Let's be honest, at one time or another, we've all probably solicited to our social network. Whether it was for our company, a client or a cause, we've tried to market a product, service or company for free. We've tried to use the system -- the social network platform of our choice -- in a way that, while hopefully wasn't a violation of the TOS, was definitely not the way the network would prefer us to do. The network would prefer that we market by buying ads! But instead, we've gone the unpaid route.
One manifestation of this is the practice of soliciting retweets -- a topic that Geoff Livingston wrote about last week, and one that really sparked this train of thought. Geoff raised concerns around both the efficacy and the ethics of this common practice. Essentially, he asked:
Does the practice of asking for retweets on Twitter hurt the efficacy of retweets, does it ultimately damage your reputation, and is it in the end unethical, or at the very least against the law of transparency?
I would argue that retweets are becoming less effective, not necessarily (or primarily, at any rate) because of some kind of "never cry news" phenomenon, but because at the same time that social networks are tightening controls, the signal to noise ratio has dropped and our use of filters has increased.
Tightening the Belt
Twitter has begun to enforce its TOS around batch following. Facebook won't share its contact information with other platforms. Myspace is laying off half its staff. All around us, belts are tightening as the social networking giants get ready for a drive to revenue and profitability. And in the process, they're going to find new ways to monetize, close loopholes (like those that TweepML enabled) and generally make it harder to market for free.
Sending a Signal
Meanwhile, there's more and more content being pushed out there (though you'd never know it by looking at our poor blog). More twitterers, more facebookers, more bloggers (despite what some people claim to be the "death of blogging"), more video, more podcasts. It's harder and harder to get your message through. The social networks know this, and it's why they're making it easier to leverage your "social graph," because you're more likely to read content from, and share ideas with, people you know well.
What'd You Say?
On top of the degrading signal to noise ratio, or indeed because of it, our use of filters has increased. I've limited my blog reading to a very small circle of blogs. Even my podcast listening, which I used to do religiously, has been dialed back. And social networks are allowing increasingly better fine tuning over what and how you get your content.
Where Does This Leave Us?
Let's face it: the days of free marketing will soon be over. Welcome to the world of "pay to play." Sure, you can still try to "socially engineer" a "viral campaign," but you're going to need a very large seeding to get anywhere (and you may need to start offline). While you still might be able to cash in some favors to have an impact, you're going to have to have a pretty big favor bank to make any kind of impact.
If that means you think twice before calling something "news," all the better.