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SUNY Potsdam grad student takes on social media myths

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POTSDAM — As humorist Brandon J. Mendelson checked his Twitter account Wednesday afternoon with palpable irony.

In the SUNY Potsdam bookstore, Mr. Mendelson stood behind a display of his recently published book “Social Media Is Bull****.”

“It is deliberately inflammatory but more or less true,” said Mr. Mendelson. “Social media’s impact and value is being sold to people as a gateway to success, and that is complete fiction.”

That’s a pretty strong claim for someone with over 750,000 followers on Twitter, but Mr. Mendelson appreciates the contradiction.

“The book says let’s take a step back, these are just tools,” he said. “Not many people can get rich off the internet alone.”

Mr. Mendelson says social media is being billed by marketers as a tool to become rich and famous, but is unable to deliver on either promise.

“You don’t want to disappoint people, but you don’t want to see them go broke, either,” he said.

He pointed out that most content providers on social media are content providers on more traditional media like television, newspapers and film.

“We’ve created this echo chamber,” he said. “25 percent of users are what are referred to as ‘power users’ who post the vast majority of the content. In essence, it has empowered entrenched celebrities and entrenched media outlets.”

In an effort to keep up, media companies have flocked to social networking sites like Twitter to drive people towards their content with little regard to the effectiveness of their strategy, said Mr. Mendelson.

“You have papers who are hiring social media experts to post links on Twitter and Facebook,” he said. “It’s not much of a job, really, just more clutter on people’s feeds.”

He likens the race to stake out a space on the internet and networking sites to the 1849 gold rush, when the miners were largely unsuccessful in their bids to strike it rich, but the people selling jeans and shovels to miners made plenty of money.

The books suggest companies flocking to establish a presence on social networks are often wasting their time. Large, national brands are already established or well-represented in traditional media, while word of mouth serves as the best way for smaller businesses to attract customers.

Mr. Mendelson said marketers want to sell businesses — large and small — space in social networks the same way they once sold websites.

“The internet really hasn’t changed, except for cosmetics, in almost twenty years,” he said. “They’re just repackaging it and selling it again. It is not so different from what Wall Street was doing with mortgage-backed derivatives.”

Now, private companies use sites like Facebook and MySpace as platforms for advertisements. The sites strategically place ads based on the demographic and personal information provided by users, thus far an unproven model.

Mr. Mendelson suggests advertisers are basing their decisions on questionable data published by the websites themselves.

“When Facebook decides to change their privacy policy, people freak out, but when they say they have a billion active users, people are willing to trust them,” he said. “An active user isn’t well defined — it could be someone who has ‘liked’ a few pages on the web.”

Social media is also changing the content, said Mr. Mendelson, as journalists craft stories driven to improve their standing on search engines like Google.

“You are a lot more likely to get clicks if you are at the top of the search engines,” he said. “People are now serving Google and not their readers.”

Because Twitter allows users to rapidly transmit information, standards for accuracy have taken a back seat to being the first to write the story.

“Post first. Post frequently. That has become the whole business model for sites like the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed,” said Mr. Mendelson. “It’s horrifying. There is little attention paid to accuracy. and in America, people don’t think critically to begin with.”

Mr. Mendelson, a 2006 SUNY Potsdam graduate, now pursues a master’s degree in organizational leadership from the school. In 2006, he became the only student to start an endowment while still enrolled as an undergraduate when he established the Oscar Cohen Memorial Scholarship for incoming music business majors.

“Social Media Is Bull****” is currently available at the SUNY Potsdam bookstore.

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