Social media may finally be dying, but the BS around it hasn't

By Brandon Mendelson , written on May 13, 2013

From The News Desk

Editor's note:

After PandoDaily published the following guest post by Brandon Mendelson, we received a call from Gary Vaynerchuk, a subject in this opinion piece. He said that parts of "Social media may finally be dying, but the BS around it hasn't" were inaccurate and requested that we set the record straight.

We take matters of accuracy very seriously and have looked into the matter. In the interest of transparency, we decided to share our findings with our readers. We have included this before the article because we think that too often a correction ends up buried beneath the fold, as it were, instead of being featured as prominently as the original story. 

There are three basic pieces of information in dispute:

1. Brandon wrote: "PSY cheated like Gary Vaynerchuk cheated. Gary Vee used ResultSource, a company that manages bulk purchases of your book – in other words it buys enough copies of your book the week it comes out to push it on to The New York Times bestseller list."

If you check out The New York Times bestseller list from Nov. 1, 2009, Gary's book "Crush It," is listed as #2 in the "Hardcover Advice & Misc. category. It was accompanied by a dagger symbol, which, according to the New York Times, "indicates that some retailers report receiving bulk orders." The Times instituted this symbology after it had come to light that large organizations had been buying their way on to bestseller lists through the practice of bulk buying. Gary pointed us to his website http://www.crushitbook, where he encouraged bulk orders through a company called 800 CEO Reads.

We contacted the company to ask whether bulk orders it processes end up with the NY Times dagger symbol on bestseller lists. Jon Mueller, 800 CEO Reads general manager, replied in an email: "You'd have to ask the NYT how they categorize things. We just sell the books and report the sales. We're not sure how they file them from there. In fact, I'd be curious to know, if you find any info." The New York Times told Brandon it would not comment on its methodology.

Brandon admits that his source might have been wrong about Gary using ResultSource, which has received a bad rap for manipulating the bestseller lists through bulk purchases. While it's true Gary must have had a large number of bulk orders the second week his book hit The New York Times Bestseller list, there is no way for us to determine if the bulk orders he organized through his site accounted for the spike that resulted in the Times assigning a dagger symbol to his book. Gary says he did not pay a service like ResultSource or any other bulk book buyer to surreptitiously purchase books on his behalf and there is no evidence to contradict this.

2. Brandon alleged that Gary was booked on national TV shows "Late Night, with Conan O'Brien" and "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" because he was represented by CAA, the talent agency, and not because of his growing popularity fueled by his social network of fans and followers.

Gary's first appearance on "Late Night" took place on Aug. 1, 2007  and he was a guest on Ellen DeGeneres's daytime show on Sep. 20, 2007. A spokesperson from CAA told me that "the Conan O'Brien and Ellen appearances were booked before Gary signed with the agency." Gary is the first to admit CAA helped him get plenty of press to promote his books, but they did not get him his first few breakout appearances.

3. Brandon claimed that Gary "has a deeply unhappy publisher that took a bath on the book deal it gave him, as confirmed to me by numerous sources in publishing." In 2009 HarperStudio signed him to a seven-figure, 10-book deal, "money," Brandon said, "it can kiss goodbye."

Gary says the book deal was for six books with an option for four and that "Crush It" on its own was so profitable that it paid off the entire advance. The deal was re-negotiated after his original publisher, HarperStudio, closed up shop. Now Gary is published by HarperBusiness.

Gary showed us the latest profit and loss statements from his publisher, HarperCollins, with the understanding that we would not divulge specific numbers. Both "Crush It" and his followup book, "The Thank You Economy," have earned back their advances and are generating royalties for Gary. It is clearly false that his publisher has lost money on him.

We at PandoDaily regret publishing the errors. Brandon Mendelson's original post follows:
This is an interesting moment to tell you why social media is bullshit. I just came back from the Do Lectures in Wales where one of social media’s biggest cheerleaders, Amy Jo Martin, who runs the social media marketing firm Digital Royaltyrefused to use the term “social media” in her presentation. In fairness I was also on the docket after her, so perhaps this was a one time thing for Amy. Time will tell.

I’ve also been told by insiders at Ford that their social media guy, Scott Monty, has been transitioning away from “social media” and into “real time marketing.” Apparently allowing customers to post whatever they like can cause trouble. You know, like incendiary stuff being posted that is given the appearance of being endorsed by a major corporation. As with many social media marketers, Scott has been  distancing himself from the monster he helped create. It's about time. When asked what the return on investment of social media is, Scott told Business Insider, “What’s the ROI of wearing pants?” I don't know, Scott, but if I'm a company spending hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars on marketing, I want to know what I'm getting, pants or no pants.

