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October 13, 2012

7 Questions for B.J. Mendelson, Author of "Social Media is Bullshit"

BjmSocial media gurus: You're on notice.

Humorist and social critic B.J. Mendelson has three-quarters of a million people following him on Twitter, but if you ask him, it's all a load of bullshit. So he wrote a book called Social Media is Bullshit to debunk the cloud of hype surrounding Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and whatever else is coming next. Mendelson says these trendy tools aren't the revolutionary social shifts that the futurist, utopian media geeks would have you believe. Take that, Mashable.

Mendelson spoke on the phone with Seven Days in advance of his Sunday afternoon talk at 4 p.m. at Burlington's Phoenix Books.

SEVEN DAYS: First thing I have to mention is that you did pitch me via social media.

B.J. MENDELSON: (laughter) Well, that’s the thing that I’m constantly telling people, the platforms are just tools, and that’s something that’s been around forever if you look at the beginning of the web.

SD: So what’s the thesis of the book?

BJM: When I say social media is bullshit, I’m talking about two things. I’m talking about the term, because the term was made up by marketers to repackage and resell stuff that everyone already does, but I’m also talking about the hype and the myths around it, like if you use Twitter, you’re gonna be like @ShitMyDadSays, or if you use Tumblr, you’re gonna get a book deal or you’re gonna become rich and famous. That’s really the stuff that I go after in the book.

SD: You’ve got what, more than 700,000 followers or so?

BJM: I do. A lot of people ask me about that. I was on the original suggested user list on Twitter, way back when that first rolled out. I was the only non-brand, non-celebrity, non-media outlet that was on there. So that’s where all those followers came from, it wasn’t like I earned them or anything.

BullshitSD: What’s the next move for the social media cabal? What’s the next big thing?

BJM: They’re all over Klout [a tool that purports to measure a  user's "influence" across social networks] right now. And not just Klout, there’s other ones. But Klout is the tool of the devil as far as I’m concerned. [Social media experts] are constantly moving from one platform to the next, trying to squeeze out whatever they can to make more money. It was Twitter, it was Pinterest, now they’re talking about your “peer influence” and your “social friendship metrics” and crap like that. But as I break down in the book, we really don’t influence each other the way these people want us to think. So you have all these people running around talking about your Klout score, but there’s actually people losing their job or not getting hired for a job because of their Klout score, and the whole thing is based on influence which doesn’t really exist.

SD: Do you think there’s a way for people to avoid getting completely screwed over by this completely arbitrary measurement? Or are we at the mercy of the machines at this point?

BJM: We’re kind of in this weird grey area, because with Klout you can go in there [and opt out], and it’ll take like 60 days. I did that, and now I don’t have a Klout score. But unfortunately you can’t stop them from [attaching measurements to your social media use], because even if it’s not Klout it’s gonna be another company. So I kinda hope that the people who have called me since the book has come out and said, “Hey, just wanted to tell you that you’re absolutely right, I wanted to tell you about this job I didn’t get because I didn’t have a good enough Klout score,” I’m kinda hoping those people get together and sue the absolute shit out of Klout.

Because what’s happening right now is that they’re collecting all this information without your permission, and Klout has scores on everybody, and most people don’t realize that because they don’t realize Klout’s collecting it. So I’m hoping, even though I’m not really a fan of frivolous lawsuits, that someone will turn around and sue them, and that’ll force Klout and the others to change their model so you have to opt in instead of opting out.

SD: There are certain good results from using these tools. Can you talk about the ways to use social media for good instead of evil?

BJM: I think it all comes down to first having realistic expectations. You’re in there and you’re like, “this is a thing that’s going to make me rich,” or “I’m influential now because I have a Twitter account” — you’re already setting yourself up for failure.

On Twitter I like jokes, that’s what I do and I do that to amuse myself. But that’s not gonna be the thing that makes me famous. So once you have that mindset, there are things you can do. You can connect with people, that’s absolutely true. You can make good solid friendships with people online. It’s also true that you might be able to get yourself in front of journalists, because realistically, if you look at the user demographics of Twitter, the power users of Twitter here in America are journalists, celebrities and comedians, and the journalists are kind of the gatekeepers. So it’s very true that if you have a story, you can track down a journalist through Twitter and make that connection. And you’ll probably be more successful than you would have been if you had just emailed them.

SD: Last thing I wanted to ask you: What do you think is the absolute worst social media buzzword?

BJM: I was just on Yahoo Finance talking about this, and before I went on, they were like, “You know, I love the book but we just hired a social media guy,” and I said “Oh really? What are they doing?” and the host says to me, “Oh, they’re working on engagement,” and said “What does that mean?” and he kind of looked at me and shrugged his shoulders. If I had to pick one, that would be it because that’s the one you always hear.

You’ve got all these people running around talking about [engagement], but then you ask what does it even mean to “engage” with someone, and it changes. It’s constantly changing.

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