Michael’s Favourite Orzo Salad

I’m not likely to be making or enjoying this stuff any time in the near future, I’m afraid, but you have my personal guarantee that it is utterly delicious and well worth trying out.

As the days were starting to warm up in May earlier this year, I suddenly got the idea to experiment with a new salad to go with some nice trout we’d found at the local Loblaws. I’ve had Orzo plenty of times in restaurants before, but don’t think I’ve ever cooked it until this year.

Since our first experiments, we’ve tried it with a bunch of things – lamb kebabs, other fish, burgers, just about any easy-going summer grub options. It seems to go with just about anything and makes for a great picnic food too.

My recipe may seem like a lot of faffing around – there are all kinds of different ingredients to prep, and it takes a while to come together. But this is actually one of the best things about it – it’s a slow, sociable food that you can build by yourself, or have a bunch of friends help out with.

Oh, and like most of my favourite dishes, the recipe here should be considered a base upon which to build out endless variations. I’ve listed here the ingredients for the basic version – but you should feel free to mix it up with whatever you feel like.

Ingredients:

- One bag of Orzo pasta
- Two to four cobs of fresh corn
- Two medium onions (or a handful of shallots, or a single big spanish onion, your call…)
- A pack of really good, fresh, cherry tomatoes – preferably a mix of red and yellow ones
- Sliced almonds
- A lemon
- Fresh tarragon
- Fresh mint
- Harissa
- Olive oil
- Good unsalted butter

Got all that together? OK, let’s start…

First, peel and slice your onions then start the long, loving process of letting them caramelize over a low heat in some of that lovely unsalted butter. The onions will be almost the last thing to go in, but they’re the first thing to start cooking because you want them properly caramelized, and that can easily take half an hour or more.

Once the onions are happily sweating away at the back of the stove, clean and boil your corn. We’re going to cook the corn twice, for extra flavour, so start with 10 minutes in fast-boiling, salted water, then remove the cobs from the water with tongs and leave them to drain in a colander. Keep the water at a slow boil – we’ll use it again in a minute.

Finish the corn by grilling it on your BBQ, to give it that nice, smoky, all-over toasted taste. Set aside for later.

Wash and squeeze dry the tarragon and mint, set them to one side.

Now throw about half a cup of sliced almonds into a hot non-stick pan and shuggle them around for about 5 minutes or so until they start to develop some colour. Be careful here – you don’t want burnt and bitter, you just want that extra nutty delight that comes from a quick toasting. Once the almonds are browned, slide them out of the pan into a small bowl and set aside.

Next, the tomatoes. Use a serrated knife to slice your tomatoes lengthways and lay them in rows, cut side up, on a cookie sheet. In the UK, I’d tell you to grill them – but here in Canada, you’ll want them under your broiler. Either way, you want them to brown and soften fast under a hot, hot element.

While the tomatoes are in, cook the Orzo in the water you used for the corn. Follow the package instructions but err on the side of al dente. Orzo tends to stick together, so stir that bugger with a pasta fork. If the bag says 8 mins, I’d cook it for about 6, then immediately drain and rinse the pasta very briefly under cold water, leaving it in a coolander to fully drain.

Things are a bit crazy at this point, as you also want to pull the tomatoes out – make sure they’re not too squishy.

Pull a handful of tarragon leaves off the stalks and roughly chop a small handful of mint leaves. Peel the zest off half to 2/3rds of the lemon and slice it very finely.

Now – transfer the Orzo into a big, colourful serving bowl. Immediately add a good glug of fine virgin olive oil, then add all the rest of the ingredients – the almonds, herbs, lemon zest, tomatoes, yummy caramelized onions and about two teaspoons of Harissa.

Run a sharp knife along the corn cobs to remove all the kernels, break them apart and add them to the salad.

Finally, mix it all together gently (so as not to smush the tomatoes too much) and add a final glug of olive oil or other seasoning to taste.

Serve immediately – it works really well as a salad tiede, but is still delicious the next day, straight from the fridge.

And that’s it. You could easily add tuna, chopped celery for crunch, some crispy apple, raisins, figs – all kinds of things you can mix this up with.

