The social web is not what you think it is. It probably never was.

My Brit pal and partner in "crime," Peter van der Sluijs just did a brief post on whether "old web is dying."  His post was actually referencing a similar piece by his social media consultant Brendan Cooper waxing wistful over the death of the freewheeling (and free) social web.

There have been several much more hyperbolic articles on this over the past few months (and I've been waiting for the right push.  This was it.) about how Google and Facebook are doomed; about the corporational takeover of the web; about how it's all falling apart, blah, blah, blah.  It was actually nice to read a couple of reasonable view about how things are changing.  I especially liked Peter's pithy assessment:

"It’s easy to hyperventilate about the next big thing and whether or not Blogs / Twitter / Facebook are too yesterday for words.  If you do that, you miss the big picture."

That, in a nutshell, has been the problem with most social web approaches.  The frustration about the web for too many marketers and communicators is that it doesn't seem to return the same kind of results as traditional mass marketing.  They want hundreds of thousands of new customers to buy their stuff.  In some cases, when the company pours a bunch of money into a full fledged marketing program, they do get results.  The promise of the social web, however, was that it would cost much, if anything to get the kind of results a million-dollar ad campaign would get.

The problem is -- and I keep saying this -- is that the social web is not a mass marketing platform.  Some people get lots of readers on their blogs.  Those people are actually really good communicators that have an expertise in an area that a lot of people care about.  But if you don't get the same kind of following that Robert Scoble gets it doesn't mean blogging is dead.  It means either you don't write well and/or you are writing about something that not a lot of people care about. It can also mean that the few people that read what you write don't know how or don't like to share content.

The social web is, primarily, a tool to reach people that matter in your world with information that matters to them.  If you don't know what matters to them, you are not going to be successful.  That applies not just to blogging but to Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Google+, Pinterest and every other platform.  There are people and companies out there being very successful with all of the "old web" stuff.  There just aren't that many.  That so many are unsuccessful is not an indication that the social web has failed.

To do it right requires getting out of your comfort zone and letting other people talk about you, then listening to what they say and making adjustments as necessary.

Here's an example of an experiment I did in blogging.  I built a free site to write about local politics.  I sent a link to three or four influential people who started following what I wrote.  They, in turn told a few others.  Within a year I had 12 regular readers.

Big deal, you say?  The readers included three members of the city council, two county supervisors, 4 senior executives of major corporations in town and my original group.  At the end of that first year, I would regularly get invited to functions that I've never been invited to and the movers and shakers in town started asking my opinion on policy.  Last year, I was asked to move my blog to a media site and was recently told that my posts are one of the most read and most engaged sections of the site.

I have never tried to get a large audience because my experiment was not about "how many" but "who". That's a big part of the big picture Peter was talking about.  Engagement and dialog with the right people the keys to successful social media.  Whether Google and Facebook survive is absolutely irrelevant.  You can be successful with any platform as long as you keep that im mind.