Oh, you social media, you! With all that Twittering, messaging and geo-locationing, you do, you must generate some kind of revenue-and, per the big business thinkers of Web 2.0, it has to be ginormous. There are 300 million Facebookers out there, after all, and while Twitter is still in the modest 10-figure range, it operates at a staggering rate of increase; a March study of social media usage found that Twitter users were growing at a monthly clip of 1382%. (I realized that anything was possible in the Twitterverse when I awakened to the news this Sunday that I had acquired Reaganite direct-mail guru Richard Viguerie as a follower.) And each of these self-actualizing Web exhibitionists often lists gratis the sort of fine-grained demographic data-tastes in cars and movies, political leanings, pet fetishes and whatnot-that marketers pay focus groups and research teams premium fees to disgorge from the buying public.
But recent media reports on yon social media revolution abound with cautionary tales. The Financial Times published an epic breakdown of Rupert Murdoch’s ill-fated romance with MySpace-once the premier social media outlet on the Web, which now has but one-third the following that Facebook claims. Business Week‘s Stephen Baker, meanwhile, cautions that the proliferation of social-media marketing strategies adds up to considerably less than the sum of its parts-and indeed, can easily derail existing tranches of market share.
The coin of the realm in social media consulting is, after all, maddeningly intangible in economic terms. There, Baker writes, “success is defined more often by Twitter followers, blog mentions, or YouTube hits than by traditional measures, such as return on investments.” That woozy disconnect can produce some spectacular mismatching of new-media means and corporate ends. As one chastened “director of interactive marketing” tells Baker, a Pentagon supplier had absurdly set aside $4 million for social media promotion-until the firm was gently reminded that the Pentagon isn’t all that keen to have its business plans made Digg-worthy.
The Murdoch-MySpace saga-reported in painstaking detail by FT correspondent Matthew Garrahan-shows how NewsCorp made that same kind of miscalculation on a massive scale. When Murdoch snapped up the social networking site in 2005, things looked balmy indeed. MySpace was attracting about 70,000 new users a day back then, and the $580 million Murdoch paid for instant new media cred seemed a sound investment indeed-especially when, after the deal was announced, MySpace closed a $900 million three-year advertising contract with Google. Within 15 months, the site’s revenues rocketed from $1 million to $50 million a month.
But of course, Facebook emerged from its collegiate quarantine in early 2008, fully armed with more intuitive interfaces, messaging functions and email adaptability-and the maiden social networking launch became kind of, well, sad. After MySpace signed a three-year lease for prime LA office space, it had to bow out of the contract-and now pays $1 million a month for an empty office suite. The company will also lose $100 million this year for failing to meet the targets in its Google advertising contract.
But such obstacles might have proven surmountable had it not been for a distinctly old-media style folly: the announcement from what Garrahan decorously calls “a punchy Murdoch” in a 2007 earnings call that Fox Interactive Media (the division where MySpace was the only property of any note) would hit a $1 billion revenue target in the coming fiscal year-nearly double its $550 million showing in 2007.
Even in optimal market conditions, that would be a tall order-and future historians will almost certainly never use “2008” and “optimal market conditions” in the same sentence. When the company came up woefully short of that forecast, the relationship between the hip young MySpace kids and the NewsCorp suits quickly curdled into a litany of charges and countercharges: News Corp executives cluttered MySpace pages with unsightly ads, and used the ads as a crutch to prevent the MySpacers from streamlining simple site functions, since every time an extraneous page would open on the site, Murdoch’s company could collect more ad revenues. And Team Murdoch claims that the site’s management was overrun with layabout indie punks. “Every time we tried to professionalize the place, they resisted,” recalls Fox Interactive Ross Levinsohn.
But it seems like the real ADD case here was Murdoch. Here was a guy, after all, who was originally thinking he’d make a splash on the Internet by spending $1.9 billion to acquire the also-ran search engine Ask Jeeves. (Though, come to think of it, there’s an irresistible fitness in the idea of Murdoch taking over a site whose name tacitly casts all its users in the image of one of fiction’s best known monied nitwits.) And when Murdoch’s well-publicized friendship with MySpace cofounder Chris DeWolfe (very much an old person’s idea of a young person ) went south with the rest of the MySpace relationship, DeWolfe was replaced by senior managers recruited from AOL. Because, you know, that company’s always been down with the kids.
By 2007, when Murdoch fixed his gaze on more shiny media quarry-Dow Jones’ Wall Street Journal empire-his much trumpeted bromance with social media had run its course. The lesson here is distressingly in line with the moral A. J. Liebling pronounced of the mid-twentieth century press lords: “it is evil that men anywhere be forced to depend, for the information on which they must govern their lives, on the caprice of anybody at all.”
Which is not to say, of course, that the corporate manipulation of social media can’t produce plenty of other kinds of evil as well. In his Business Week dispatch, Stephen Baker revisits the disastrous plan hatched by Britain’s way-hip ad firm Saatchi & Saatchi to promote the Toyota Matrix via a Punk’d-style social media prank. Prospective Matrix purchasers would single out a friend to be the unwitting target of the corporate japery; and so when a woman named Amber Duick fell in the sights of the project, the social-media geniuses at Saatchi invented a make-believe British soccer hooligan named Sebastian Bowler.
He sent emails to Duick promising to visit her with his pit bull in tow; in a fake MySpace page, he boasted of “drinking to excess” and brawling at soccer matches. And as he touted his penchant for inebriated menace, he also forwarded a bill for a damaged hotel room to Duick, explaining that he’d left her email address as his contact information. Duick filed suit against Saatchi and Toyota in October, claiming to have been so terrified by the prospect of Bowler’s arrival that she started sleeping with a machete beneath her bed.
The corporate defendants, of course, deny any wrongdoing, on the grounds that Duick had “granted her permission to receive campaign emails and other communications from Toyota.” That’s right: The dense contract language most of us thoughtlessly consent to each of the 90 or so times that iTunes is upgraded can evidently be repurposed as a license for virtual harassment and threatened violence from ad firms evidently grown bored with abusing and degrading contemporary art.
Which is why, I suppose, no one could object to swamping one of the agency’s Twitter accounts or Facebook pages with spam or profanity-laden DMs. No contract expressly forbids it, after all-and while social media may never be profitable, there’s no law saying that cretinous uber-capitalist propagandists should have all the fun with it.
Previously: The Tragic Tale of Bunky and Barbara Hearst
Chris Lehmann has 3813 followers on Twitter but only 281 Facebook friends.