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Responding To My Critics: B.J. Mendelson

Posted December 3rd, 2012 in Books and tagged , , , , , , by davecopeland

Just found this takedown of me and since B.J. Mendelson is too much of a pussy to allow comments on his site, I figured I’d respond here.

Here’s the background: Over the summer Mendelson contacted me and asked me if he could send me a review copy of his book, Social Media Is Bullshit, in my role as a writer for ReadWriteWeb. He sent it, I read two-thirds of it and decided a review and interview of Mendelson wasn’t right for our audience. Mainly because it’s a weak premise backed up with “research” that primarily consists of Mendelson interviewing people who agree with him (or that he can easily takedown to illustrate his point).

I had some notes from my reading, which I posted in review form on the Amazon page for his book. Here’s what I thought (I just realized that B.J. apparently got my review pulled as abusive):

I rarely get pushed to write reviews on sites like Amazon, but I just don’t get how a house as respected as St. Martin’s accepted and printed something as childish and dumb as this book. Mendelson could actually make some decent points about the push by marketers to use social media as snake oil posing as a panacea, but instead relies on bad jokes, limited research, anecdotal evidence and hunches. He is worse than the marketers that he is trying to take down in that he is blatantly trying to build a book around a catchy title and a hot topic.

Mendelson also loves to name drop. He frequently sets up quotes with “As [Insert Famous Or Semi-Famous Name Here] told me,” never letting the reader forget that he is connected. The people that told Mendelson range from Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan to “I Hope They Serve Beer And Hell” author Tucker Max (who, incidentally, Mendelson seems to admire, which may explain throwaway lines like this: “The [marketers'] have to reach a larger audience to up their speaking fees, and for the foreseeable future, that’s going to be a hardcover book released through a traditinal publisher, that reaches a bestseller list like The New York Times, and not something you can get for $1.99 and a hand job.”)

Classy, right?

Beyond bad writing and a sense of humor that is unlikely to click with anyone far outside of Mendelson’s immediate circle of marketing nerd friends, there are bigger problems with this book. It totally disregards how social media is being used in fields outside of marketing, which jives with Mendelson’s sense of self-importance: if he doesn’t see value in something, than it certainly can’t be useful to anyone else.

Mendelson may very well be right when he portrays Internet marketers who promises riches built on social media campaigns as con artist, but he barely provides anecdotal evidence to support his jaded opinions. There is little in way of hard data, which leads to laughably inaccurate and outright false statements like “I don’t think we’ll ever have a clear answer as to why something goes viral organically.”

The ever growing percentages of the country’s 14,000 sociologists who are studying how information spreads through both traditional and online social networks would probably disagree with that Mendelson myth.

This book is a total waste of time for anyone who has half a brain.

He and I got into a little back-and-forth over there and then I let him have the last word (for the record, I have since gone back and read the remaining third of the book and still think it sucks, but your take may be different).

For the record, while Mendelson received some good reviews, I certainly wasn’t the only one who called bullshit on Social Media Is Bullshit:

  • From Publisher’s Weekly: “Having himself failed miserably at applying social media to his own ends, journalist and social critic Mendelson yearns to save others from his mistakes by revealing the degree to which social media have been overhyped, providing a wealth of examples from recent history to illustrate his points. While grudgingly admitting the existence of an occasional success story, Mendelson prefers to focus on the myriad ways in which social media fail to deliver what is promised; he also provides pointers to methods he thinks do work. Passionate and mercifully short, this work should provide useful ammunition for readers skeptical about the new networks linking the people of the 21st century.”
  • Ann Friedman at TNR: “The problem with this analysis is that it fails to acknowledge that the use of social media is not a zero-sum game. Small-business owners and writers and all manner of underdogs who promote their work on sites owned by others have many more ways to drum up customers and attention than they did in the pre-digital era….Sure, Facebook gets richer each time I post a link. But I also get traffic and attention.”

You get the point.

Mendelson’s argument against me, however, is I work in the tech press. He somehow thinks I have a vested interest in stoning the people who say the Emeperor Has No Clothes (of course if he actually stopped to read my work he’d see I’m one of the biggest critics of the blind optimism in Facebook and Twitter, predicted that Facebook’s IPO would be overvalued on the day they filed it, and wrote a five-part series that concluded we’re in a social media bubble. That can be a tough road to hoe as a card-carrying member of the tech press, where you earn scoops not by sourcing and reporting and asking tough questions but by subjective ass-kissing).

In fact, he says I am part of some coordinated campaign to “attack and distract” from his message. In other words, if you spend your life reading about, talking about and writing about social media, you’re not qualified to offer a worthy review of Mendelson’s book and that you must have a hidden agenda. The only people who seem to be qualified to write a review of his work, in his opinion, are people who agree with him.

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