Hope you enjoy it as much as we do.

Searching for @Man

“When you think of the Internet, don’t think of Mack trucks full of widgets destined for distributorships, whizzing by countless billboards. Think of a table for two.”

The first time I read the seminal Internet rant “Attention Fat Corporate Bastards” I was a far-too-young VP of a rather large software company, running a bloated marketing department with a multi-million dollar budget. I really had no idea what I was doing.

It was 1997. The Cluetrain was steaming towards us at full speed, as the real power of the Net started to become apparent. Big companies were already starting to realise how leaky they were becoming.

Coders in the trenches were having email conversations with actual customers in the real world. Disillusioned sales reps were hanging out on ICQ at night, swapping war stories with dealers and even their friends at the competition.

Even senior execs (*cough* mentioning no names *cough*) were participating in this leakage. Cautiously creeping through Usenet and saying things that didn’t exist in any “corporate positioning cascade” or sanctioned message track. And all this without a single PR person in sight.

That essay, penned by a Usenet contributor who only ever signed himself “@Man” (and sometimes added “World-Class Data Snuggler / First Interskate Productions” in his sig), hit me like a brick between the eyes.

It inspired me then. It inspires me still.

As David Weinberger (accurately) paraphrases, I’ve “… long championed understanding the Net as, well, a conversation that needs to be respected. Keeping that conversation as open and vibrant as possible is more important than your business’s tawdry ambitions.”

For almost 15 years, I’ve been quoting the words of this anonymous dude in conversations, email messages, business meetings, and just about every social media conference presentation I’ve given (and I’ve probably done far too many of those).

I believe it is still, to this day, one of the very best descriptions of the way businesses should think about the Net. “Think of a table for two”. That just nails it.

In my talk at the mesh conference yesterday, I used the same line to close my talk on the general brokenness of social media (Thesis: social media broke marketing by giving customers back their voice. Marketers freaked out and seized control of the shiny new channels, trampling all over the much more important cultural shift underlying it all. Result = marketing has broken social media).

@Man’s brilliant aphorism was very well received, as it always is, but it left me feeling guilty…

Whenever I use the line, I always give credit to @Man, of course. But it occurred to me that for all the hundreds of times I’ve quoted the guy, I have absolutely no idea about who he is. What did he do? What prompted this fantastic rant? Where is he now?

I’ve found scattered traces across Usenet archives and the Web, but the two email addresses I found for the chap are now, sadly, not working.

I remembered the line was also quoted at the start of one of the chapters of The Cluetrain Manifesto, so I asked the authors earlier today if they had any clues. Alas, another blank.

If anyone out there knows of @Man or has any idea who he is/was, I’d love to know. Just to shake the bloke’s virtual hand, if nothing else. Or perhaps @Man is deliberately anonymous and has no wish to be contacted. I respect that, of course.

Anyway. For all the many, many times I’ve read your words, quoted them, and reminded myself of their simple, timeless truth: thank you @Man. Whoever you are.

Rage on, good sir.

Leaky Algorithmic Marketing Efforts or Why Social Advertising Sucks

A couple of days ago, the estimable JP Rangaswami posted a piece in response to a rather weird ad he saw pop up on Facebook. You should go read the full post for the context, but here’s the really quick version.

JP had posted a quick Facebook comment about reading some very entertainingly snarky Amazon.com reviews for absurdly over-priced speaker cables.

Something lurking deep in the dark heart of the giant, steam-belching, Heath Robinson contraption that powers Facebook’s social advertising engine took a shine to JP’s drive-by comment, snarfled it up, and spat it back out again with an advert attached. A rather… odd choice of “ad inventory unit”, to say the least. Here’s how it showed up on on of JP’s friends’ Facebook news feeds:

I saw JP post about this on Facebook and commented. The more I thought about the weirdness of this, the longer my comment became – to the point where I figured it deserved to spill over into a full-blown blog rant. Strap in… you have been warned.

