Are You Just Selling a For Sale Sign?

For sale by OwnerKierkegaard described philosophy as, “You see a sale sign in a store window. You go in, but find it is only the sign that is for sale.”

I sometimes feel that way in our increasingly online world.

I got a notification that I had a new twitter follower—let’s just call him Mr. X. I usually give those notices a quick glance. In this case, the person is “following” 11,844 others, and has 13,253 “followers.” (For comparison, my numbers are each under 2,000).

Punch line: he has written a grand total of one tweet, made back on August 28 (thanking Nattisco Artists for all their hard work). That tweet was then re-tweeted by 8 others whose ability to perceive value clearly exceeds mine.

Now, I’m an active twitter fan: I use twitter to point my readers to trust-related content I think is interesting, and to follow similar ideas from others. But this is different.

One might ask what he’s doing “following” 11,844 people; a much better question is, “what do 13,253 people think they’re doing ‘following’ him?” Not to mention the eight re-tweeters.

On the TweetLevel rating service, this makes Mr. X (a self-described actor in Sydney) even more popular than Tony Iannarino, who just won the Annual Top Sales Awards for best sales blog (congrats, btw, Tony!).

In fairness, TweetLevel rates Mr. X far lower in effectiveness and trust—as one would hope. But–then again, the highest-trust-rated twitter users on TweetLevel are Justin Bieber and Kim Kardashian (sis Khloe lags at number 3). That’s not TweetLevel’s definition of popularity: that’s their definition of trust in an online world.

The Kardashians are the modern-day equivalents of Zsa Zsa Gabor, the first one I think of as having been “famous for being famous.” They’re selling For Sale signs and calling it sales. You too can be like them. Just Do It. (And stop asking what ‘it’ is, it’s not important).
“For Sale” Signs Abound

Enough shooting fish in a barrel: Twitter, much though I love it, is fully of quirky adolescent silliness like that. But the Kierkegaard critique doesn’t just apply to Twitter.

The logic of social media is simply mimicking the recent logic of business—the gospel of first-mover advantage. Don’t worry about what you’re selling—get the For Sale sign out there. You can pick up the expertise after you’ve been labeled an expert. Ready, Fire, Aim is too damn slow. Just Fire.

It was 1968—ancient history—when Andy Warhol first said, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Later, that concept came to be known as “so 5 minutes ago.” Oops, I’m dating myself.

The sales vs. For Sale issue is most notable in the media. It wasn’t that long ago that newspapers published what were meaningfully called “letters to the editor.” At some point, I suppose they worried about whether to print emailed letters before snail-mail letters had had chance to arrive. In any case, they were carefully written, and then they were vetted by real ‘editors.’

Today’s NY Times has an interesting piece from the Public Editor about what it’s like to keep up with the tsunami of commentary that comes in online these days. And the Times’ letters are nothing compared to the instant psychic-dumping that fills so many megabytes on so many news-and-commentary websites these days.

For Sale signs are all over the place: the logic and thought and reasoning behind what is being sold—not so much.

The publishing industry is about to undergo what the newspaper industry is already feeling—a meltdown of the curating function that institutions used to play. When “publishers” and “books” lose the social arbiters of how we define such terms, the first thing to happen is grade inflation.
Everyone becomes an author. Everyone can write a book. There’s a book out now on how you can write a book in a weekend. The For Sale signs are out all over. There’s just nothing being sold.

Grade inflation confuses the thing being measured with the measurement itself. For years now, the website has un-self-consciously documented the slide of “loyalty” marketing from something vaguely resembling an emotion to an entire industry based on behavioral price-driven statistics. “Loyalty” itself is no longer being sold: it’s been inundated with For Sale signs.

David Brooks cites this work:

In 1950, thousands of teenagers were asked if they considered themselves an “important person.” Twelve percent said yes. In the late 1980s, another few thousand were asked. This time, 80 percent of girls and 77 percent of boys said yes.

The great thing about empowerment is that you free a lot of good people who have great ideas to tell and to sell.

The bad thing about empowerment is that you free a great deal more fools who think they’re selling when all they’re doing is holding For Sale signs.

And Good Luck trying to explain the difference to them.