I saw Jack Scrib deliver a keynote once. I was in San Francisco for my first conference as a blogger. This was before I knew who Jack Scrib was, or most of the “A-listers” for that matter. So there I was, sitting in a gigantic ballroom filled wall-to-wall with tables and well-appointed marketing professionals, listening to some guy who was supposed to be somebody, hanging on his every word because it seemed like the right thing to do. Only… what I thought was his introduction didn’t seem to end, and as much as I tried to find some thread of relevance, value or insight into his increasingly pointless presentation, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what his “keynote” was actually about – aside from… well, him.
About ten minutes into his self-congratulatory monologue, I turned to my immediate neighbor at the table and asked “who is this jackass?” The young lady politely told me “That’s Jack Scrib.”
The monologue continued for a few minutes, and I dared another whispered question: “Who is Jack Scrib?” She looked at me like I was a complete idiot and explained “he’s a famous blogger. Big brain at (Company XYZ).” Ah. My bad then. The guy was an “A-lister.” A brain. A celebrity in some circles. Perhaps I should listen more carefully to what he had to say. Maybe I needed to get into the spirit of the thing.
Unfortunately, Scrib’s self-aggrandizing ramblings went on for another 43 minutes, during which I refrained from asking any further questions. I watched instead the faces of the people around me, and noted that although many seemed attentive, most were in fact looking down at their laptops answering emails, working on presentations, updating their calendars and otherwise occupied with all manners of work and play that had nothing to do with the keynote. At length, Scrib’s allotted time mercifully ran out, and most in attendance shuffled out to breakout sessions, which while no more informative than the keynote, at least had the virtue of not being exercises in navel-gazing and ego projection. Many stayed behind after the keynote in the hopes of shaking Scrib’s hand or scoring an autograph, but he hurriedly left the building without shaking a single commoner’s hand as he had, I am sure, a very full schedule.
My impression of Jack Scrib hasn’t changed at all since that first encounter, yet his name still tops the twitternet charts. His blog is considered to be one of the most influential in the business (though what business, no one can actually tell me). He still keynotes at major events, and his name inspires reverence in some circles. Scrib travels the world attending conferences and rubbing elbows with other A-Listers, who make a point of returning the A-list stamp of approval favor every now and again. To this day, I watch this curious little cult of personality with as much amusement as awe, and wonder… at what point does the general public begin to see what goes on behind the curtain and realize how this brittle little pyramid scheme of digital influence game is played. For years, I wondered at what point Jack Scrib’s hundreds of thousands of followers would begin to realize that the only thing really moving behind the facade of A-list high-fives, client-meeting tweets and conference check-ins is an endlessly spinning hamster wheel of affiliate-baiting “content”? The answer came to me recently, and I liked what I heard.
When an A-lister’s job begins to focus solely on perpetuating his A-list status, then his value to the public, to his industry and to the business world, becomes zero. A big old bubble of hot air. Like all bubbles, this one is beginning to deflate, and as it does, other bubbles in its vicinity – which depend on the same source of hot air to stay plump and strong – find themselves diminished as well. That’s the beauty of pyramid-shaped networks: They stand and fall together. One deflating bubble takes down the entire structure.
So on this last day of January 2011, I raise my glass and bid thee farewell, Jack Scrib. You and all of your little affiliate blogger clones. You internet gurus. You social media experts. You SxSW cowboys. You wonderful self-important interweb slobrities. If I could hug you all right now, I would. You golden friggin’ demigods of the twitternets. I love you all. For all the damage you have caused your clients, for all the bad advice you plagued the world with, for every unapologetically self-absorbed keynote you ever delivered, we thank you. From the bottom of our hearts, really, gracias!
I used to complain about the destruction and mayhem you left in your wake, about the shadow of doubt you cast on the entire notion of social business. Everywhere I went, I used to seethe at the sight of not yet congealed snake oil, oozing and dripping in your wake. I even came to think of you as a breed of poisonous slug, covering every business you could get your hands on with your toxic sludge of BS. I hated having to clean up after you. I hated having to work so damn hard to restore businesses’ faith in the promise of social media. I resented having to spend so much time helping CEOs unlearn what they had learned from you. The wholesale damage you caused these last few years seemed almost insurmountable to me. PR firms and ad agencies were starting to buy into your bad science, into your own private little alchemies. I despaired at the scale of the destruction left in your wake and at the seemingly impossible task of helping put all of the pieces back together. But that was then. Before I realized the beauty of what you had actually… created.
Sometime between August of 2010 and January of 2011, something changed. Something tipped. Your momentum died. The pendulum started to swing back. More people started to see past the BS than fell for it. At long last, the ratio of savvy to gullible tipped in the favor of progress. And what became clear was that the damage you caused by concentrating your astounding ineptitude, supercharged egos and overpriced bad advice created a wealth of opportunity for those of us who care more about doing good work than in building our own “personal brands,” “content strategies” or affiliate networks. Those of us focused on making social media actually work for the business world rather than earning Fortune 500 bragging rights in the digital “consulting” space, if that is what you want to call it. The beauty of your scheme is that what you broke requires fixing now. That means an increasing amount of work for people with the skill to rebuild social media programs from scratch, and do it right.
The keynotes devoid of value and insights weren’t alone in doing you in. The absence of results for your clients and your inability to deliver actual R.O.I. (or demonstrate the most basic understanding of the term) weren’t the real culprits either. In the end, what did you in was… you. Just you. The same thing that made you socially unpleasant in the digital space (and trust me, acting like a rock star when you are not isn’t the least bit charming, no matter how you read your Klout score) made you unpleasant in the real world as well. The truth is that you were never that cool to begin with, even when you were drunk with your buddies in Vegas and at SxSW. When it boils down to it, as with all would-be rock stars, the more you started to believe in your own legend, in your own awesomeness, in your own “influencer” superpowers, the more of a caricature you became. More importantly, the more you talked, the more people started to realize you were just a pompous idiot. Why? Because all you talked about was you and your friends and how cool you were.
So Jack Scrib, I thank you for helping set the stage for what may at last become the decade of true social business integration. I thank you for having promised so much yet delivered so little. No appetite is so great as that of a man made hungry by the sight of an empty plate. I thank you for having pushed so many of us these last couple of years to look upon our task of understanding the inner workings of social business as more than just a job. You made us care and work twice as hard as we would have if you hadn’t been around. You made us race to find solutions and answers. You made us find in each other the allies and collaborators we would have never looked for, had it not been for our shared disdain for your sordid methods.
In the end, you gave us the most powerful differentiator we could have ever hoped for: By assuring a company executive that we aren’t anything like you, our credibility gets a huge bump right off the bat. It’s better than a business card. Better than a pitch or even a recommendation. Introducing ourselves as the exact opposite of you is, as it turns out, one of the surest way to earn a client’s trust inside of thirty seconds without having to say anything else. We can’t thank you enough for that. We couldn’t have done it without you. Really, we couldn’t. What a tour de force.
Cheers to you. Bravo. We owe you one.
PS: Jack Scrib is real, though his name is not.