I’ve seen a lot of this kind of thing happening in the past several months. Recently I’ve been tweeting and Facebooking my frustration with social sharing apps that behave in similar ways. You know the kind of thing – those ridiculous cluewalls implemented by Yahoo!, SocialCam, Viddy, and several big newspapers. You see an interesting link posted by one of your friends, click to read the article, and next thing you know you’re expected to grant permission to some rotten app to start spamming all your friends every time you read something online. Ack.

The brilliant Matthew Inman, genius behind The Oatmeal, had a very smart, beautifully simple take on all this social reader stupidity.

It’s the spread of this kind of leaky algorithmic marketing that is starting to really discourage me from sharing or, sometimes, even consuming content. And I’m a sharer by nature – I’ve been willingly sharing and participating in all this social bollocks for a heck of a long time now.

But now… well, I’m really starting to worry about the path we seem to be headed down. Or should I say, the path we’re being led down.

Apps that want me to hand over the keys to my FB account before I can read the news or watch another dopey cat video just make me uncomfortable. If I inadvertently click through an interesting link only to find that SocialCam or Viddy or somesuch malarkey wants me to accept its one-sided Terms of Service, then I nope the hell out of there pretty darn fast.

How can this be good for the Web? It denies content creators of traffic and views, and ensures that I *won’t* engage with their ideas, no matter how good they might be.

All these examples are bad cases of Leaky Algorithmic Marketing Efforts (or L.A.M.E. for short). It’s a case of developers trying to be smart in applying their algorithms to user-generated content – attempting to nail the sweet spot of personal recommendations by guessing what kind of ad inventory to attach to an individual comment, status update, or tweet.

It results in unsubtle, bloody-minded marketing leaking across into personal conversations. Kinda like the loud, drunken sales rep at the cocktail party, shoe-horning a pitch for education savings plans into a discussion about your choice of school for your kids.

Perhaps I wouldn’t mind so much if it wasn’t so awfully bloody cack-handed as a marketing tactic. I mean – take another look at the ad unit served up to run alongside JP’s status update. What the hell has an ad for motorbike holidays got to do with him linking to snarky reviews of fancyass (and possibly fictional) speaker cables? Where’s the contextual connection?

Mr. Marketer: your algorithm is bad, and you should feel bad.

The growing prevalence of weirdness like this has been slowly nudging me in the direction of Internet recluse of late, and providing all kinds of juicy source material for a talk I’m giving at the upcoming mesh conference in a couple of weeks. I’m going to build on the theme of my Social Media WTF post from a few weeks ago.

I’ve always been very comfortable about sharing who I am and what I like online. But now I increasingly feel I want to hide behind proxies just to read an online newspaper – not just because I’m upset that marketers are trying to harvest meaning from every pixel I poke, but also because they’re just so woefully, pathetically bad at it.

My friend Jon Husband let me know earlier today that he saw a Facebook ad saying “Michael O’Connor Clarke likes Aleve”. Well, yes – I suppose I do. It’s an effective muscle relaxant and pain reliever and helped a lot with a rather badly sprained ankle a few years ago. But that doesn’t mean I’m willing to shill for the damn thing.

When Jon told me about this, it immediately set me stomping off in high dudgeon to check my Facebook privacy settings. Here’s what I found:

“Facebook does not give third party applications or advert networks the right to use your name or picture in adverts…”

Ah ha! I thought. Got you, you duplicitous, praetorian, algorithmic bastards (sorry, “algorithmic” seems to be word of the day here, for some reason). But then I read on…

“Everyone wants to know what their friends like. That’s why we pair adverts and friends — an easy way to find products and services you’re interested in, based on what your friends share and like.

Here are the facts:
- Social adverts show an advertiser’s message alongside actions you have taken, such as liking a Page”

Ay, there’s the rub.

Perhaps it’s just me, but the delta between “we don’t do this” and “we do this in certain circumstances that suit us, subject to change without notice at any time in the future, if we feel like it” is almost too fine to be discernible.

So Facebook doesn’t give others the right to use my name for advertising third-party products, but they’ve absolutely no qualms about doing precisely that themselves.

A little higher up on my Facebook news feed the other day was a link telling me a very straight-laced management consultant I know watched a saucy video called “Hot contestant on Wheel of Fortune”. I wonder if he even realises SocialCam is promoting this fact?

