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Monday, March 30, 2009

Is Guy Kawasaki Singlehandedly Ruining Twitter? (Part I)

Guy Kawasaki gave a controversial keynote talk about his legendary Twitter tactics at SES New York last week.

Sitting a few chairs from @LisaBarone and like Lisa, tweeting my response to the session, I couldn't help but wonder if we were watching the same presentation. While I was unsettled by some of what I was hearing, I also felt like the presenter was self-deprecating and self-aware... and like he said, transparent about his sometimes aggressive tactics. @LisaBarone, on the other hand, "threw up a bit in her mouth," (OK those were words put in her mouth by @dannysullivan), thought Kawasaki was "making an ass of himself," etc. I just didn't see the evidence. I thought @LisaBarone was overreacting.

After digesting the entire talk for the rest of the day, Lisa's position grew on me. In fact I started formulating an even more extreme dislike of Kawasaki.

I'm relatively new to Twitter, but then again, I'm not slow :), so I have seen these kinds of trends come and go. Mostly, since the late 1990's, what we've seen are spammers in various channels tell us that they're the cool ones and not really spamming. This went for email, "inventions" like "push," new ad formats that users hated, Claria popups ... and so on.

I'd love to be able to make the point that it's not about the man, it's about the tactics. As honorable as that might be, it's impossible to separate the two... as you'll see.

Let's take the first thing that really made my blood boil. Kawasaki kept trying to ingratiate himself by saying "well someone out there is going to say I'm a dick for saying this, but..." and various references to the way his critics slam him. At first it seemed open and honest. In reality, it's a divide-and-conquer method that doubles as a way of constantly echoing the notion that he's important, talked about; essentially, the center of attention. For some reason. The nice act contrasted with the "he's a dick" reality. So which is it? Certainly, quite a slick politician.

And yes, he even has those types of operatives who will sidle up to you and say "you know, he's really quite a nice fellow when you get to know him deep down." Yecch.

Speaking of divide and conquer: he also made regular use of the old false dichotomy trick. According to Kawasaki: either you're a money-grubbing, social-media-abusing pusher of some product, service, or yourself to the waiting Twitter masses, or you're a frivolous nobody posting about your cat, or the new hairbrush you bought, or the fact that you brushed your cat with the new hairbrush. So those are the only two options? Building a genuine professional rapport or exploring mutual interests with a small to medium-sized circle of people? That has no place in Kawasaki's dichotomous world. People who aren't on the A-List are really just nobodies who should be spammed by A-Listers; that's Kawasaki's mental atlas. Funny that's how it is, because Kawasaki wastes a lot of breath trying to say that he feels just the opposite. He protests too much, a lot.

I don't know what office Kawasaki thinks he's running for, but I hope it's not much higher up than mayor of a small town. What does he take us for?

Next in Kawasaki's demagogue's (and Twitter is nothing if not a place where you'd better have your demagogue hat firmly in place) bag of tricks, he castigates people who don't follow everyone back because they're arrogant. By not "reciprocating," non-followers are showing they "don't care about their followers." Sure: he's trying to make the point it's not a broadcast medium. Well hold the phone: broadcast is pretty much all he uses it for, and not even interesting or ethical broadcast. So back to broadcast and fake reciprocity: remember when people had blogs and newsletters (even talk shows) and weren't required to "follow everyone back?" When it was OK to be an authority or a celebrity and to respond to some viewers, some fan mail, some email, etc.? Has Guy Kawasaki singlehandedly swept a wand of democracy over all media communications? Not on your life. He's on the A-List, and wants you to know it. More on that below.

The thing about Kawasaki's follow-back habit is: it's fake reciprocity. He isn't actually following. Following everyone back is like the old idea of exchanging links with everyone and anyone, in the hopes of gaming Google. You don't actually have any hope of really following 100,000 people, so instead, you hide behind TweetDeck and other apps. As Kawasaki points out, he does read all @replies and Direct Messages. But don't believe that the "purpose of following everyone back is so people can direct message me." The purpose is to get people used to the idea that a follow should be reciprocated with a follow. That way, folks who go out and follow 200,000 people have a greater chance of being followed by, say, 160,000.

