‘The Song of Signficance’—Singing the praises of Seth Godin’s tireless wisdom

Companies want customers to be passionate about their products and services. And they want employees to give everything to their daily labor. Companies want everyone else around them to be inspired, yet so many companies follow the industrial model in a race to the bottom, doing as little as possible to actually inspire. But inspiration doesn’t just happen. It’s hard to come by. It often takes work.

Seth Godin has long been the voice against corporate conformity. And Godin continues his crusade in The Song of Significance, in which he reminds us that business doesn’t need to be only transactional. Good business goes beyond the simple exchange of cash for goods and services. Good business is an exchange you wouldn’t mind doing again—one you might even look forward to.

Good business inspires, much like art. For many of us, our day jobs—where we spend a great deal of our waking hours—is the best chance we have to be artists.

These points have long been part of Godin’s message. In many ways, the contents of The Song of Significance are nothing new. The book’s central message will be familiar to any fans of Godin’s previous work:

The race to the bottom is hard to win. And winning it rarely leads to positive outcomes.

Sometimes we need to be reminded of our values—that we’re not alone—especially when the rest of the business world seems to go in the other direction.

Throughout the book, Godin reminds us that humans are the entire focus of business:

Humans are not a resource. We are not a tool. Humans are the point.

Godin acknowledges that industrialism isn’t going away. But industrialism isn’t the only option. Workers and customers alike want something different. Something more. Something of significance. Businesses win big when they stop holding workers and customers hostage and instead create something both parties want to be part of:

In a field where skills are valuable and switching jobs is possible, the employees you need the most have options. That’s why creating a culture of fear and compliance is a dead end. Great work creates more value than compliant work.

. . .

A significant organization can please its customers and make a profit as well. But it begins by earning enrollment and then doing the work to make change happen.

Like Godin’s other books (and his blog posts1), The Song of Significance is not a how-to guide. It is instead a call to action. A call to action for us to pick ourselves and do work that matters.

Jake LaCaze is sad to know there are still marketers out there who don't know about Seth Godin.

  1. Seth Godin’s blog ↩︎

Social media engagement algorithms and the illusion of choice

So many of us, over the last couple years, have been rethinking our relationship with social media and the internet at large.

My own wonderings about technology have seen me dabbling into using only open source operating systems and software. But I’ve recently realized that while I appreciate open source and like the idea of all technology being open source, I am not an open source purist or absolutist. Like so many digital citizens, I have concerns about privacy and security. But in these areas, again, I am not a purist.

If I feel this way about technology at large, it only makes sense that I have similar concerns about social media. And I imagine I’m not alone.

So if I’m correct, then it makes sense to ask:

What’s the problem with social media?

Social media used to be a way to stay in touch with friends and family and random weirdos you found in various corners of the internet. But now it feels like this thing we do out of habit, even though it drives us crazy.

The problem with social media overwhelmingly seems to be the engagement algorithms. The efforts to keep us coming back for more to boost ad revenue, even if that increased engagement results in angrier users.

What’s so bad about social media engagement algorithms?

Angry users—a side effect of these engagement algorithms—is definitely a problem. But I think there’s another factor that doesn’t get enough attention: These engagement algorithms lead to an illusion of choice.

Users put effort into finding and following relevant and interesting voices, only to have another factor—the abstract yet opaque engagement algorithms—determine their experience on a social network.

When we don’t know how these algorithms work—or when they’re working—how can we be confident in our ability to build or curate own digital experience? Where is the line between being responsible for our own experience and being manipulated by mysterious forces we’re ill-equipped to fight?

As Cal Newport has pointed out, social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram built their services through network effects. People joined these sites to connect with others they knew or were interested in. And the fact everyone they knew was already on these established sites was enough to keep them there. Leaving behind your connections and starting over was too costly.

But these social media giants gave up the advantage of network effects when they started using engagement algorithms. They threw away the main reason people used their services. And in so many ways, the move from network effects to engagement algorithms felt like a bait and switch.

Why aren’t engagement algorithms on TikTok a problem?

While concerns about security and privacy on TikTok appear valid, this post will ignore, but not discount, those concerns to stay on one point.

While users may have concerns about the types of content the TikTok algorithms serve, most users are not bothered by the presence of algorithms themselves on the service. Unlike the case with Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, engagement algorithms are part of the appeal of TikTok. On TikTok, the algorithms are a feature, not a bug.