Frankly, I couldn’t care less what the dude watches. But I worry that our every online action, every click, every gesture, every page to which I choose to offer eyeballs seems to be considered fair game for the crappiest kind of marketing.

This is not the intention economy I signed up for.

I should know better, of course. I fully understand the basic precept: if you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold. I get that.

But in these examples I’m not even the product being sold – I’m the unpaid and unwitting salesman for someone else’s product, and that chafes my social bumpy bits.

Mayor Rob Ford, media kerfuffles and online sentiment

Toronto’s controversial Mayor Rob Ford continues to get himself into all kinds of bizarre tangles with the media. He rarely gives interviews, preferring the unflitered medium of his own talk radio show to get his messages across.

The latest kerfuffle involved a Toronto Star reporter apparently being chased off city land adjoining the mayor’s home by a flip-flop clad mayor. There hasn’t been too much level-headed reporting around this one. Here’s the Globe’s coverage of the incident, for those of you outside the Toronto bubble.

Frankly, I think the Star and the Mayor need to just get over themselves and get on with their jobs.

But just for the fun of it, I thought I’d run a quick test using Sysomos MAP, our social media research weapon of choice, to see how incidents like this can rapidly shift the tone of online conversation.

I asked Sysomos to look at all online discussion in Canada about Mayor Ford – across news sites, blogs, forums, and Twitter – in the four-day period from Monday to Thursday of last week. Then I ran the same search for the first four days of this week.

The shift in the tone of conversation is absolutely startling. Shows you how fast reputations can ebb and flow online these days.

In short – before the kerfuffle, a third of all online discussion about Mayor Ford was positive and 19% was negative. Looking at the results for this week, including the last 24 hours of online controversy, there’s been a big shift: now only 17% of all conversations are positive and fully 37% are negative.

The biggest shift has been in online discussion forums – from 46% positive to 60% negative in the space of one short week.

Here, without further commentary, are the results – click the image to embiggenify:

I don’t think that really needs much explanation.

Joe Clarke’s Irish Soda Bread

I brought a batch of this into the office last week and it was quite a hit. A few people asked for the recipe. Well, since my recipe is adapted from the one my Dad taught me, and today just happens to be Dad’s 74th birthday, it seems appropriate to throw this thing out there for the day that’s in it.

If you’ve ever visited Ireland and stayed in a B&B, or had a plate of smoked salmon in a pub somewhere over there, chances are you’ve sampled proper Irish brown bread. Home made Irish bread, served warm from the oven with the butter melting into its crumbly surface, is truly one of the wonders of the world.

The real thing is properly made with buttermilk – but that seems to be getting harder to find these days, so Dad adapted the old recipe to use yogourt instead. You can still use buttermilk, if you can get it, or regular 2% milk, or even a mixture of milk and sour cream. Go nuts.

There are countless recipes for this and lots of room to experiment and chuck in other stuff that you like. At home, I’ll often add a cup of milled flax seed, or maybe some cranberries, or toasted almonds and chopped apricots, or even a big handful of grated parmesan and a bunch of chopped basil (nom!).

A quick note on flour: try to find the best, freshest organic flour you can. Yes, I said “freshest” – flour goes bad after a while, especially whole grain flour. We want a bit of sourness to our dough, but not the kind of sourness you’re going to get from rancid flour; that’s just nasty.

Instructions below will give you one loaf, but I’ll usually prep at least a double-batch of the dough. That way you can do two loaves, adding all kinds of dried fruit or sundry other yumminess to the second one.

Ingredients:

3 cups good whole-wheat flour
2 cups plain white flour
1 to 2 rounded tbsp. of baking soda
1 rounded tsp. salt
A big tub (750g) of low fat natural yogourt OR the same volume of buttermilk
Warm water

Method:

Preheat your oven to 385°F (180°C). Also, grease up your loaf tin now (one of those aerosol cooking sprays is fine for this) and leave it upside down over the sink so the excess fat can drip out.

Mix the dry ingredients well in a big bowl. In a separate bowl or jug, mix the liquids in a ratio of about three parts yogourt (or buttermilk or whatever) to one part warm water.

