It is fun to watch Tamar Weinberg and John Andrews write about social media. Largely because they are both firm in their beliefs, and they believe polar opposites. Tamar’s piece covering the definition of social media marketers is uplifting and paints social media as friendships to be won rather than games to be played and people to be fooled. But bots and ad networks are amoral, and they control the production of much of the free content.

John’s view of social media is a bit more cynical – highlighting quotes like this one:

In an age when most major media outlets are providing outrage-of-the-hour content, one should not be surprised that the community built around that is also comprised of illogical, emotionally charged drivel flavored with a smattering of generally useless regurgitated trivia posing as genuine information.

Digg is full of fake profiles, and so is MySpace. Early promoters of social media ask if it is becoming a vast wasteland. But at the core the questions nobody is asking are

Some animals are smart, but assuming a user is real why would they spend hours a day on a general purpose social media site unless they were getting something out of it? Entertainment has value, but trading votes gets old on day #2 (at the latest)! How low must a person value their time (or how poor must their self image and identity be) for them to spend so much time on sites painted by a collage of spam? If they are poor they are probably easy to buy off, so social media is just another way to buy exposure.

The news companies are fighting back against the free content by turning newspapers into something Jerry Springer would write, with a few advertorials sprinkled in to help offset lower ad revenues. A recent survey revealed“Nearly one in five (19 percent) of senior marketers admit their organizations bought ads on a news site in exchange for a news story.”

It is hard to create a destination, become an icon, or build a brand if you are stuck on a large anonymous network. And spending too much time on such a network can warp your perception of reality by showing you the nastyside of anonymity. Add in a bit of desperate attention whoring coupled with endless reams of free recycled content and you have the perfect storm for creating The Tragedy of the Commons.

At best most large social media sites are an Amway-like pyramid scheme. Sure you can count uniques, but what’s the point? Social media sites are a transitory vehicle used by newbies hoping to gain status and recognition, while professionals use them for marketing and link generation. Those who realize the game rarely waste time on social media sites beyond satisfying the criteria needed to manipulate them to achieve their goals.

The only difference between most social media sites and a traditional free for all page is votes. As social network spamming programs get cheaper and bots get smarter look for that difference to narrow.

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