Marketing Needs To Understand That Social Media Is Like Punk Music

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Crazy snow storm and New Year’s Day – U2 could not sing closer to the truth – "all is quiet on New Year’s Day." I decided to stay in, get some rest, get primed for Twist Image in 2008 and clean-up whatever was lying around (both digitally and literally) for this one last day. It turns out that the documentary, American Hardcore, was on TV. Here’s how Wikipedia describes the flick (I just love how Wikipedia has an entry for everything):

"This documentary film addresses the birth and evolution of hardcore punk rock from 1979 to 1986. The documentary boasts extensive underground footage shot during the height of the hardcore movement, as well as exclusive interviews with early hardcore punk music artists from bands such as Black Flag, Minor Threat, Bad Brains, and many more."

Now, while the Punk scene was developing, I was ears deep in the Hard Rock – Heavy Metal movement, but still dipped my toes into the murky pond that was Black Flag (I’m still a huge Henry Rollins fan), Bad Brains, etc… I got completely caught up in American Hardcore – less for the music, more for the culture. The whole D.I.Y. (Do It Yourself) spirit, and how the bands created these social networks in every city – from places to squat to people who helped the bands poster the town to promote an upcoming show – really made me think about how Social Media is now growing. The Punk movement was all done in the spirit of growing the music – getting it out to more and more people, and that seems to be the exact moment in time we’re at with Social Media.

While we’ve moved to online Social Networks to get the word out, the gigs and house parties that these bands were having looked strikingly similar to an unconference like PodCamp (without all the spit, blood, fighting and tattoos). Even the in-depth interviews highlighted similar language to the kind that we use to discuss and dissect the merits of Social Media. These punk kids were hanging out at the venue for the whole day, connecting to one another, trading music, and fighting the local authority to have their voices heard.

I had a realization: Social Media is Punk rock, and it’s exactly the reason why mainstream Marketers are grappling with it. It’s new, it seems weird, it’s different and it does not work the way they are used to working. It calls for new rules and the D.I.Y. spirit conflicts with everything they’ve learned in school and trusted in the workplace.

It took many years for Punk rock music to be accepted (some might argue that it still has not been), but when I see bands like the Sex Pistols doing a reunion tour and the mass appeal of the Screamo movement, we can agree that it’s not so underground anymore.

So if Social Media is Punk, what will it take for mass appeal? For the next little while, it will still be relegated to early adopters – people who do, instinctively, go online right away to find out any and all information. While that’s becoming more and more commonplace for more and more people, I think that what made Punk so seminal and important to our culture is how from that nucleus came other unique, diverse and powerful voices and art – and those are in the mainstream. If anything, that’s my true hope for Social Media. We’re going to get beyond the early adopters, we’re going to transcend the technology and Social Media will simply be Media, just like Digital Marketing will simply be Marketing.

The other powerful insight is that even if you don’t like Punk, you can’t deny the visceral power, energy and passion that comes from the music and its fans. It’s that direct link to non-conformity and anti-establishment that makes it so attractive. Don’t think – even for a second – that everything we’re doing online was not developed by people who had that exact same spirit and drive.

So, never mind the bullocks – here’s the social media.


  1. I couldn’t agree with you more, Mitch – and Twittered something along the same lines earlier this year.
    The other part of what makes social media punk rock is the attitude of the participants – it’s more than just DIY, it’s FYW – “I’m going to do this because I know it works and things are changing”. That’s a big part of reason I love this business so much. Without question, each and every one of our clients are renegades at heart. When people are taking risks, that’s when the interesting stuff happens.
    Happy 2008!

  2. Oh man! Now I have another reason to look up to Mitch Joel!
    I knew there was a punker in there somewhere!
    Great blog Mitch.
    It’s the first of yours I’ve read, I’ve been listening to the Sixpix podcast for a while now, but just never got around to the blog until now.
    If I’d known that you write as well as you do, I’d have checked in earlier.
    I totally agree that it’s the same spirit driving the early adopters online as the Punks had when they started.
    I wouldn’t want to own a mainstream media radio station or a newspaper these days.
    Peace & Happy New Year

  3. This was a terrific post to come into the office and read…it reminds me of Christopher Penn’s description of social media peeps like himself as disrupters, those who challenge existing static paradigms to create change.
    I knew I was in the right club!
    A nice reminder to be grateful for the chance to be in a career populated by mavericks, rebels and visionaries.
    It does make it easier to put heart and soul into what we do.
    I think 2008 will be a very exciting year.

  4. You nailed it Mitch! Social Media is so very different from traditional marketing and people are struggling to figure out exactly what it is. Like Punk, Social Media has so much energy spewing everywhere with no direction. Traditional marketers are trying to figure it out and capture some of that energy so they can use it for themselves. You can’t spend time figuring it out because by the time you understand it it’s too late. Just go with the flow and ride the wave of energy.

  5. Imagine trying to bottle and market punk rock?
    The music industry tried… it failed (miserably).
    That being said, some of the by-products of it were more Marketable to mainstream.
    One thing is certain: I do love being in the mosh pit… spit and all 🙂

  6. “Don’t know what I want, but I know how to get it….”
    This is bang on, Mitch!
    I have been trying to tell people the excitement of social media is the excitement we felt when we first discovered the Web, but this really is a better analogy. I can feel the adrenalin pumping after reading your post.
    “I want to be anarchy!”

  7. Great Post, Mitch!
    Along with Seth Godin’s latest, Meatball Sundae, I think we are all learning that Social Media is a great way to get early adopters onto something new, but they also have to find it easily adoptable, or it will have a short half-life. Take the great twitter/pownce/jaiku migrations, yet most everyone I am in regular contact with went right back to twitter as the app of choice. Pownce and Jaiku weren’t sticky enough, or offered anything that was a vast improvement over the core.
    Social media has a variety of great tools, but it’s the application of tools, the building of the trust and community that will matter long term. There are plenty of fads – of Pet Rocks- yet those businesses that build a core base will have greater longevity than those looking for instant (and fleeting) success .
    Likewise, Punk will always have fans and new people discovering the music, taking it as their own, years after it was new, because it still speaks to them. We have to build the new now, but keep an eye out for the long term, so this isn’t just flash in the pan.

  8. This all reminds me of a great line from a Henry Rollins tune:
    Get Some. Go Again.
    I think it is the irreverence that is pushing the limits and changing the landscape. It’s also going to affect the traditional channels in a healthy way.
    Change and diversity is good 🙂

  9. You called it! Over the past few months I’ve been surprised to find out how many of my Twitter buds have roots in the punk scene. Recognizing this, and the fact that punk is really about attitude, I created Twitter Punks on Flickr to aggregate some amazing photos. It’s great to see my social media colleagues in spikes or go-go boots!
    Thanks for the inspiration!

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