Mónica Guzmán

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.

Photo by John Edwards via Flickr.

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.

Melody Biringer

“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.

Marcelo Calbucci

“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.

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  • Dan J Mckee

    “Selling implies an impersonal, commercial exchange, with all preceding actions a part of the pitch” – I disagree with this statement and the notion that selling is always cold. The people who don’t like sales or the concept of themselves as a salesman usually feel that way because they aren’t very good at it, have little practice with it, or through misconceptions bread through the negative stereotypes such as telemarketers, car salesman, etc… 

    When we communicate we are selling. To say that someone doesn’t have an agenda, is to say they aren’t human. This blog post is trying to sell me on an idea and the writer has an agenda. This comment I’ve written is trying to sell an idea and has an agenda. When we use social media we either consciously or without fully realizing it are trying to increase our brand equity, make friends, win people over, and so on. Some people accept this, some argue against it. Everyone is a sales person and most people are genuine, honest, and coming from a good place. The bad apples have made it an ugly word and has lead to a growing number of people denying sales altogether. This is unfortunate. 

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      It is fascinating to me how people will avoid using the word “sell” in favor of “promote” or even “share.” There are negative connotations — a fear of manipulation and single-mindedness — that I think people want to avoid bringing up when they talk about what works in the social space. In writing this column I wondered how strongly to come out against this notion, in defense of the word “sell.” In a way, yes, we’re all selling, all the time, but in another sense, the connotations are real and seem misaligned with some of the dynamics introduced by social digital engagement. In the end I think it’s a matter of preference. But whatever you call it — like I said — it’s not a bad thing to be “selling” the things you believe in.

  • http://lamiki.com/ Laura Kimball

    Awesome article, Monica, and thanks for quoting me!

    I love the strong picture you painted of Millennials, from learning how to type via AIM to, as Mason put it, we treat social media as an ongoing cocktail party. I never thought of it that way, but it’s probably one of the best analogies to ‘how we act’ that I’ve read.

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      I think it’s a great analogy. There is a sense of civility that pervades the party to keep the circulation of stories and experiences strong, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Thanks again for your insights!

  • Urban Soule

    If you are in business for yourself you have to be a sale person, I am a self employed, full time artist, I do all my “branding” “marketing” etc…. Social media makes it easy for me to do so and get my products out into the world…… http://urbansoule.com

  • http://twitter.com/SarahSchacht Sarah Schacht

    I tend to agree with the author of “generation sell.”  

    The best minds of my generation are trying to make better search and advertising algorithms.  I wish they’d send us to space or re-invent our transportation system.

    Many “social entrepreneurs” have little compassion, but recognize a good niche market when they see one.

    And the constant need to be “positive” and well-polished has led many of my friends to be afraid to take a risk that isn’t instantly socially acceptable. 

    What I worry is that in 20 years or so, we’ll all have this nagging feeling that we lived our lives to please other people and not ourselves. That, perhaps we missed a greater calling, or at least a steady paycheck, trying to sell ourselves to others.  We’ve all got wicked mid-life crises waiting for us just over the edge of 45. 

    • Urban Soule

      I think as long as your doing what you love. making a pay check from it and living within your means you shouldn’t have to worry about a mid life crisis

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      I understand what you’re saying. Everyone likes to be liked, and always has. In that way, this pressure to stay positive is not new, but just more widespread, since so much more of what we say is shareable, archivable, quotable. The stories of Steve Jobs and others show, I think, that vision can be a fight. I don’t know how many of us take that to heart, but I hope it’s not getting past us.

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