Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Review: The Facebook Era, Clara Shih (2009)

When I was a university undergraduate I was invited by a friend to a party and I decided to invite two female friends to come along. It was a clear case of win-win for all concerned. I would get to go to a party, as would my friends. And the host would benefit from having three interesting people onboard.

When we arrived we discovered to our intense dismay that it was an Amway recruitment gathering. The friend had said nothing to alert us. We left, disgruntled, soon after arriving, having driven in the car some 20 kilometers, and having spoilt our night.

Shih’s new book makes me remember this image, still fresh in my brain now, after 25 years.

Here’s another image.

Imagine an enclosure filled with little bunny rabbits eating grass. Outside the wire mesh, imagine a posse of ferocious, slavering beasts with horns and gaping jaws. They want to get in to feed on the bunnies. The bunnies are not aware of the beasts. Shih arrives, carrying a spade and proceeds to dig a hole under the fence.

The slavering beasts are corporate executives eager to get their jaws into the unsuspecting Facebook friend networks that have developed. In March 2009, when the book was going to press, there were 150 million bunnies. Now there are 250 million. The beasts are getting restless.

I felt dismay when I looked at this book and realized I’d only read half. In fact, I stopped at this point. At the point where my mind was glassing over and my eyes were skating unseeing across the rows of words. I started to think about completely unrelated subjects. It was time to quit.

A bad book half read is a remedy for pain.

Shih comes to the book from a background with a customer relationship management company and a degree from a prestigious US university, but she doesn’t have the writing skills to pull it off. The language is both dry as she explains the intricacies of online life to a (presumably) mainly green audience. But it is also disconcertingly eager. I think back to my Amway friend throwing his energy into presenting figures of sales totals and products as he stands in front of an audience, half of which just wants a beer and some good conversation.

The problem is that the target audience - newbie sales executives - and the subject matter - arcane aspects of the Facebook interface and the world of social networking - do not share a common grammar or vocabulary. As a result, Shih is forced to extoll the virtues of using Facebook as a sales tool by resorting to a fixed-grin, high-toned enthusiasm that, hopefully, will keep the poor buggers reading for just one more chapter. For an experienced Facebook user who wants an idea of how the tool is being used for business there is little of interest.

I refrain from quoting because of the pain involved in going back into the book to search for a suitably horrendous passage.

Some elements of Facebook are not explained adequately, moreover. Shih makes much of the ability of sales people to ‘leverage’ networks and to accomplish some of the more routine parts of selling more easily. An example of this is qualifying a lead. She says that Facebook makes this easier because you can see a lot of the person’s details in their Information page. This is true, but to get to this point you need to be a friend of that person first. This fine point is not discussed. In fact, there’s no discussion of ‘friending’ at all, which is odd as it is perhaps the most interesting and difficult part of the Facebook model.

She does mention that your employees can maybe introduce you to a lead - a task that another social networking tool, LinkedIn, is specifically designed to do. But when the total community numbers 250 million you’d need to have a lot of well-connected employees or friends to make a dent in your sales target using Facebook.

Hopefully the ravening beasts will have to be made to dig the hole themselves. Being born without opposing thumbs, it’s likely they will fail in this task. Which means the bunnies will be safe for a while. Until a beast with a bigger brain or more flexible fingers comes along to broach the wire.

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