Pour most of the liquid into the dry ingredients and start to mix well. I use a fork at first, then get stuck in with my hands. I suppose you could do this in a fancyass KitchenAid thingy with one of those dough hooks, but where’s the fun in that?

Mix it thoroughly, adding more of the liquid if necessary, until the dough leaves the sides of the bowl and becomes too thick to mix (tip: it’s better a bit too wet than too dry. If need be, add some more warm water or yog).

Transfer the dough into your pre-greased loaf tin and cover with a sheet of lightly-oiled foil. This prevents the crust from becoming too hard.

Bake for almost an hour without touching the oven, then check the bread for doneness. Try sliding a small sharp knife into the centre of the loaf, count to ten, and then check it: if there’s any gooeyness on the knife, your bread needs a little longer.

I’ll confess, this is the tricky bit: there are so many permutations of quality of flour, initial temperature of the ingredients, and the idiosyncracies of individual ovens that you just need to experiment. You need to get to know your oven, and baking a batch of bread for a few weekends in a row isn’t a bad way to get started.

Once it’s done to your satisfaction, pull the bread out and wrap it in a clean, slightly damp tea towel. Leave it to cool for about half an hour before you try to pop it out of the tin.

Slice thickly, spread the warm bread with butter, put it in front of hungry kids, and watch an entire loaf disappear in one go.

It’s dense, it’s filling, and it’s bloody delicious.

And that’s it. Happy birthday Dad!

Social Media WTF

This minor epiphany occurred to me when I was prepping for a talk I gave last week. I can’t believe it’s never struck me before.

Here’s the setup – in the 12+ years I’ve been playing with social software I’ve seen a constant parade of new shiny objects emerge, draw their share of buzz for a while, then (in the vast majority of cases) fade into the mists of memory. (Orkut, anyone? MySpace? Digg? FourSquare…?)

The Next Big Thing everyone’s frothing over right now, of course, is Pinterest, with countless breathless blog posts cooing over the insane (INSANE!) growth of this latest glossy, lovely, simple social sharing service.

Pinterest is, without question, 2012′s SODJ (Shiny/Social Object De Jour).

One of the big questions I get asked all the time when I’m talking to clients, colleagues, or rooms full of eager neophytes goes something like this:

“What should my Facebook strategy be?” or “What should we do with Twitter?” or, these days, it’s all “How do we start with Pinterest?”

Here’s a clue. A great deal of the attention lavished on Pinterest in the last few weeks is pointing to one key thing: the huge amount of traffic Pinterest (and its ilk) can drive to your website.

Get that? The hierarchy of the relationship is important. Drive… traffic… to your website.

As wonderful and shiny as all these social thingies are, your website (or blog) should still be the hub of your overall online strategy. EVERYTHING should drive to that central online home that you own and control (and frequently update).

Here’s the way I captured it in my deck last Friday:

See what I did there?

The Website is the hub, Twitter and Facebook are shells around it, directing traffic to the centre. If you’re ever having trouble remembering this, just think: WTF!

I’m sure someone else has probably stumbled across this same cute mnemonic before, but the moment it occurred to me I just couldn’t resist using it.

Of course, Twitter and Facebook are placeholders. It could just as easily be WTP for Pinterest, or WFB (Website, Flickr, Ban.jo) – although that just wouldn’t be nearly as funny as telling the boss your strategy is “WTF”.

Point is: (say it with me) your website is always at the centre.

Yes, you should evaluate each new SODJ as it comes along and determine its relevance to your marketing and communications efforts. But don’t ever invest all of your online dollars into building out a fabulous community on someone else’s platform. Bring those people home to somewhere you control, where you set the rules and you own the relationship.

As the splendid Marcus Sheridan would probably put it: don’t think about what your social media strategy is — or your Pinterest strategy, or your Highlight strategy, or your [whatever] strategy. Figure out what your content strategy is, and make every SODJ the slave to that.

Hoist with my own petard

So, yesterday I posted a certain rather long blog rant as a result of a bit of Intertube detective work prompted by a client question.

