Studying the impact of innovation on business and society

Cultural Voyeurism and Social Media

Sociology – The study of human social behavior, especially the study of the origins, organization, institutions, and development of human society.

About a year ago, I wrote an article entitled “Social Media is About Sociology and not Technology.” The recognition of people versus the tools is now more critical than ever. Although, it still isn’t necessarily embodied in many of the words and work shared by fellow Social Media Marketers.

Less talk, more learning and action are required.

There’s no shortage of people who understand and present existing and emerging Social Tools for us to use as a mechanism for “engaging” in “conversations.”

Participation after all, is marketing right?

Let’s change that.

Informed, mutually beneficial, and genuine participation inspires relationship marketing.

However, many purported Social Media experts are merely engaging in cultural voyeurism at best. They look from afar and roam the perimeters of online societies without ever becoming a true member of any society. This means, they don’t truly understand what, where, or why they’re “participating,” only jumping in because they have something to say and have access to the tools that will carry it into play. This is unfortunately a representation of the greater landscape of Social Media Marketing and it’s time to take a step back and study the sociology of Social Media in order to keep communities intact and unaffected by outsiders.

The future of communications requires the consideration of sociological principles when integrating Social Media into the marketing chemistry. This is one of the most important points where we simply need to stop and think about things. As in all of marketing, the most effective campaigns start with listening, reading, watching, and observing. In the world of Social Media, this is not an option. It’s dependent on Sociology and the study of people and cultures online before we even think about engaging them in conversations.

Again, Social Media is about sociology and not technology. This is about people and the cultures that shape respective online communities.

Is Social Media, we’re reminded that “listening” is the key to engagement. In Sociology, this is referred to as observation. By observing, either directly or virtually, we become Social Scientists in order to feedback intelligence and insight into the marketing loop.

Two basic types of observations exist:

1) Unobtrusive. The observer is detached and does not take an active part in the situation.

– Observer as participant. Observer admits their role and just observes the situation, behavior and interactions.

– Complete observer. Observer hides their true identity.

2) Participant. The observer joins a group and studies as an inside member.

– Complete. The observer hides their identity. There are a number of problems with this type of observation: ethical, is it morally right to use such methods? By joining the group the observer may alter its behavior and culture; and going native and adopting the norms and values of the group.

– Participant as observer. Here the observer does not hide their identity and is truthful about their goals and objectives.

Most Social Media Marketing initiatives I have observed (whether I was asked to assess a company’s program specifically or simply watched a very public campaign as a student), have not observed much more than the “latest and greatest” tools that can get them in front of bubbling and active social networks and communities.

This is the equivalent of setting up camp next to a village because you have the tools to do so and expecting the village to integrate you into their society.

It just doesn’t work that way.

Sociology provides us with an understanding of how social forces shape individual attitudes and behavior. Sociologists study society and social action by examining the groups and social institutions people form. In Social Media, these communities take the form of social networks and the communal groups within them. People form associations, friendships, and allegiances around content, objects, products, services, and ideas. How they communicate is simply subject to the tools and networks that people adopt based on the influence of their social graph – and the culture within.

Sociologists also study the social interactions of people and groups, trace the origin and growth of social processes, and analyze the influence of group activities on individual members and vice versa.

The basic goal of sociological research is to understand the social world in its many forms. Social Media, and marketing in general, could only benefit from intelligence. And at the very least, it removes the risk of “marketing at” people and instead naturally shapes a more honest, intelligent, and informative approach.

Quantitative and qualitative methods represent two main types of sociological research. Quantitative methods, such as social statistics or network analysis, investigate the structure of a social process or describe patterns in social relationships. Qualitative methods, including focused interviews, group discussions and ethnographic methods, reveal social processes.

Social Media is much more than user-generated content. It’s driven by people in the communities where they communicate and congregate. They create, share, and discover new content without our help right now. They’re creating online cultures across online networks and using the Social Tools that we learn about each and every day to stay connected. And the societies that host and facilitate these conversations cultivate a tight, unswerving and mostly unforgiving community and culture. As Shel Israel describes it, people are populating Global Neighborhoods.

