Media Perspective: What admen can learn from a polite shopkeeper in a fez

I remember when I realised my boss was a lunatic. It was a few years back, I was trying to invent an interactive department inside a big agency and he was the head of the media department. He was showing me the agency's spiffy media planning tool and he wanted me to bolt a few yards of interactivity on to it.

The premise of the thing was that the agency would identify the client's core target audience, do detailed research to discover what they did all day, from breakfast to bedtime, and then make plans to interrupt their lives at every single available moment. My boss thought it was a work of total genius. I'd been in advertising a few years at this point - I wasn't completely stupid - but I don't think it was until that moment that the naked truth of what we actually did all day really hit home.

And it wasn't that I was especially offended by the antisocialness of it (which I might be now), it just suddenly became clear that this kind of communication thinking wasn't going to work much longer. It was 1995, the first version of Netscape Navigator had just come out and we were entering a world where people could no longer be made to look at things they didn't want to look at. Given the entertainment value of most advertising throughout its history, this was likely to include advertising.

Interruption - bad manners - wasn't a sustainable business. And that's the fundamental realisation that the new social media developers have made: if you want people to pay attention to you, you have to be polite, you have to be respectful.

Social media services are always careful to give you control of your privacy, to ask permission for everything, to do things in increments, to sit on the periphery of your vision, not leap to the centre of it. They know that we'll appreciate their services more if they find a humble and appropriate way to to relate to us. The best web media tools are like the shopkeeper in Mr Benn, they arrive at your shoulder right when you need them, but are invisible otherwise.

A great example of this is the "poke" facility in Facebook (though admittedly it's got a rude-sounding name). It's like a quiet nod to someone, a discrete wave in a crowded room, announcing your existence, acknowledging theirs and gently opening the possibility of more contact if anyone's interested. And that kind of thinking is hard-wired into most effective social media doo-dahs.

Advertising, on the other hand, is like a hyped-up kid, constantly shouting in your face, bouncing up and down, showing you tricks. Admittedly, we've got some great tricks - we can be hugely entertaining for 30 or 60 seconds - but if we want people to stick with us for longer, we need to calm down and learn some manners.