Sharing Information Isn't As Smart As It Used To Be

Posted on March 15th 2008

I posted my original thoughts on Brandstorming, but a couple of episodes this week reinforced the topic of when social media sharing becomes social media stealing.

I'm a consultant.  I've sold hundreds of thousands of dollars of social media and online marketing through my company in the form of training, campaigns, and thought leadership.  My clients pay me to understand their marketing and corporate communications and integrate that into the world of social media.  At the same time, I'm the member of several online communities.  I give information away for free because it's important to have a sharing ethic if you want your community to work.

So what happens when your desire to help others comes into direct conflict with your need to charge for your services?  It's not a new question - consultants of all stripes have had to learn to walk the fine line between promotion and giving away your secrets - if you're speaking at a conference, do you want to educate your audience (and also your competitors), or do you play it safe and speak vaguely about all the wonderful things you do?

With social media, the stakes are different.  The "sharing" ethic, vital to maintain online communities, doesn't respect personal or business boundaries.  It was relatively easy to share information about inline trackbacks or loading up an HTML page when you're writing a blog about your personal life.  It's a much different story when a direct competitor starts asking you how you measure ROI when you're trying to close a $50,000 deal with a company.  Discussing the best ways to optimize your blog for SEO is important if you have 50 people reading your industry blog and you want to make that 500.  But if you have 500 people reading your blog and you share the best information, you may find yourself competing with 20 people for SERP's. It's not a big deal, until one of the people you're mentoring bumps you off the first page of Google writing about your expert topic. 

And in social media, the line between business and social, between professional and amateur, doesn't exist. Amateurs jump into the pool and give away for free the knowledge that professionals sell.  If you give away your ideas, you may find your best work scattered across the blogosphere in a hundred sites, none of them bearing your name.

When I started my business in 2006, I was one of the first blog consultants.  Much of what I taught had been acquired through years involved in online communities.  I joined, worked with and acquired knowledge through the long, unpaid process of wasting time online (I started back in the late 1980's playing around with BBS's).  Most of what I learned, I picked up from other people.  The willingness of the online community to share know-how was something special that you don't often see in the corporate world, and that "sharing" ethic has been passed on in full bloom to the Web 2.0. You helped out other people out because that's what good community citizens did.

Today, most of the people that are in social media are new to the space and new to the online world.  Their energy is astounding, but I find a lot of people with knowledge that goes a mile wide, and an inch thick.  I feel as if I've earned my stripes, and when someone asks for help, I don't know if I should give it to them, when half the time the knowledge I transfer allows someone else to sell my services to their clients.

My general inclination is to help, but I've found myself being very careful of sharing too much before I get to know someone.  The universal sharing ethic isn't universal anymore, as many people now expect you to drop what you're doing, solve their problem, and never even take the time to thank you or credit you for your work.

Perhaps I sound like a curmudgeon, banging on the table and yelling about those damn kids, but it surprises me when people are so willing to ask for help but aren't willing to give much in return. That's dangerous.  Most people hate networking in real life because networking events are filled with multi-level marketing folks, grasping salespeople and job-seekers who are desperate to use you to land them a job.  If an online community turns from helpful professionals working to get better at their jobs into a grasping, striving, ungrateful, and arrogant echo chamber, the promise of social media will disappear like the dot-com boom.

Social media is ultimately a reflection of the offline world.  As more and more people join the fray, the seeming ease of becoming an expert will draw a lot of people looking to make a quick buck, or who believe that social media is easier to sell than mortgages, cars, or (pardon the phrasing) widgets. 

As the field grows, the need to be less open and more selective on who you make friends with grows as well.  And that's a shame. 

Jim Durbin

Blogs:
Social Media Headhunter
Brandstorming.com



Comments

The fact that there are companies out there, selling nothing, whose only value comes from their membership, and somehow you manage to make a living being a symbiont, well, to me this means you should thank the body electric everyday that you are able to feed your family and keep your head dry by marketing bits!

If you've been online as long as you claim (and I don't doubt you), then I can't imagine that back in the 80's and 90's you ever dreamed you'd actually make a living doing work in "social media."

I remember the early 90's of internet usage and how people were still debating the commercialization of the internet and most companies didn't even see a point in having an internet presence.

I remember the days of animated gifs and static pages and when people thought a page counter was cool.

There was a time before eBay. There was even a time before high speed (and even http) when it took a phone line all night to download a 1mb application that you were probably never going to ever actually use. If you were real hard core you have a dedicated phone line and the fastest modem they made (what's a modem?), so your roommate didn't disconnect your download of this mont's Playmate!

In the end, it won't really matter how tight lipped you become, you will adapt to whatever new is coming down the pipe, or you will die. You had the luxury of being able to be in on the ground floor. Kids these days (love using that term) don't get to wade in from the shallow end. But they also learn to swim at a much earlier age. In another 20 years you'll be begging for knowledge, from the kids who grew up with it, understand it, and take it for granted. Just hope they are in the mood to share old man.

I say share all your knowledge, since if you don't, someone else will.

Christopher L. Jorgensen