The short version: we discovered a site that blatantly games social networks, offering to sell Twitter followers, Facebook fans, and other social “audiences” in bulk. I knew such services existed, but this was my first direct encounter with such a raw and gaping cluewound.

A key takeaway – the evidence of our research suggests that while one can buy large follower counts, the majority of the followers you receive are “low value” phantom accounts. Accounts with tiny follower counts, very low activity, and a pattern of spam-like behaviour.

The coda to my rant, alas, is that in the hours since I posted it I’ve seen a most unusual spike in my own Twitter follower count. More than 700 new followers in less than 12 hours. My usual rate is around 3-4 net new followers per day.

From a quick analysis, it’s evident that around 90% of these new followers are, guess what: phantoms. Spammy and fake accounts set up, presumably, as part of the same pyramid scheme my own post set out to expose. All of the suspect accounts are also following the very service I was outing in the first place.

This is either entirely accidental, or – I fear – a bizarre, calculated form of retribution from the very scammers I called out.  Ugh.

I have, it seems, been hoist with my own petard.

I suppose one part of me ought to be celebrating this spike in followers, but in truth it just makes me quietly sad.

BuyFansToday may be the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen

“What fresh hell is this?” – Dorothy Parker

The notion of buying your social media audience has come up many times before.

There was that awful, lame-brained PayPerPost thing back in 2007. At the other end of the spectrum, there was a much earlier (and far more ethically-constructed) experiment by Marqui to sponsor bloggers directly  - a program that generated A LOT of noise at the time (disclosure: I ran product management at Marqui, so I’m kind of biased).

But yesterday I stumbled across something different. Something very, very different and unquestionably, immeasurably worse: an organization that sells social media fans and followers in bulk.

Make a cup of tea and get comfortable. I’m going into a full-on, extended rant here.

Here’s the background:

One of our clients was trying to figure out how a competitor of theirs went from a scant few hundred to over 14,500 Twitter followers in a matter of weeks.

Even more odd, when we looked into it, was the fact that the competitor appeared to have added the exact same number of new followers every day for a period of several weeks.

Here’s a chart from TwitterCounter that shows the growth (click to embiggenify):

The tell-tale signal here: this looks entirely inorganic.

Nothing that exists in social media is inorganic – it’s lumpy, unpredictable, and delightfully human. By definition.

This account was flatlined at 3,416 followers for months, then suddenly started adding precisely 138 followers a day, between September 5th and November 7th. On Monday of this week, something else happened – they’ve added exactly 1,422 followers each day since. That kind of steady, predictable community growth just doesn’t happen naturally.

It all smelled decidedly fishy to us, and sure enough – it is.

When we looked deeper into the competitor’s Twitter profile, their follower list included a host of sketchy-looking accounts with tiny follower numbers and (in many cases) few or zero tweets.

With help from Sysomos and some team smarts, we took a sizeable cross-section of the new followers and did some profile comparison.

The curious thing we found about many of these followers: lots of them seemed to be following all of the same companies and other accounts on Twitter.

Many of them, for example, follow this list:

Zaarly
YazeedRacing
Saatchi_Gallery
CheaterVille
SinusDynamics
Jeffbeacher
MyCauseWater

… and a host of other over-lapping or related accounts. That seemed more than a little weird in itself, but the plot… curdles.

ALL of these accounts also have one shared account that they follow in common. An account called BuyFansToday  which links to the site of the same name.

This is, as the name so clearly announces, the epicentre of some industrial-grade skullduggery.

At the BuyFansToday site you’ll learn 10,000 Twitter followers can be bought for a mere US$699.95. Want Facebook fans? 10,000 shiny news ones will set you back US$849.95

Just… wow.

In case it isn’t immediately obvious, here are three reasons why this is just a hideously, almost criminally bad idea:

1. IT’S A LIE.

The marketing rhetoric on the BuyFansToday site states:

Having a Facebook fan page with lots of fans can do wonders for any product that needs customers. A community of real fans will buy and use the product, as well as notify their friends, who will then go on to use the product as well, and to notify their friends, creating a continuous cycle of promotion.

In itself, that’s a reasonable explanation of how real network effects can drive business to companies through social media. But there is nothing about the approach BuyFansToday is taking that generates “real fans”.