Technology is just that, technology. The tools will change. The networks will evolve. Mediums for distributing content will grow. The tools will change, but in most cases, people don’t.

It starts with intent and the realization that the communities you wish to reach are not “audiences.”

You simply cannot get answers or run a meaningful Social Media program through cultural voyeurism.

Social Media Marketing requires observation, which will dictate your engagement strategies. It starts with combination of using Social and Traditional tools to discover, listen, learn, and engage directly with customers to help, not market, but indeed help them make decisions and also do things that they couldn’t, or didn’t know how to do, before. And, most importantly, the lessons learned in the field should in turn be fed into the marketing department to create and run more intelligent, experienced, and real world initiatives across all forms of marketing, PR, sales, and advertising.

Read, “Transforming Customers into Evangelists: The Art of Listening and Engagement,” to learn more about how to listen and observe.

Today Social Media Marketers state that conversations are markets and markets are conversations. This is the foundation for conversational marketing.

But what does that really mean?

Instead, let’s look at it this way.

Conversations are feeding communities and communities are markets for relationships. Relationships are the new currency in Social Media, and as we all know, relationships need cultivation and value from both sides in order to grow into something of value.

In this world, engagement is a privilege. Trust and loyalty are the rewards.

Connect with me on Twitter, Jaiku, LinkedIn, Pownce, Plaxo, FriendFeed, or Facebook.

10 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “Cultural Voyeurism and Social Media”

  1. Jacob says:


    Insightful post. I couldn’t agree with you more.

    Corporate blogs are sprouting up all over the internet and they are all asking for “feedback,” or “comments.”

    Unfortunately these words have become so cliche that they have virtually lost all meaning.

    It is very easy for a company to ask for feedback or comments. What matters more however, is what the company does with the feedback it receives and how it conveys the usefulness of feedback to the user.

    I believe this can all be summed by one section of your blog post

    “Conversations are feeding communities and communities are markets for relationships. Relationships are the new currency in Social Media, and as we all know, relationships need cultivation and value from both sides in order to grow into something of value.

    In this world, engagement is a privilege. Trust and loyalty are the rewards. “


  2. Geoff_Livingston says:

    Gutsy, post, my man. A great self-check barometer on this is how many comments are you dropping versus blog posts. Seriously, a great community member engages on other people’s turf.

    But more importantly, I think there’s a a larger theme, which is outbound push is not enough in social networks. Especially with blogs. As you say, it’s just not enough to set up camp outside the corporate walls.

  3. Deirdre says:

    Brian, great post! I agree with you completely. It’s not about the technology and the tools, it’s all about the people, their conversations and how interactions grow into trust and foster strong relationships. However, how does the cultural voyeurism go away when some marketers are still focused on trying to sell to audiences and they are not truly engaging in conversations (as people who want to help other people)? If this continues, then the sociology, unfortunately, just gets lost in the marketing and the technology.

  4. Brian Solis says:

    Jacob, I really appreciate the feedback. You couldn’t be more right. It all comes down to that old adage, actions speak louder than words.

    Geoff, you couldn’t be more right. Everyone, it’s as, if not more, important to also participate and not simply produce. The community is bigger than you or me.

    Deirdre, it’s a dilemma to say the least. However those who realize it’s a problem aren’t the ones trying to “sell” anything. It’s important to remember that eventually, communities will push back to those not embracing each culture genuinely. We just have to do the work, there’s no way around it.

  5. Sandra Golis says:


    I stumbled upon this blog researching for my own about how new media affects personal relationships in our lives. I would love if you could offer some insight to help me with my blog or send me some more of your materials. I added a link to your articles, etc. in my blog so my fellow students at Rutgers University in New Jersey could check it out. Kudos!


  6. Brian Solis says:

    Hi Sandra, let me know what you need…brian [at] future-works [dot] com

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