Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2013/11/05/the_dark_side_of_social_media_in_tech/

Tech today: Popular kids, geeks, bitchfests... Welcome back to HIGH SCHOOL, nerds

Don't be fooled. Following the herd STILL gets you nowhere

By Trevor Pott

Posted in Data Centre, 5th November 2013 17:27 GMT

Sysadmin blog Brand tribalism runs our industry. It's a term that encompasses the mentality of all those fanbois and fangurls whose interaction with products simply doesn't end at the purchase and use of said products.

It's a relatively new term, but research into the area is heating up and I think it sums up the mentality quite nicely.

We often like to delude ourselves into believing that IT is a meritocracy, but it is demonstrably not. If the better technologies always won, nobody would be using USB, Linux would have obliterated Windows right around the time broadband became "a thing" and major tech brands would have to compete on merit instead of constantly buying out their competition or litigating them into bankruptcy.

Consider Cisco, Oracle or EMC. Their products are demonstrably superior for a range of very high-profile cases. They can show that they are the best at these cases and they market aggressively based upon it. These companies sell peace of mind to their customers; how legitimate that peace of mind is when compared to the competition depends entirely on whom you ask.

But the "big boys" aren't always the best solution for most businesses – not anymore and not for some time. There are plenty of absolutely stellar competition out there that not only can do what the big boys do cheaper, but the competition does other things (typically ease of use) far better than the industry leaders.

Those pipsqueak upstarts are pretty fast runners

The competition is typically better suited to the overwhelming majority of companies than the market leaders. Companies which don't face concerns about terabit network links, 200TB blob storage or measuring their storage as a percentage of the planetary total will likely never notice if their switches have two per cent more latency.

Smaller companies need to be more agile than enterprises. They need cost efficiency above all and that is something that megalithic corporations with massive bureaucracies to feed can't provide. It makes how they choose their vendors a big deal.

Get too high into where the big boys demonstrate their excellence and you'll find Google rolling its own switches, building its own databases and creating its own storage systems. Push the envelope too much and the best of the best can't live with standard enterprise vendors either.

"Enterprise standard" is far too expensive for both SMBs and cloud providers and nowhere near agile enough for either. So why do these "enterprise standard" companies rule the roost?

Image is everything

The case for EMC over, for example, Tintri is a long-winded argument to do with "proven enterprise support" that falls apart if you blow on it. The enterprise support argument – while it has many valid points – is facile. Brand tribalism rears its head even when you have two vendors with quality enterprise support.

Here, name calling, urban legends, and anecdotes come out. "This one time, in the data centre" means more than a raft of statistics. Take the right manager to a fancy dinner and you win a contract. Even doing something as simple as talking to your customers on Twitter or listening to their complaints can turn a cynic into an evangelist.

This is why I have a lot of trouble deciding if Microsoft's marketing people are crazy like a fox or simply crazy. One of the most effective ways to create an instant base of brand tribalists – at least amongst the technorati – is to capture the home lab. Get the people who will be administering this stuff on your side and then a fancy lunch has a fantastic chance of winning over that manager.

This means that either Microsoft is certifiably nuts for killing Technet off, or they are precogs and the technorati matter so little to purchasing decisions today that their opinions simply needn't be influenced.

Regardless of how it works for Microsoft, there is one place that backhanders, friendships and outright bias matter: the startup scene. The startup scene thrives on the opinion of bloggers, tech journalists and vendors. Social media is actually important here and a bad review can be devastating.

Relationship capture

Modern marketing is vectoring away from the display ads and TV commercials of the past. Instead of splashing your product in a consumer's face over a few seconds, marketers are moving to capture thought influencers via social media, traditional flesh networking and content marketing. Some people are very good at it. This new age marketing can be done in a positive fashion, but it has a dramatic dark side to it as well.

One of the most critical things to realise about modern marketing is that people who are not part of the organisation – or its contracted marketing companies – are very much a part of the marketing machine. Capture one powerful voice with your message and they will indoctrinate their friends and co-workers on your behalf.

Get the herd leader and the rest will blindly follow

In many cases these thought influencers are close friends with one another. So close, in fact, that capturing the Alpha of the group ensures that the rest of the group will ultimately believe – and then parrot back – "the message". Friends defend friends and have a tendency to believe what their friends believe.

This isn't exactly shocking news: your friends have more exposure to you and more opportunity to convince you of their side. This is the entire basis of political and corporate lobbying. Even were you to strip out all the bribes and pork from politics or marketing, simply getting more time to make your case gives you an unfair advantage over any potential competition. It's human nature.

In marketing this is a massive first mover advantage and increasingly an advantage that only the best-capitalised companies can achieve. Not all thought influencers are equal: you need to purchase key ones outright in order to capture the most influential cliques in your industry.

High school all over again

If you purchase the right cliques of people you can control the message across an entire industry. You'll know when this has happened because the loudest and brashest of the companies in a given niche won't address technical arguments or discuss real-world problems with their technology or implementation.

Any attempt by "the nerds" to point out flaws in the message of "the popular kids" will be met not with open discussion of the issues. Instead it will be met with name calling, group derision, and other high school antics.

If the marketers have done their jobs well than they will have captured so many of these popular cliques that any attempt by a third-party blogger, analyst or a competitor proper will simply be shouted down. You will likely even see them lob accusations of bullying at those trying to raise purely technical arguments; anything to keep the negativity focused on the individuals and prevent discussion of the product and its applications.

Ostracisation as a Service

The goal behind this kind of marketing is quite simply to tap into the human desire to belong and to use that against your customers. Not only do people want to belong, they desperately want to belong to whichever social group contains the local Alpha or Alphas. We see the results of this in everything from voting patterns to consumer purchasing habits.

When you are dealing with an emerging niche, the majority of a given industry simply won't have the experience or knowledge to have educated discussions about the technical details. They will turn to the opinions of the social Alphas and adopt them instead.

When the Alphas stop dealing with the technical issues and deal only with perception or social standing then the meritocracy is lost and IT has degenerated into nothing more "pure" than the selling of handbags or perfume.

There are ways to tell when you are being manipulated like this. The most obvious is when you see Goliath – or "thought influencers" who are part of Goliath's social group – mewling plaintively that "David is a bully".

Attempting to use social ostracisation as a weapon is the surest sign that Goliath's got nothing. Worse, it could be that Goliath's got something, but David's got a damned good point and something quite a bit better to sell.

This is the dark side of modern marketing. It is social and emotional and even those who aren't directly bought-and-paid-for can easily be part of a damning end-run around the meritocracy.

Keeping it clean

Everyone has their own take on how to keep their noses clean. Some champion the idea that one should "only ever say positive things"; others champion purity through financial isolation.

I've batted this around quite a bit to find my own position on the matter and ultimately ended up right back at the beginning: biting the hand that feeds IT.

While the social pressure on Canadians to be polite above all is immense, I don't believe that's how I best serve my clients or my readers. The truth will out by asking the hard questions, even if doing so is "impolite". Level criticism where it's due. Ask the things they obviously don't want you to ask. Dispense praise where praise has been earned. Focus on the tech, and on the reason we buy technology in the first place: to solve problems and make our lives easier.

As the IT industry wakes up to how social media can be used for peer pressure and social ostracisation, the importance of critical thinking trebles. Be wary of brand tribalism. Constantly reevaluate both yourself and your idols for bias.

Most importantly, if a question makes you uncomfortable, don't lash out against it: engage it. It is when we allow ourselves the ease only of comfortable questions, comfortable thought and comfortable associations that our objectivity – and the meritocracy we joined IT be a part of – is lost. ®