Elsewhere on their site they claim:

We don’t use dummy twitter accounts when you buy Twitter followers from us.

Bullshit.

As we’ve seen above, what you’re buying is a network of shell accounts. Fake Twitter followers (and, no doubt, equally bogus Facebook fans, YouTube fans, and so on) seemingly created for the sole purpose of fulfilling a contractual obligation to follow a certain quota of other accounts. It’s a tissue-thin pyramid scheme.

It’s entirely likely they have legitimate (albeit woefully misguided) social media users in their database. I don’t doubt it. However, from an unscientific, but statistically valid, sampling of the followers for this competitor’s account, we saw an average of 9 tweets (all time) per follower, 29.85 followers, per account.

Most of the Twitter accounts we analyzed are less than 100 days old, and many of them only tweeted a few times at the beginning and have been entirely dormant since.

Analyzing a selection of tweets, a lot of them are just pure gobbledegook – spam-like phrases stuffed through the Twitterpipes to synthesize a gauzy illusion of real activity.

Three random examples pulled from three different Twitter handles:

- “Yeah, TheClevelandShow komt terug.”

- “Never stop it ahahhaa.”

- “Smh these twitter beefs need to last longer lol now the tl back to being dead.”

 

These are, by any rational assessment, dummy accounts. Pun intended.

These aren’t real people, you idiots. They don’t care about your company, they’re not even actually following you – not in any real sense of the word.

It’s all a rather pathetic lie.

2. IT DOESN’T WORK.

Marketers naturally assume that the bigger the network, the better. Nope.

For more than 100 years, the business of marketing has been predicated on reach, on scale. Impressions counts, audience volumes, counting eyeballs (eww) – if we can get our message in front of a big enough audience, we’re sure to hit our target. Spray and pray.

But this is advertising-led thinking. It’s the economic logic of spam. And that’s just not how social media works.

In social media, Metcalfe’s Law seems to be the idea many marketers chase after:

The value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system.

Sure, there seems to be value in having a big following; in achieving a certain critical mass. But here’s the thing: in order for the value part of the equation to work in a social network context, the connected nodes actually need to be contributing something and communicating with each other; else they’re just dead links.

My corollary to Metcalfe’s Law would be:

The value of a social network is proportional to the square of the number of engaged contributors to the system.

Note: it’s “contributors to” not “users of“.

In any audience group, only a percentage of the members will be active participants. In a social media audience group you’ve acquired through BuyFansToday, that percentage is going to be vanishingly small.

Indeed, it’s questionable whether the word “audience” is even valid in this context. If these people aren’t actually looking at you, they ain’t an audience.

It’s like you sold out the Albert Hall, only to walk on stage and discover only six people were actually in their seats. Oh, and you didn’t even sell the tickets – you paid people to be there.

I was chatting about this episode with a good friend and colleague at another agency, who commented:

“…through their eyes, they have 14,000 followers so they are sitting on top of a goldmine…but are they? If you look at their following through a qualitative lens, they are really sitting on top of a fool’s goldmine (yes…I just went there).”

Nicely put. It’s the quality versus quantity point that is most important here. Followers and fans are only of any value if they:

  • have consciously chosen to follow or Like you, and;
  • are engaged in spreading the word about you among their own circles of influence

The followers you’re buying wholesale through scams like this clicked a button, got paid, and have absolutely no interest in who you are or what you do. They may never visit your site, are not sending you any traffic, are not buying your products, and will almost certainly never even see any of your tweets – let alone respond to them or share them among their (questionable) networks.

That dog don’t hunt.

3. IT DAMAGES YOUR BRAND.

Contrary to what the founders of organizations like BuyFansToday evidently think, people aren’t sheep. And this is the key thing:

Social Media is like Soylent Green. It’s made of people.

When those people see you inflating your audience numbers with spammy behaviour, they will judge you.

Prudent, intelligent, thoughtful people (the kind, I hope, you’d want to number among your fans and followers) make decisions to follow brands, in part, based on the influence of their peers, friends and others they aspire to emulate. When they look at your followers and see an endless list of spambots, fake accounts, and anonymous weirdos – how well does that reflect on who you are?