Then there's Gary Vaynerchuk, author of the pamphlet-length social media buzzword laden "Crush It" and "Thank You Economy," who has a deeply unhappy publisher that took a bath on the book deal it gave him, as confirmed to me by numerous sources in publishing. In 2009 HarperStudio signed the bellicose Belarusian-born wine merchant to a seven-figure, 10-book deal, money it can kiss goodbye. Gary's problem is that he still has no  answer for what the ROI of social media is, beyond responding to the question with bizarre stuff like, “What’s the ROI of your mother?” You’ll notice a pattern. Both prominent social media experts can't tell you the value of the thing they're selling.  

Instead of saying “I told you so," I’ll say, “There’s a lot of shit we still need to get done.” I've made it my mission to clean up the mess of social media so we can focus on what works and what doesn’t. The better the understanding we have of what works and what doesn’t when it comes to getting the word out, the more likely it is that we’ll succeed in whatever it is that we want to accomplish. And since I’m not a marketer, I don’t give a shit about companies like Twitter and all these frauds out there peddling  bullshit strategies. I only care about what works.

Unfortunately, the media hasn’t come around on this, which is why we still have some work to do. Instead they’re quick to herald people like PSY, the Korean rapper who has been gumming up the airwaves and YouTube with "Gangnam Style" as the ultimate viral success story in the way the media once proclaimed Gary Vaynerchuck a “social media success story.” Like Gary, there’s much more to PSY's story.

You see, PSY is in no way, shape, or form, a viral success story the same way Gary Vaynerchuk was never a social media success story. The illusion of “viral” success for PSY is actually the tail end of months and months of preparation, buying fake views and comments, an extensive PR campaign, and his video fitting a very specific need for the business model that fuels the Web: The Page View Based Economy. Dodgers fans may recall a month prior to "Gangam Style" being released a prominent placement and mention of PSY during the broadcast of a game, at a time when few in America knew who he was. While it's true that PSY experienced a tremendous amount of success on YouTube, it is not accurate to depict that success as something that happened organically and can be replicated by you, which is what a lot of the social media marketers remaking themselves into “viral marketing” and “real time marketing” experts claim.

The long and short of it is, PSY cheated like Gary Vaynerchuk cheated. Gary Vee used ResultSource, a company that manages bulk purchases of your book – in other words it buys enough copies of your book the week it comes out to push it on to The New York Times bestseller list. PSY's record label used a slightly different strategy. It purchased views and fake comments using sites like Microworkers and Fiverr, enough to trick the YouTube algorithm.

As I documented in Social Media Is Bullshit with the help of a former YouTube employee, if you launch a video on YouTube, within the first couple of hours of it going live, there are ways to trigger the algorithm. You can do this by planting enough comments, at least ten, in the first hour, paying people to sit and watch the video in full, and then having them share it. This causes the YouTube algorithm to activate, which causes the video to surface higher in search results as well as in the sections that document what’s trending on the site. I won’t bore you with the details, but this is because YouTube, Amazon, and even Apple’s iTunes store use a dumb algorithm in terms of machine learning. They can’t use a terribly complicated algorithm because that’d make their systems suck for consumers, so they use a dumb algorithm, and those dumb algorithms are easy to manipulate.

Gary Vaynerchuk, by virtue of his being placed on the Twitter Suggested User List, racked up hundreds of thousands of followers. Again, nothing viral about that. But the media didn't report that. Jpournalists just looked at his Twitter follower count and assumed he's just a popular guy. The media also thought that the YouTube views PSY’s video was collecting were legit, and this spawned more coverage. Having worked for AOL, I can tell you for a fact that we sat and monitored sites like Reddit and YouTube, looking for something that might generate pageviews for us. And so PSY had the illusion of going viral working for him, and those sites all pounced on the video, which in turn brought real traffic to PSY's video, causing it to grow and spread further and in a more legitimate sense.

Put another way: Stuff doesn’t "go viral" because people are sharing it, stuff often “goes viral” because of companies like College Humor, Buzzfeed, Uproxx, AOL, and others that latch onto videos and content they think will bring them page views; then they all post about it so as not to lose out on potential page views.

And like Gary Vaynerchuk being represented by CAA, which is how he got interviewed on shows like Late Night and Ellen despite his claims to the contrary, PSY was represented by a large record label that used its press resources to leverage the alleged viral growth of the video to get it even more coverage, causing it to spread further. This created a viral loop of people telling more people about the video and the media coverage increasing to match that, which in turn led to even more people clicking on the video.

So the next time you hear about a social media or viral success story, remember the roles that easily manipulated, huge, consumer-facing sites like YouTube play. And don't buy the snake oil that social media salesmen like Gary Vee and others are trying to sell you.

Above all, be skeptical. Be very, very skeptical.