Home / Books / Book Reviews / Book Review: Socialnomics: How Social Media Transforms Our Lives and the Way We Do Business by Erik Qualman

Book Review: Socialnomics: How Social Media Transforms Our Lives and the Way We Do Business by Erik Qualman

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It’s an undeniable fact that social media has penetrated and saturated our culture.  This should come as no surprise in light of the plethora of new marketing techniques and opportunities that social media has brought with it.

Indeed, Facebook has become far more than an engine of sexual innuendo (poke, poke) and a virtual pick-up bar for all-ages.  It, and sites like it, are driving forces in mass-marketing, social mobilization, and, by some estimates, mass social engineering.  

What is a contentious issue is whether or not the phenomena of social media (what Erik Qualman calls “socialnomics”) is in fact a good thing or a bad thing for society at large.  In his, Socialnomics: How Social Media Transforms Our Lives and the Way We Do Business, Qualman answers this question with a resounding, Yes! Unfortunately, Qualman’s praise for the social media phenomena is, as I will explain below, vacuous and misleading.  Qualman’s claims are largely based upon naive interpretations of hypothetical scenarios that clearly aim at placing social media in the best possible light, common sense and rationality be damned.

Believe it or not, I am a strong advocate of the principle of charity but not at the expense of sound level-headed judgement.  Qualman goes way beyond charity and into the land of fantasy when he extols the virtues of social media.

As for the title concept, “socialnomics” is a vague and redundant concept that Qualman employs ad nauseum yet never explicitly defines. Apparently, anything related to social media is part of, or synonymous with, “socialnomics”. The author brings nothing new to the table by introducing the term; it appears to me to be a shameful attempt to build a reputation by introducing trendy (but superfluous) slogans into a discussion already ripe with trendy superfluous jargon.

Chapter one, “Word of Mouth Goes World of Mouth,” opens with the claim that social media enables us to have more meaningful face-to-face interactions.  What does it mean to have ‘more meaningful’ face-to-face interactions?  Well, here again we are left on our own to figure out what exactly Qualman means by this.  The entire claim is based upon a hypothetical yet entirely plausible scenario:

We find Sally Supermarket at her favorite place and name-sake. It’s Fourth of July weekend, so a few of the checkout lanes are much longer than normal. It’s going to be roughly a 10-minute wait until she reaches the cashier. (16)

During these ten minutes Ms. Supermarket decides against using her phone to place a call (apparently that would be just too rude) and instead she will update her Facebook status (which is, apparently, not rude, or less rude than making a call).  While performing this task Ms. Supermarket is, according to Qualman’s story, made aware of all the wonderful new developments in her friend’s lives.  Furthermore, according to Qualman’s interpretation of the story, when Ms. Supermarket next meets with those friends she is able to have ‘more meaningful’ discussions because she doesn’t have to waste their time getting caught up on the more mundane matters that her friends have already communicated over Facebook.  Apparently, economy somehow makes the face-to-face conversations “more meaningful”.

Probable as this scenario might be, acceptance of Qualman’s rosy interpretation of these hypothetical events really requires us to overlook an even more powerful force in human communications — namely, our drive to ‘save face’. Any competent person in the field of business communications understands how the drive to ‘save face’ usually, if not always, trumps our propensity for full and honest disclosure in a business setting. The same is true of communications in any public forum.

We are deceiving ourselves if we assume that the good news people share via social media is honest and always as good, if not better, than it is presented via social media.  Historically, one of the most attractive aspects of communications mediated by the Internet has been its perceived anonymity.  Facebook and social media has not changed that.

Despite all the names and faces attached to the comments and profile updates found in the social media universe, the media are still such that they allow their users to put their best foots forward and to bury the negative.  It’s human nature to do so.

With that in mind, it seems more likely that the sort of information about our friends, or strangers for that matter, we find in their profile updates will be the good news and/or the not-so-good news painted in a positive light. In other words, it seems far more likely that the sort of face-saving information we find about our friends will mislead us and ultimately preempt any meaningful (and potentially therapeutic) discussion concerning the real issues shaping our lives.

In the second chapter, “Social Media = Preventative Behaviour,” still more specious claims.  For one thing, according to Qualman, the prevalence of social media causes people to restrain their behaviour and ultimately to act more morally than they would without the ever-present eyes of the social media.  This claim does have some intuitive merit. The claim also finds some theoretical support in Jeremy Bentham’s notion of the panopticon.

