The Tao of Social Media

by Shannon Paul on October 12, 2008

“Those who have no compassion have no wisdom. Knowledge, yes; cleverness, maybe; wisdom, no. A clever mind is not a heart. Knowledge doesn’t really care. Wisdom does.”

The Tao of Pooh

There was some recent controversy over whether a blogger’s disclosure as it pertains to professional affiliation is enough to garner trust with his or her readers.

In this case, the blogger happened to be Chris Brogan, one of the most respected and celebrated thought leaders in the social media space; a guy who devotes most of his time and talent to helping businesses and individuals like me understand and integrate social media into their communication strategies.

For more background on the controversy, read Chris’ post in response to the criticism or Amber Naslund‘s very thoughtful reaction post on the sanctity of social media.

There has been a lot of back-and-forth discussion on whether paid-for posts are ethical or not, but I think this misses the larger point.

My comment on Chris’ post summarizes my position on this issue:

You [Chris] did absolutely nothing wrong. In fact, you lived up to your own guidelines that you’ve established as your own best practices. We should all have that much integrity.

What I find most disturbing lately, is this tendency to be overly dogmatic about social media. Dogma related to “journalistic” ethics and blanket policies (drawing a line in the sand) that trump personal relationships are leftovers from an old media culture based on a professional filter.

For consumers to filter their information through a professional filter, established guidelines written by someone in authority needed to be present. This is no longer the case. People can define their experience with businesses and individuals through a personal filter, or a social filter. The social filter is much more powerful and meaningful than the professional filter ever was. This notion, in theory, SHOULD be liberating.

The interesting thing to me is that with this newfound freedom to define things like ethics and best practices in terms of personal, individual evaluation, people go back to clamoring for the old blanket policies. Can’t we do any better than that? Besides, I thought we were all making this up as we went along.

Social media changes the rules

Understanding the fact that social media is inherently game changing with respect to business and communication, and understanding the implications of this fact. are two very different things.

The old rules and old media treated us like children. They told us that we could not navigate tricky situations based on relationships and case-by-case evaluations of business and personal endeavors.

They kept business and personal relationships separate. They told us that we needed distant experts to guide our thinking on everything from household products to political theory. They told us that we could not be objective if we also profited from our endeavors.

Phrases like “conflict of interest” and even “slippery slope” were invented to give us the sense that without rules, ethics, dogma, we would have no order, no integrity, no trust. They did our thinking for us.

Institutions of authority crafted and enforced the rules, ethics and guidelines that were supposedly decided upon with everyone’s best interest in mind, but they were always really about preserving the institutions they served.

This notion of elevating the institution above the human is why we have so many grey areas in any real-world practical application of these types of rules.

The grand philosophical difference is that to use social media tools effectively, the human being becomes more important than the institution. Through this new type of communication, the individual experience becomes more important, or at least as important as the institution or the brand.

The way of the Tao

I understand I may be getting a little too esoteric for some people to stay with me on this, but I really do think this is important. I can’t help but think that social media offers a new opportunity to be unencumbered by the old dogmas.

The ancient wisdom of the Tao teaches that we can achieve a more holistic and dynamic conception of the world through personal experience and compassion rather than a static worldview dependent on fictitious absolutes.

I am not endorsing acting without integrity, but I am endorsing reliance on the personal. The old ways taught us that we were either incapable or lacked the time to make sound decisions based on our own experience. They taught us we need rules in order to behave with the interest of others at heart or to consider the greater good.

Honest disclosure is almost always enough to foster trust in any relationship. What more do we really need from one another?

I think we have all experienced or witnessed an episode in our lives where the applicable rules may have been clever and intelligent, but ultimately lacked compassion and wisdom.

For the first time in a very long time in our evolution, social media tools offer us the opportunity to inject wisdom into the way we share information and engage in commerce.

It seems to me that the old rules have done little to foster compassion, understanding and community, but have done an excellent job of creating conflict and division.

Am I naive to believe that these new tools offer the potential for something greater than the purveyors of the old rules could have ever envisioned or even permitted?

