Seth Godin, Look What You’ve Done

By April 5, 2011

Back in 2008, when Seth Godin published his fourteenth book, Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us, he was likely correct. The gist of his book, which champions a new media landscape in which change is effected not by huge corporate megaliths, or by the slow plodding progress of governments but by “tribes”. Tribes follow a leader, who articulates some idea to his/her tribe, and empowers the tribe to reify her/his ideology—act on it. Render it concrete.

I picked up Godin’s book because I’ve never read anything about leadership written for the express purpose of inspiring or instructing or empowering would-be leaders. And I realized, after about forty pages, that all of my criticism of inspirational flimflam such as this, yeah, it wasn’t baseless. Sorry, Seth.

Unless I’m missing some key point Godin is trying to deliver, Godin’s message is not a revolutionary one. Since the early twentieth century, social scientists have described the development of cultures and social movements. There have existed tribes before. Small groups have leveraged their power to achieve change. That’s an old story. Take a trip out to the East coast and drive through Newport or Martha’s Vineyard or the more tony bits of any city, and you’ll find that communities have worked to develop systems, and that a relatively small group is capable of making disproportionately large social change.

Please, stop me if I’m being repetitive here. But Godin’s slim volume, like any decent inspirational, ostensibly soulful spiritual, delivers the same chorus, over and over again, with only slight variance in its verse. It tells a good story. Now, he says, the workplace is open to new ideas, there are whole flocks of people just waiting for a shepherd to harness their energy, and that “the market wants you to be remarkable.”

And this is the most rancorous pile of bovine excrement I’ve ever read. Markets are vicious. Markets are kind of like wood chippers: ideas, dreams, and money go in, are eviscerated upon entrance, and nothing but sad times and litigation piles up on the other side. Or, so goes the general rule. Sometimes, truly remarkable ideas never get off the ground because they are drowned out by a sea of remarkable competition, doing equally iconoclastic, “disruptive” things in their own particular niche.

And this brings things back to the first sentence. As technologically advanced as we all like to think we were in 2008—and we were—the new media landscape was ruled by only a few companies. Now, with more options than ever before, leaders are faced with an overabundance of ways to reach their tribes. The message, necessarily, is fractionated. Media serve to mediate messages, recipients, and the leaders who send them. Over different formats, something is lost in that mediation. We want less technology; it doesn’t do well at humanizing a message.

What eludes description for the reviewer is something beyond “information overload”. It’s uniqueness overload. Carving out a niche through social media is almost impossible to do from the ground up. Godin strategically fails to mention that in order to develop a tribe, one must have a certain level of competence or credibility to have a following IRL, so to speak.

More concretely, the law of efficient markets applies here: once one person establishes their uniqueness, others follow suit. The problem is that every would-be tribal potentate is competing against so many others for an audience; they try to establish this uniqueness in the same ways over the same media. And the result of this is homogenous uniqueness.

I can’t tell you how many tweets I get which spit the same self-affirming inspirational-quote game as all the other hopeful leaders. And, quite frankly, I’m sick of it. And I blame you, Seth Godin, for inculcating people with the belief that if they shout a disruptive message sufficiently loud at a horde of impressionable people they too could be changemakers. You created the mediocrity among the remarkable, or at least among those trying to market themselves that way. You helped build the echo chamber.

And you’d be astonished at the number of people perfectly content to follow orders, to play follow the leader. Maybe, just maybe, we could get some problems solved if the message you delivered was more realistic. You can market yourself as a leader all you want, but followers are led by example. You have created a flock of tweeters, dreamers and facilitators, but they’re too busy inspiring to get anything done themselves. Because the future-oriented people are too busy playing oracle, and there is nothing less sexy than putting one’s nose to the grindstone. Seth Godin, what hath your little book wrought? Be honest. It’s good marketing to be honest.

A final note: your use of the obsoleted term “twit”, in lieu of “tweet”, to describe messages on Twitter, it dated you. But it is more appropriate a term now than when you wrote the book.

For years, social scientists have essayed to explain the development of social movements, and how those movements attempt to make change. Godin is no social scientist. He is a marketer, and a damn good one at that. One doesn’t need an MBA to know that good marketing is often a matter of creatively repackaging longstanding ideas and ideals to make them seem new. It’s about making the recipient impressionable. All the better to conform to ad “impressions”, my dear.

But most importantly, powerful marketing presents individuals with a better version of themselves, and shows them that this better self is attainable if you only “do/buy/follow [fill in the blank]”. Marketing empowers, but there’s a reason why so many products, books, or other marketable objects don’t live up to the hype surrounding them—as this reviewer discovered with Godin’s scanty treatise. Achieving that ideal, laying the groundwork for getting there, is always easier said than done.