The idea is this: given the seemingly inescapable presence  of video recording devices and the ease with which video recordings might be shared via social media, people are far more likely, says Qualman, to refrain from shameful behaviour.  This claim, however, undermines the claim made in the first chapter because whereas the claim in the first chapter requires us to ignore the human tendency to ‘save face’, the claim of the second chapter asks us to embrace it.

When you get right down to it Qualman is here saying that people’s drive to “save face” and maintain a respectable image will deter them from shameful behaviour (that might show-up tomorrow on YouTube).  In chapter one we are asked to ignore this drive and assume that everything we find on Facebook is the God’s honest truth.

Furthermore, and above all else, this claim might have some merit were it not for the overwhelming volume of counterexamples readily available to any person with a computer and an Internet connection.  The Internet is chock full of audio, video, and still photographs of people young and old doing stupid things for stupid reasons and there seems to be more everyday.

The outrageous keeps coming: we’re told that social media enable parents to be more vigilant and ever more aware of what is going on in the lives of their children.  Here again we’re asked to ignore the “face-saving” drive and accept what we find on Facebook without question.  While we’re busy naively believing all those profile updates from our teenage children that read, “studying at the library” we might as well accept Qualman’s claim in chapter three, “Social Media = Braggadocian Behaviour,” that social media makes dating safer.

By far the most entertaining claim made by Qualman is, at the same time, his most outrageous claim.  According to Qualman, social media allows us to share with the world all of our greatest achievements (whether they are fictitious or not) and that:

As a society, this is a good thing. It allows people to take stock of their collective lives and what they’re doing throughout the day, rather than letting years go by and looking back on their wasted youth, saying “what did I do with my life?” (53)

I find it hard to believe that were I having a conversation with Qualman, one of those more meaningful face-to-face conversations, that he would actually be able to utter these words with a straight face.  I find it truly difficult to believe that when Qualman himself reads all those profile updates that say things like, “conquered K2 today, setting my sights on Everest for next month.” that his reflection and stock taking says anything to him other than, “ya right!”

From beginning to end Qualman’s claims oscillate between the naive to the downright irresponsible.  What is more, Qualman’s repeatedly and, in my opinion, insidiously requires that his reader accept with uncritical commitment not only the content of what we find on Facebook and other entities of the social media, but also the media themselves along with all the behaviour modifications that they effect.  Qualman is all too dismissive of the of the psychological affects that have recently been linked to social media.  He acknowledges claims that suggest that social media is eroding our literacy skills, he acknowledges suggestions that social media is giving rise to antisocial tendencies in young people (69), but dismisses them out of hand as if they were a small price to pay for the direct marketing benefits of social media.  And that, my friends is the truly insidious message of Socialnomics, Qualman’s book reads like pure propaganda for the social marketing giants.

I will close this review by calling attention to one more of Qualman’s claims:  he suggests that the immediacy of social media, the ability it affords consumers to rapidly mobilize against a company or product is a powerful deterrent from empty-promise marketing. (54)

 Isn’t that exactly the sort of sentiment you would want to perpetuate if you were using social media to market your product?  You bet it is.  If you take nothing more from this review let it be this advice: take some time to consider how full or empty are the promises and claims made in Socialnomics, the consequences of buying into any one of them might render you socialnomically disadvantaged, or worse.

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  • VinnyBB

    I know I’m commenting on an old article, but … I just had to.
    I was going to go to a talk by Erik Qualman on Halloween 2013 at The Grove in Cedar Grove NJ, because our company wants to explore how social media can help us, so I did a little googling. Most of the links I got were reviews or commentary, and youtube videos by the the author himself, and plenty of sycophantic reviews . I found a very good link on Amazon by a reader, who basically confirmed what I thought about the author.(http://www.amazon.com/review/R1JLK8RCJZOU8P/ref=cm_cr_pr_viewpnt#R1JLK8RCJZOU8P)
    Erik Qualman is strong on platitudes, jargon, and random examples of social media success, and very thin on facts, proof, and plans as to how execute a social media campaign.
    I laughed when I found a link to TED video of Qualman. To sum up what I think of TED, look here: http://www.ginandtacos.com/2013/10/10/npf-ed-talks/ and here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9cflCyyEA2I

    I suspect this guy is all about self promotion with smoke and mirrors, and youtube videos that say nothing.
    If I decide to go to his talk on “Winning Customers with Mobile and Social Marketing” this October 31, I’ll post a follow up commentary.