We already know that the old rules don’t apply, so how can we help each other along this path toward something better?

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

October 12, 2008 teamclermontrocks

I enjoyed reading your article about free content making money – well written! I am both a business consultant and Fitness Trainer/Nutritionist and find that it is really important to give free information. Short E-books on pertinent topics, some free workouts, and short talks all help build credibility and trust in a professional and give the consumer the ability to work long-term with the professional and refer others. I am at and


October 12, 2008 Jamie Grove - How Not To Write

In my day job, we implemented a customer retention strategy based on the same principles you list under benefit (except for #4). Not only does it work, but the numbers are pretty astounding.

I suppose this isn’t surprising though since the concept of ancillaries has been around forever. What’s changed is the distribution medium. Since delivery via email is free (or close enough), it only serves that some of the content should be free and we should focus on selling something different. This is the heart of Chris Anderson’s new book “Free.”

Going totally free is not in the cards for us, but the abstract concept of a cost efficient distribution medium changing the fundamental nature of a particular business is sound.


October 12, 2008 shannonpaul

@teamclermontrocks Glad that’s working for you. I can see how sharing your expertise helps win clients.

@Jamie, thanks so much for sharing this. I would love to see a case study when you’re finished with the analysis.


October 13, 2008 Lisha Sterling

Whenever I read things like this, my mind goes to the creative work that I do and to the technology oriented work that I do. I never think, “Oh, yeah, this applies to my skating!” (probably because these days I think of coaching as my “hobby” — I only teach about 4-5 hours a week now.)

@teamclermontrocks reminded me that this is *exactly* the sort of thing that I do to draw in new ice skating students. At my previous rinks it was a part of the skating school business plans to provide free help from coaches on certain public sessions. At my current rink, I had to fight the management to stop from getting in trouble for giving that kind of help for free. They came around, though, when they realized that they were getting more return customers AND more requests for classes and lessons on the sessions where I gave help and advice like how to stay upright, how to go backwards or how to do a two foot spin. Now, on busy sessions they try to have at least two guards on the ice — one to keep an eye out for problems and one to help newbies get the hang of things. It’s just good for business.


October 13, 2008 Ari

This goes back to the age-old concept of giving away samples to get people hooked on your product and wanting to buy more.

The biggest complaint I have with the new on-line version of this is when a “free” download is nothing more than an excuse to contact me for a sales pitch. If you believe in your product, let me try it out and, if it’s as good as you believe, I’ll be back. Don’t turn me off with the hard sell.

I always tell my public relations students, “If you have to sell your story too much to a reporter, there’s probably not a story there to begin with.” The same principle applies to any product you’re pitching.


October 13, 2008 Scott

Radio has been giving away content since the beginning. Sure, we sell ads, but the cost to the end user is zilch. Radio has also worked with record companies to give away music via on-air giveaways of CD’s and concert tickets.

The idea is simple – if they give us (the station) concert tickets to give away we talk about the show. A listener attends the show and you can bet they’ll tell more friends. At the show they might buy a CD or t-shirt.

The same applies to playing music. The record companies supply the song to the station, the station plays it and the listener hears it for free.

If a listener hears something they like you can bet they will try to find out more. Trust me, not a day goes by that I don’t get an email, IM or phone call about a song we’ve played.

Why is online any different?


October 13, 2008 Mind Booster Noori

As a musician, I give my music for free, and all of it is licensed with a Creative Commons license. Not only this creates awareness to my band, but also lets people “try before buy”, which led me to 1) more sales, and 2) being able to get revenue from “ad-supported free” services like the ones ReverbNation and provide.

But this isn’t new. Picking the example of a big band: do you know Marilyn Manson? Of course you do, everyone heard about it. But did you know that while he got signed in 1993 to release the first album in 1994, he grew a huge fanbase and got his deal thanks to a big number of free demo tapes he used to give to anyone who wanted them? That’s right, free is the way to get fans, and more fans give you more money.


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