Social Spam Reactions: A Cultural Issue, Not Technological

Social media spam is not a new phenomenon. Back in the 90s and early 00s forum days, I moderated several music / geek boards and had to deal with marketers who tried to comment or link spam conversations.

I noticed something interesting for the ones we didn’t catch: not sometimes, they were always hung out to dry by the community. Ruthlessly.

It didn’t matter who the company was. Or if it was only mildly spammy. Even if it was from a brand the community liked there was little tolerance for spam. Social was never was meant for direct marketing.

This is still true on the web today, as noted by the most recent example we shared. Web communities are always self-policing. And while mistakes from well-meaning brands are generally forgiven, spam is named and shamed.

But I actually think the reasons behind this have nothing to do with the web or technology at all. My sense is this is simply how a cultural issue we’re all affected by plays out on the web.

Consider the following two scenarios:

Scenario 1: image you’re with a friend walking through a city, having a pleasant conversation about a book you just read. All of a sudden someone blocks your path, interrupts your conversation and desperately insists you check out their new sandwich shop.

Scenario 2: you check your snail mail and in the mix for that day is a a menu for said sandwich shop.

Social web spam is, in essence, no different from scenario 1. It’s easy to think the web is somehow a “different” place from the physical world. It’s not, it is the real world: our ideas, personalities and interactions expressed through technology. And with it, our societal conditioning still applies.

Going with that, imagine what you might do after scenario 1. We’re social creatures: after you passed the interruption you would likely chat with your friend about what just happened. Your personality, mood and who you were with at the time would dictate your response. It’s not any different online as the social web is real-time.

As for scenario 2, snail-mail spam: if you’re new to the area and the menu looks interesting, you might keep it to try later. Or you might recycle it (being 100% paperless, my mailbox routine basically consists of emptying the mail into the recycling bin). But no matter what you did with the menu, you probably wouldn’t share what happened at the water cooler the next day at the office.

What’s the difference? Yes, they’re both interrupting you, but one is doing so in a social context: it’s in public. And as social creatures we’re hard-wired to communicate about things that happen in our surroundings — perhaps even more attuned to share events in the public sphere. It’s how we survived in a pre-technology society and how we do today.

As a digital native I am too young to remember much, if anything about a pre-internet world, so I never felt a need to put down the above thoughts. They seemed obvious. But as I look around at what a lot of brands are (still) doing in 2011, I think it’s a point worth highlighting.

Reactions to any company’s communications have nothing to do with technology and everything to do with a lack of understanding of our culture. And as marketers it is an integral part of our job to both understand culture as well as embrace new technology.

image credit: Shutterstock