Call Millennials innovators. Publishers. Mobilizers. Socialites.
Just don’t call us salesmen.
That’s one way to read last week’s mixed reaction to “Generation Sell,” the provocatively titled New York Times op-ed in which critic William Deresiewicz argued, among other things, that the “affect” of the social media generation is that of the salesman — inoffensive and smiling — and that it’s spread beyond the young. “We’re all selling something today, because even if we aren’t literally selling something … we’re always selling ourselves,” Deresiewicz wrote.
It’s interesting: We’ll happily share our lives, publish our ideas, promote what we’re working on and even build our brands. But selling ourselves? That sounds … well, it sounds sleazy.
Yet in a culture that is turning toward innovation, entrepreneurship and social impact, is it so bad to think that we know how to sell?
The knowledge snuck up on us. In high school we used to joke that the only reason we could type fast was AOL Instant Messenger. It was true. On social media, every like, comment and tweet has taught us how best to represent ourselves to a wider world. We didn’t sign on for the lesson, but we got it all the same.
So are we all peddling salesmen? They don’t call it a “marketplace of ideas” for nothing. Maybe social media really is a marketplace of people. Maybe “sell,” ugly as it sounds to some, is just a more honest term for what you do when you want people to pay attention.
But the analogy misses so much.
“To me, it’s not sales. It’s not even marketing. It’s the power of being in a network, or multiple networks,” said Robert Mason, a professor at the University of Washington Information School who’s been studying Millennials in organizations for five years. “Millennials recognize that there’s power and potential in sustaining networks,” he said. “It’s like one giant cocktail party.”
Selling implies an impersonal, commercial exchange, with all preceding actions a part of the pitch. But exchanges on social media feel different. They’re personal, generous, motivated by a mixed bag of objectives. Sometimes you want people to buy tickets to an event you support. Other times, you just hope they’ll smile at a picture of your cat.
But here’s the other thing that’s snuck up on us: Those networks we’ve built just for fun do come in handy if and when we want — or need — to find a way to make a living entirely on our own.
“People do business with other people they like,” said Seattle “startup junkie” Melody Biringer, who’s started more than 20 businesses in her all-entrepreneurial career. “Everybody’s building their own network now. Everybody’s getting their little tribes everywhere.”
That’s not a bad thing in this economy, with employment as unreliable as it is. It’s not a bad thing for entrepreneurship, either. In fact, without our even noticing, social media has helped us lay the groundwork for a far more effective entrepreneurial society, where more of us have the resources and motivation to do what many before us only dreamed — make money going after our own vision.
This did not get past Deresiewicz. “The small business is the idealized social form of our time. Our culture hero is not the artist or reformer, not the saint or scientist, but the entrepreneur,” he wrote, citing Steve Jobs. “Autonomy, adventure, imagination: entrepreneurship comprehends all this and more for us. The characteristic art form of our age may be the business plan.”
That’s pretty exciting. Does that make us all salesmen, first and foremost? Not necessarily. “Selling is just one part of running a functional enterprise, and not the most important part at that,” 28-year-old Justin.tv founder Justin Kan wrote in his response to “Generation Sell,” “Generation Make.” “Before we’re ever selling anything, we have an idea for it, and that is where our love and emotion is revealed.”
And yet, loving an idea is rarely enough. If Internet publishing has taught us anything, it’s the fallacy of “if you build it, they will come.” You will push push push to give momentum to an idea you believe in. Your love and emotion — and above all, your dedication — is revealed in that effort, too.
“Selling” seems to fly in the face of authenticity, a key value in the social media space. So call it promoting, branding — they’re just words; call it whatever you want. The key point is this: A world where more people have the tools they need to evangelize their potential and build a business around their ideas is a more authentic world. It adds more of our voices to an economic layer we feel is distant and dishonest. It’s enriched by a more diverse set of human passions. It aligns who we are and what we do in a way we wouldn’t resent, but celebrate.
“My Mother was very proud of me when I joined Microsoft,” said Marcelo Calbucci, entrepreneur and founder of Seattle 2.0. “I can see how parents brag in their social circles how their son is an entrepreneur building a startup, and those mothers would feel great.”
As a decade of consumer consciousness has taught us, in a world still ruled by commerce, it’s not that we sell but what we sell that matters. So you have to ask: Is there anything you’d rather sell than the things you believe in?
“We not only want to make a BIG difference in the world, we want to do it ourselves, on our own terms,” entrepreneur and TechStars alum Sonya Lai wrote to me on Facebook. “And with the early 2000s tech boom and the current recent tech bubble (which we are still in), we see many examples of people our own age who did just this, on their own terms, and affecting the world in a big way.”
“I am psyched to be part of a generation of entrepreneurs who are either starting their own businesses or are living as an entrepreneur-from-within, full of drive and passion to be an indispensable part of building an organization,” Seattle nonprofit marketer Laura Kimball wrote on her blog.
So far, so am I.