Looked at this way, you can think of your followers as reputation votes. When someone credible awards you the gift of a Like or Follow, it reflects well on your brand. When you hoover up hundreds of dummy followers through some automated system, it makes you look lame and foolish.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, you’re an up-and-coming new line of innovative sports equipment. If sports is my thing, and I hear about your products, I’m going to be interested to see who else is following you in social networks. Pro athletes, perhaps? Coaches? At the very least, I’d expect to see a bunch of like-minded sports fans in your lists.

If I look at your Twitter profile and all I see is an endless parade of sketchy-looking accounts, with typos in their bios and no apparent connection to sports performance, I’m going to feel, at best, confused.

More likely: I’ll conclude that your online behaviour seems to be attracting spam accounts, for whatever reason, and I’ll opt not to follow you. I’ll also think a lot less of your brand because of the unflattering pall being cast upon you by the quality of your followers.

That sounds arrogantly dismissive, perhaps, but I’m human. Understand this: your brand isn’t what you say. It’s what people say it is.

 –%–

*deep breath… exhale*

So… yes. I know I’ve ranted long and hard about this, but it just really, truly frosts my nuggets. Hard.

Why? I think it’s rooted in that Soylent Green analogy.

Social media is people. The Internet is people. Forget about the fact that there are billions of dollars and huge corporations all over this thing and go right back to where we started. Go back and read the Cluetrain again:

Networked markets are beginning to self-organize faster than the companies that have traditionally served them. Thanks to the web, markets are becoming better informed, smarter, and more demanding of qualities missing from most business organizations.

 

If we lie down and just let clueless douchenozzles like BuyFansToday corrupt and pollute the communities and spaces we’re building online, then we’ve squandered the whole point and true potential of social media. It’s just wrong, dammit.

Do you like how advertising and marketing worked back in the unidirectional, broadcast-only, pre-Internet world? Do you really want to return to that?

If not, then I believe it’s your duty to spread the word about clueduggery such as this as far and wide as possible. Alert your clients. Friends don’t let friends dunk their budgets in crazy.

My apologies, by the way, for being coy about the name of my client (and their competitor) here. Cluelessness benefits from sunlight, I know, but I’m not comfortable directly outing the competitor for what, I hope, was simply a really bad decision based on a poor understanding of how this stuff works.

Buying a service like this is, I’m convinced, utterly misguided – but we can’t blame the ill-informed clients for the fact that such a service exists. They just took bad advice.

And yes, I know, I’m probably being hypocritical by directly linking to a number of the other BuyFansToday users, above. I’m astonished that even respectable institutions such as London’s Saatchi Gallery seem to have fallen for this particular variety of snake oil.

Perhaps they’ll come across this post in their analytics and come to understand the error of their ways.

UPDATE: Related reading from the latest Inc. Magazine (thanks to Heather Kernahan for the tip): Does it pay to buy a Twitter following?

Leona

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Shakespeare (of course). Sonnet XXIX

America’s First Woman President?

I’ve been quietly following the career of Elizabeth Warren for a while now and I continue to be impressed at every turn.

Now running on the Democrat ticket for the Massachusetts state senate seat, Ms. Warren has been kicking up a healthy cloud of positive buzz on the road. One particular moment, taped at an event in Andover, has been bouncing around the Interwebs for over a week now, but I make no excuse for re-posting it here. It still deserves a broader audience – even whatever meagre additional views this wee blog might muster.

Here’s the killer quotation. Deserves to be copied and spread even further and wider than it has been already.

If you think that’s good, it’s even better when you hear the passion with which she delivers the lines. Here’s the clip:

The frisson I feel when watching this is akin to how I felt when I saw clips of Obama’s keynote at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

I called it back then – I felt convinced he’d be the first black American president. Sadly, I didn’t put any money on this or tell anyone other than my Dad (back me up here, Dad – I did say that, right?)

Well I’m going on the record this time. I think Elizabeth Warren could be – perhaps should be the first female president of the US. Only after Barack’s done his full two terms, of course.

Just hoping this post doesn’t jinx her chances entirely.