Detecting Social Media Bullshit: A Sociologist’s View

Social media “gurus” abound these days. Which ones are worth listening to and which ones are bullshitters?

Philosopher Harry Frankfurt exposed bullshitters in his famous essay “On Bullshit.” The liar knows what the truth is and cares very much about concealing it. The bullshitter, on the other hand, doesn’t care what the truth is and has no compunction in stretching it.

The same goes for social media “gurus.” Those that care what about rigourous examination of the social may be wrong, but at least they take great pains to analyze the phenomenon. Those that don’t care about systematic, theoretically informed social inquiry are interested only in stretching or shaping their own agendas.

How can you tell the difference?

Here are a few signs you’re dealing with a social media bullshitter.

  1. They skate over the tension between structure and agency: The tension between structure and agency is an age-old sociological debate. Social media bullshitters somehow miss this very important point. They often argue that implementing social media or social business design will somehow evaporate decades or even centuries of organizational structures. If your social media guru tells you that adding social media and stirring will create equality, harmony, and profits, begin to question them. If, on the other hand, they tell you that your organization does not live in a vacuum, and that your social media will be integrated in people’s existing lives with their existing economic, technological, and ethnically grounded experience, then they may be onto something.
  2. They use the same social research methods every time: A classically trained sociologist is trained in both qualitative and quantitative methods. They are designers in the sense that they have expertise, which they draw upon selectively, according to the research question. Social media bullshitters, on the other hand, likely have a common stock of tools that they use repeatedly, regardless of the nuance of the research question. If their answer is always, “do a focus group,” or always, “do a survey,” then question them.
  3. They see no paradoxes. Ever: Sociologists are constantly grappling with paradoxes. Weber’s famous paradoxical finding was that bureaucracies are both efficient and inefficient. They work wonders building and managing railroads, for example, but they result in horrible catastrophes like the Challenger disaster. Weber explained this paradox by arguing that rationality, or the rule of rules, is an “iron cage,” that keeps us safe but enslaved. If your social media guru claims there will be no paradox, nuance, or ambiguity, question them.
  4. They don’t know what social capital really is: Social capital is not something one can measure in terms of bank balances. It was the creation of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (come to think of it, the bullshitters wouldn’t know that either). Social capital is something one develops by being in a particular social location. I may go to an exclusive boarding school. My social capital is my network of well-off friends. Social capital is a particularly important concept when thinking about social media. Bourdieu noted that those in lower economic classes explicitly reject items they consider “above their station.” This means that luxury or “top of the line” is not always your best approach.

The bottom line is this: social media bullshitters have no knowledge of social theory or methodology. Trust a person who provides no easy answer, who carefully selects their research method, and who understands complex concepts.

Do you have more signs of being a social media bullshitter? Please share them here!


17 responses to “Detecting Social Media Bullshit: A Sociologist’s View

  1. The two for me are:

    1. They create powerpoint decks that essentially say nothing but string words together in a confusing manner so that appear to say something smart (and by smart i mean something no one understands or knows what to do with)

    2. They appear to have no other methodology other than their ‘expertise’ or ‘opinion’. A rationale (and dare i say it, a methodological process) for how they got to a conclusion might be a good question

    • I think I’ve seen a few of those power point decks…:-)

    • My favourite is “if facebook were a country it would be the 4th largest in the world” or there are more people on Twitter than living in Norway. The enthusiasm about these powerpoins is beyond borders though

      • Yes, Twitter is bigger than Norway…but then most people on Twitter never speak to anyone, don’t interact with anyone! So, not Norway really!

  2. This is an ongoing problem to which journalists often fall prey. It’s how “experts” with no real expertise are inadvertently invented by the media.

    A few more signs someone falls into this category. They:

    – Co-opt the vocabulary of their target to forge an impression that they are peers.

    – Sling jargon and buzzwords, rebrand and present established procedures, processes and skill sets the target may already have as new ones that the “expert” offers.

    – Constantly change the focus of their purported expertise to the newest hot topic, or claim an area that is so broad and vague that it encompasses anything they choose to chase.

    • Oh that last one is so true! The vocabulary and jargon issues are exactly what Frankfurt says about bullshitters. It’s always managing the *impression* of something, not the substantive issue.

  3. Are you implying (or am I merely inferring from what you’ve written here) that social media ‘gurus’ (or their more humble cousins, dedicated PR practitioners who know the value of various communications methods and tools) should be (or are) sociologists? There seems to be an equation at work here with which I can’t quite agree.

    • Hi Ruth,
      No, I’m not saying they should be sociologists. But I am saying that they need to understand relevant topics like social capital, social research methods, and social life. Must they be sociologists? Absolutely not. Obviously that would be an advantage, however. Just as being an anthropologist is an advantage in researching cultural aspects of everyday life, being a sociologist makes you prepared for studying social aspects.

      Can psychologists study social media? Yes, of course. Marketing types? Yes, absolutely. But they must understand “the social” !

  4. How about environmental types? I say YES!

  5. Yes, environmental types *especially* understand the social. If they didn’t, they’d be called “biologists.”

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  7. Really well written.

    The bullshitters are all about the powerpoint decks.

  8. Good post. One thing:

    Social capital isn’t just developed by being in “particular social locations”. In fact, it seems to be more often generated via specific “social actions” that one takes of the course of a life.

    Social capital accumulates, and can be distributed – I can do good things for my community…accumulate ‘good will’, a ‘great reputation’ etc. and those things can be leveged to gain benefits that are tangible.

    I could go on and on…but my point is that actions are more important that one’s station (or stops) in life.

    • Hi Peter,
      Thanks for the comment. You’d really enjoy another recent post I wrote on social capital actually. Social capital has been typically thought of as something one “invests in,” or as you put it, through “social actions.” I’ve never been convinced of this; it underplays the role social institutions have in shaping advantage. Mario Luis Small recently argued that organizations actually create social capital by creating opportunities for people to interact, thereby creating social capital. I’m more aligned with this way of thinking.

      Does social capital happen by people interacting in certain, concerted ways? Of course. But I believe social institutions are more important than you may give them credit for.

  9. Brilliant. As a web consultant with a background in Sociology and Philosophy, I too have been highly skeptical of this latest fad.

    The more people try to “game” systems with low barriers to entry, the more those systems will revert to old structural rules. Where as 4 years ago, I would suggest to a small business owner to attempt to work at SEO strategies, I now just sit down and calculate how much he can spend on AdWords.


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