There’s an interesting article in the NYTimes today about MySpace, and its intention to market itself to advertisers by allowing them to create profiles and make friends with MySpace members. The thinking here is logical; but it makes a few signficant, and questionable leaps of faith.
Here’s a quick rundown of how and why:
1) Social software is noted for its emphasis on “friend” networks. Members accrue status/celebrity and value to the network, the more friends they have.
2) It’s assumed that a friend connection has trust in it.
3) Though it’s understood that all friends are not equal. Some are more equal than others. Some might even be fake. (remember fakesters, on friendster?)
4) The social mechanism behind this kind of socializing is simple: we are who we are with. We enjoy being seen by others. We look to see if others are looking at us. Call it mimetic desire, or socialization, or identity formation, hanging out, doesn’t matter. Point is we choose our company in part for their reflection on us.
5) Social software is poor at distinguishing a relation from the type of relationship it corresponds to. This is in part because there’s etiquette, and mirroring, involved in how we choose and designate friends. Members will write testimonials about each other as much for their reflection on themselves as for their comments on the other. Members know this, and can read it from between the lines. Authenticity, in other words, is there, even though it’s not captured explicitly in the software, or the UI.
6) An etiquette will emerge around friending MySpace brands. It might be part friendship parody, or satire, it might be sincere and genuine appreciation, but whatever type of relationship a member thinks s/he is establishing with a “brand member,” it will not be as equal as the others.
7) Brands will need to be smart about how they follow through, to wit, how they communicate and interact. Will they support “user-generated content,” which is to say, allow members to talk about them in their own words (including the not-so-nice ones)? Will they be put somebody online to talk to members directly (this could be time consuming), or will they treat this as billboard, another presence online? If they do nothing more than “talk at” MySpacers, rather than “talk to” them, they may soon find their presence overtaken by MySpacers intent on building their own credibility as funny, witty, critics and pranksters.
8) Overall it seems a good sign that brands are recognizing the days of broadcast messaging, mass media advertising and branding, are over, at least among the youth of today. They will never achieve the authenticity of a real personal relationship. But they stand to gain respect, credibility, and some version of trust (confidence, perhaps?) by simply showing up and participating. What they say will then carry a different meaning to some, because a brand that listens is already a different kind of brand.