The Corruption of Engagement

Please welcome our newest regular columnist, Ryan Crowe.  He likes to describe himself as “a young, whippersnapper upstart working in the uncultivated field of social media” but he’s actually a really bright and awesome expert in Google+, specifically, and a grad student at the University of Missouri, interested in sociology, memetics (“memes not genes”), and cultural/digital anthropology.  So clearly, he seemed like a perfect fit for our SocialFishing blog.  He’s bound to get us thinking–and therefore, we’re calling his column Social, In Theory.  



Musings on social media hiring practices and social snake-oil salesmen.

A word to the wise business owners, social media enthusiasts, social media professionals, recruiters et al: when someone in front of you talks about social media “engagement” and then fails to expound on their use of that word – be wary.

Social media is, by most accounts, a young field just starting to be cultivated by businesses. There are social media job openings, there are suddenly experts, gurus, ninjas… “mavens” popping up. There are individual consultants claiming to be social media savvy, ad agencies hiring people to fill their new social media department and boutique agencies knocking at window displays and – well, you get the picture – and you probably had a good idea before you started reading this article.

Buzzword bingo

One of the things you might notice about these timely entities who claim to be from the social media realm is that they have a set of buzzwords at their disposal ready to “wow” their potential client or employer. These buzzwords can be picked up from simply monitoring a #socialmedia search on Twitter for a day or two: listen, connect, dialogue, share, and of course the mot du jour – ”engage”. For those who of have been inured to these common words, they know that – when these words are said on their own – they are equivalent to the guttural conversation utterances of “like” and “literally” – words that, through repetitive clumsy use, have nearly lost all substantive meaning and can no longer be recovered from that unctuous abyss of sloppy vernacular; simply put – these words are social media conversation fillers.

However, for the uninitiated, these words take on mystical qualities. For these people, sometimes people with great power (i.e: hiring capability) the fact that an individual has used these specific words, these buzzwords, indicates that they have access to great philosophical depth and sociological understanding. “Yes”, they think, “I have seen such words used in my reports – and on Harvard Business Review and in The Economist – by George, this person is on to something!”.

My hastily written caricature of a 1950′s American businessperson aside, we have gotten to an important transition point in the exploration of what we have come to understand as “social media” – and this transition is able to happen because there has been an establishment of key terms and concepts that are now familiar, part of the “lingo”. The transition I speak of is that the lingo, our cache of communicative tools, is already starting to become stale. “This is happening pretty fast”, you might think; “how could social media’s barely established concepts become stale?” Well – think about the nature of social media: virality, massive amounts of content produced per minute, constant access to that content, a frontier that is ever-growing, boundless. Opportunists pick up on this stuff pretty quick, and they’re motivated to pick up on it especially if they want to capitalize on the newness – the shiny gloss of opportunity that most certainly arises on a new frontier. The problem is: you don’t simply pick up a rifle, a wagon and a couple of oxen and call yourself a pioneer (my Oregon Trail analogies are rampant and unrestrained across all aspects of my life). You have to know or learn how to use these tools in order to have some success.


Back to “engagement”, and “engagement” is really representative of the entire social media lexicon – but for the sake of (fast-fading) brevity, we’ll stick with this one word. Do not let someone get away with just saying “engage”. Ask them what they mean by it – and make sure the answer is relevant to your business or needs. An answer that is inadequate looks something like “Engagement means talking to your customers! Having a dialogue and listening, you have to connect.” Look at that… just look at all of those buzzwords. Alright then so what do you mean by “connect” – for what are we “listening” and how do we do that? What sort of dialogue should we be having? Do not simply accept these words as all-encompassing concepts that indicate that this person has any idea of strategy or tactics or basic practical knowledge of how to run your company’s social media presence.

A slightly savvier candidate might say that in order to engage well that you have to be “transparent and open, and be human” – and then hopes  that these not-as-common words will raise a few eyebrows and illicit some chuckles from an impressed, and possibly overwhelmed power-interlocutor. Again… ask them to explain what they think those things mean and ask them to contextualize these concepts in the scope that relates to your company or purpose. Look at Humanize – this is an entire book discussing concepts and practices of getting a company to be more human! While you can’t expect every social media professional candidate to have an entire book at their mental disposal – you must realize that these concepts that are being word-vomited in your interview do not speak for themselves.

“Engagement”? What does it even mean anymore? When left on its own, expect that “engagement” as a word and concept has been co-opted, overused, watered-down and rendered impotent.

My advice, in brief to job-seekers and employers: do not expect these words to stand for themselves any longer. Find a perspective on each and every term you come across. Besides technical practices, like the actual process of sending a Tweet or “Liking” a Facebook page, there is nothing concrete about social media. You cannot rely on those link-bait lists of 10 Best Rules of Social Engagement articles to inform the entirety of your opinion. Keep learning – find a perspective – form opinions – be open to change – and expect to keep learning. These words are not all-encompassing, they are doorways.