this, so call to purchase now!

    Not that I am a salesman.

  2. A serious note now — in your readings thus far, have you seen any indications, any discussions at all, about how this financial crisis/economic recession may impact social media? For example, does WordPress sustain itself financially in such a way that it can realistically continue to offer such massively free services regardless of what happens in the wider economy? Is Second Life slowly being vacated? Has the value of Facebook been downgraded?

    As someone who was left scurrying to relocate websites and purchase hosting domains around 2000-2001, as the “dot com bubble” burst, I think of this often.

    Or is it that the Internet is really a second economy now, an autonomous one, and what happens here stays here? Are there any economists of the Internet that you know of?

    Time to put on your guru hat!

  3. @MF Fun!
    One thing about “social marketing” as a trend, is that it allows for this kind of honest disclaimer.
    But I’m glad that you should post the second one. And instead of putting a guru’s hat, I’ll put my ethnographer hat.

    What I’ve noticed so far has been a change in perspective. Not a “sea change,” and the signs I’m using are rather subtle. But a change nonetheless.
    The “promise of the new economy” seems to have gone from deafening enthusiasm to a rehashing of old methods (“monetization”) to the “secret sauce” (haven’t finished reading that last piece but it sounds like it covers something fairly representative).

    Personally, I’ve found that the individual entrepreneur who has given me the most insight into what the changes may imply is Mahalo’s Jason Calacanis. Instead of focusing on predicting which companies will go bust and which startups will make it big, JaCal has been talking about diverse strategies which make sense in the current climate. One thing I find rather useful is that he explicitly talks about the distinction between startups and other ways to approach technology. To be honest, I perceive Calacanis to be a genuine humanist. A “go-getting entrepreneur,” sure. But also a person respectful of fellow humans.

    Now, to go back to your specific questions…
    I don’t have predictions to make. My “wild-hearted guess” (!) is that there should be ways to transition to a new service if one of them goes bust. Open Source solutions are probably a good insurance against the vagaries of the markets, and the advice to keep backups of everything you do is even more useful in this context of “cloud computing” than in a desktop-only environment.
    Still, I probably won’t do much to prepare myself for an eventual collapse of WordPress.com. I’ve transitioned to WP from Blogger a few years ago and I’m not looking forward to having to transition again. But it’s not like my livelihood depends on blogging.
    Which might be something which sets me apart from gurus…

  4. @Seb Good point. Pretty much what I set myself to do (as per the title). I originally planned this post to include some comments about social media and social marketing, but based on recent experience with some posts, I decided otherwise. What “I actually do” can hopefully be understood from several of my other posts on this blog. Maybe I should have provided more links to specific blogposts but I eventually feel self-conscious about shameless self-promotion.
    Come to think of it, I might build a kind of catalogue of relevant blogposts. Revisiting old posts is actually fun. And, in this case, it might help.

    Thanks a lot for your feedback!

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