Before I forget, on that A-List thing. Kawasaki introduced his talk by telling us he dismisses the whole concept of "A-List" bloggers, celebrity Twitterers, and the like. It's perhaps more telling than he realizes that one of his early slides illustrates the principle that Nobodies Can Be Somebodies. Nobodies Can Be Somebodies! Yay! You poor loser who got picked on in high school and have only 14 fake online friends, there is still hope for you! Pastor Kawasaki says Twitter loves you! I can almost taste the Kool-Aid on my lips.

If the word "nobodies" is so top of mind for him, I suspect Kawasaki never left the A-List mentality. Says he, we're supposed to be celebrating the fact that information "bubbles up," rather than being "top down." So why then does he have to make such a big deal out of the fact that "ReTweets" (signified by the convention of signing posts with RT in Twitter to indicate you're reposting someone else's tweet) are the real proof of Twitter reputation? Well, because he's mastering the skill of pretending to be the most popular, by that single measuring stick. And he makes fun of Ryan Seacrest for having so many followers... like that's a yardstick. I feel myself starting to like Ryan Seacrest.

Kawasaki trots out the list of the "retweet leaderboard". And guess what, he and the Mashable guy are fighting it out for top spot. Out of everyone in the world! But guess what else. Kawasaki spends a good part of his day using and designing tactics to win that fake race (much automation and staff help is involved).

Guy, Guy, Guy. We've been down that road before. Remember? You could game Google by getting a bunch of links to your site, even buying them or joining a silly link farm, so that "reputation" could be mass produced?

The problem is, no one is buying it anymore, and algorithms you make up because you've pre-gamed them before a search engine has even begun using them as a signal: well let's hope the search gods don't fall for it.

Automated reputation enhancement does nothing to convince us you have a strong reputation. So that's why you're reduced to selling your self-referential tactics to folks who want to use them to destroy the channel alongside you, and maybe, just maybe (with all the hope of a low level MLM participant) wring just a little cash from some spammy tactics. Here's hoping they aren't people who run real businesses: it's all too easy to squander your hard-won reputation by polluting a social channel with your hard sales tactics. (Hmm, why have I switched to the first person? I think this rhubarb is really heating up.)

Here's what really turned me off. I don't have the time or inclination to research them in depth - and am turned off in the extreme by the number of times Kawasaki shilled for them - but I gather he has some involvement with and equity in two companies, AllTop and Adjix. When you follow Kawasaki (and his team of ghost-tweeters, and his automation methods), you get frequent messages on stupid, random topics (or hey, they might be relevant to you because you mentioned a certain keyword; problem is, the dude responding is always Guy Kawasaki, who can't possibly be genuinely interested.) Kawasaki illustrated this onscreen, by posting some stupid peanut butter cookie recipe and showing how quickly other (mindless followers, employees, or whoever) Twitter users retweeted the recipe. All hail the Peanut Butter Man! I'm throwing up in my mouth.

So. The reality on the ground: Kawasaki pretends to follow a huge number of people, but doesn't. Spams that huge number of people, in the hopes of self-promoting and in the hopes of boosting the traffic of this uninspiring AllTop site - presumably, enough to cash out of the thing before it fades into oblivion.

So why do I think that he could singlehandedly ruin Twitter, if its brand, community, and technology aren't robust enough? I think mostly about how a fashion-forward digital brand can be reduced to a sort of flea market image, just by the actions and presence of a prevalence of certain kinds of members. When that happens, eventually the value declines (think eBay) and the cool kids start scouting around for somewhere that isn't overrun by hawkers and pitchmen and auto-generated babble. To say nothing of desperate losers trying to build their "downline."

If you strip away the black turtleneck (please don't), the Silicon Valley pedigree, and the attitude, Kawasaki can be boiled down to the equivalent of the regional sales manager of one of those vacuum cleaner sales operations -- the guys who actually admit to being in what is called "the direct selling industry." Trying to whip up enthusiasm among his subordinate product pushers, making an uncomfortable number of penis references, and flashing his lifestyle and (borrowed) fancy cars to distract the current crop of reps from the fact that they haven't made a cent yet. I wouldn't be surprised if Kawasaki soon grew a mustache and started smoking unfiltered cigarettes.

If everyone listened to Guy Kawasaki and admired his Twitter tactics, Twitter would start looking more and more like a digital trailer park. Hey, that's no shame and it's no crime. MySpace's digital trailer park is a pretty big revenue generator. But is that really where the Twitter founders expect and hope to wind up?

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