TikTok can get by with using algorithms because TikTok doesn’t give users the illusion of control. TikTok doesn’t pretend to deliver content based on whom you follow. It’s common knowledge that TikTok’s engagement algorithms, aided with data from your views, likes, comments, and shares, decide what you see in your main feed. You have to choose the Following feed for the hope of seeing content from those you follow. So while keeping up with those you follow is an option, it is not the default. TikTok is made for finding engaging content, not for keeping up with those you already know. TikTok kind of gives you the option to follow individuals, but it doesn’t put much effort into that angle.

While TikTok may be worthy of criticisms in some areas, the service deserves credit in terms of algorithms. While parent company ByteDance may not be transparent about how TikTok’s engagement algorithms work, it has at least been transparent in the fact TikTok operates through engagement algorithms.

Users are aware of the presence of algorithms when they sign up for TikTok. They know what they’re getting into. And they’re mostly fine with that because they’re not signing up to keep in touch with friends and family as they did on other sites.

Can social networks have any value once engagement algorithms are present?

The network effect seems to persist only as long as social media services steer clear of engagement algorithms. A couple such examples include Mastodon and micro.blog.

Networks on LinkedIn once had value because the connections were likely to be genuine, in that you either knew the person you connected to, or you had an interest in that person. But now, many connections are made only for the intent of increasing who sees a member’s content, AKA engagement.

And once users figure what gets engagement, it’s only natural that many would start creating content in the tried-and-true formula. So users see the same types of content over and over. Originality exists on these platforms. But it goes unseen, unrecognized, unappreciated. And so mainstream social media becomes the digital suburbs, full of cookie cutter houses lined with the same bushes and political signs.

What’s the answer to social media engagement algorithms?

While web3 promises to solve all our digital woes, I find the solution to be a simple and old technology: RSS.

Watch the video below if you’re unfamiliar with the wonders of RSS:

🗒️ Note: This video is 15 years old, so it doesn’t address that Google Reader is now dead. At only $15 a year, Miniflux a great alternative. Or check out Reeder 5 or NetNewsWire if you’re on Mac/iOS/iPad OS.

How does RSS fix the illusion of control?

RSS is the obvious choice for one simple reason: It doesn’t give the illusion of control—it instead gives actual control.

With RSS, you decide what to subscribe to. You decide what’s important to you. You decide what you pay attention to.

You are once again responsible for your online experience.

Sure, curating your experience takes a little more effort than relying on social media engagement algorithms. But it’s worth it.

Marketing on a post-web2 internet

The end of the year is a great time to look at what lies ahead. Because I prefer asking important questions over making bold predictions, I’ve lately been wondering: What will digital marketing on a post-Web2 internet look like?

When people think of Web3, they likely think of the blockchain and crypto and other related technologies. I’m not so sure that’s where we’re headed. But maybe those details aren’t so important.

What did digital marketing on Web2 mean?

When I think of digital marketing on Web2, I think of easy metrics.

Google was free to collect and report seemingly endless data points via Google Analytics and other platforms. Siloing social media into a few major platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter made reaching the masses easier than in the early days of Web1.

It was easy to know where to find your customers. And it was easy to collect data and create reports to see if your marketing efforts are paying off.

Slowly but surely, those days seem to be coming to an end.

What will marketing on Web3 look like?

As data collection practices improve by legislation and other platforms lose their appeal as users tire of engagement algorithms and senseless internet drama, the web seems destined to fragment more in the coming years.

Metrics and data will still be crucial going forward. But what metrics and data will we focus on as the landscape changes and information we once took for granted is now harder to come by?

How will we define success if we’re getting fewer results from more channels?

Will fragmentation require businesses to be more thoughtful in their marketing? To invest more in building more genuine communities? Might sites like reddit become more important in the future of digital marketing?

The original hope of the web

I recently re-read Tribes by Seth Godin to see how it stood up fourteen years after its original publication. Re-reading the book reminded me of the techno-optimism so many of us shared in the early 2000s. Fast forward nearly a decade and half later, and many of the tools we once loved now seem like our worst enemies.

Maybe Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight was talking about the big dogs of Web2 when he said:

Either you die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.

As I’ve already said, I’m not in the prediction game. But my questions give some insight into my hopes.

And with that, bring on the new year.