Internet | Music + Technology | Social Science | Culture | Arts | Humanities

Currently Reading:

Any opinions expressed by me on this site are my own opinions, not those of my employer.

"..the dark genius of their film lies elsewhere, beyond the parameters of its slick intentions, in the wild social ether where nobody knows who anybody is" [NY Times review of the movie Catfish]

Why does it matter who is eating whose lunch on the Internet?" [Malcolm Gladwell - New Yorker 10/04/10]

"On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog." [New Yorker cartoon.]

Credit: I have to thank Justin Spohn & David Ewald for helping me filter and focus my many thoughts, by sharing their own ideas, insights, and persuasive edits, that I have included here.

Let's not confuse society, social and community
It doesn't seem so long ago that society and social went hand in hand. There have been many writings about differing societies throughout history - Nomadic Pastoral, Agricultural, Horticultural or simple farming societies - and there has been plenty of debate over the marked difference between Industrial and post-Industrial societies. The common thread throughout though is that they were all phases of civilization. Historically, societies have tended to form to resolve issues, effect social change or for other positive purposes.

For a society to form, likeminded social beings are required. Humans are pretty good on the whole, at being social.

Social anthropology provides so many answers to human behavior, and today that information is available via technology right at our keyboards, which, to parse Marshall McLuhan, are an extension of our fingers. And although technology has shortened the distance between millions of people, we all still skip to the thrum of our baked-in anthropological nudges.

Before I go on, it's worth pointing out that we shouldn't confuse society and community. This link points to almost everything you'd need to know about community.

“To feel part of a community people need to share a sense of purpose, a common set of values and beliefs. And for the community to grow and thrive it needs to draw on collective resource and a culture of support and interdependence to meet common needs and defend against shared risk.” - Olivia Knight at eatbigfish

Does that sound like Facebook to you?

Why do I say that we skip to the thrum of our baked-in anthropological nudges? Well, let's look at Facebook with its 500 million users. That's a half billion people. It's also a large pool of users to study and there have been studies.

A 2009 Read Write Web article, points out that Facebook users actually interact with very few of their 'friends' -  "According to Cameron Marlow, Facebook's 'in-house sociologist,' that number is four if you are male and six if you are female. Marlow's research indicates that the average Facebook user has a network of about 120 friends, but only has two-way conversations with a very small subset of these 'friends.' Interestingly, even for those users who have a far larger number of friends (500+), those numbers barely grow [ten for men and sixteen for women]."

So four friends do not a community make. And six is barely larger than most modern households; according to sociologists, a social unit larger than a household is the norm for when communities form. On another note, there's Dunbar's number, which is a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. That number is 150. Can we call those 500+ Facebook users a "community" when they don't actually interact with each other?

I argue no, we can’t, but that comes with a caveat, one that brings us back to the community link in the beginning of this essay: How does a Facebook community differ from the community in your neighborhood or on your block?

Obviously there are a lot of daily connections taking place on Facebook. If you multiply, say, five interactions per person across five hundred million users, you get 2.5 billion interactions. It's a number that marketers can salivate over I'm sure, but what does it say about the users and what they are doing?

Here's a quick example of what they're not doing:

“Social networks are particularly effective at increasing motivation,” Aaker and Smith write. But that’s not true. Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires. The Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition has 1,282,339 members, who have donated an average of nine cents apiece." Malcolm Gladwell [New Yorker article]

I asked Justin Spohn of Fight for his thoughts on community and he had this to say – “This seems like an important notion to me. On the one hand, you’re correct, 500 million people on Facebook is not 500 million people talking - but then I think about my street - there are maybe 100 people in the immediate area, of which I talk to about 5, and I’ve had extended conversation with 2. That said, there is a mesh that I think forms when you have a social system like this. If all 100 of us talk to 5 people, there will be a high degree of overlap in information of all kinds that inevitably ends up surfacing.

Likewise, when viewing 2.5 billion connections as a mesh of info, I think we do see information, memes I suppose, surface. While I obviously agree that nearly all marketers have no idea what the heck to do with this, and in fact almost universally misunderstand it - there is something there I might call a “community”. The definition though is certainly nuanced - and maybe this is the point of the article - just like there is no “real American” there is no “Facebook community”, yet there is I think a passive mesh of collective experience and thought that mimics physical community - especially contemporary urban communities.”

By the way, if you've been a Facebook user for some time, before it grew exponentially and got brand-jacked, you may hardly remember the days when it was free of advertising. Perhaps back in the early days, when it was smaller, it was closer to the ideal of an offline community than what it has become today.

What are all those users who click 'Like' really up to?
If Facebook users really only have two-way conversations with a small number of real friends, what do we make of the fact that a brand like the Ford Motor Company has 205,654 people who 'Like' the brand? A quick scan of the Ford Page shows a bunch of people who extol their love of classic Mustang's, there's someone complaining that Mazda failed to uphold the warranty on his vehicle, and there's a money-making spam post. And there are no responses whatsoever from anyone at Ford. Some 'friend'.

Yet social media marketers will jump on those numbers as proof that the pool of 205,654 users who 'Like' Ford gives the company an amazing opportunity to 'engage' with them, and therefore once the 'engagement' is cemented, the love will flow between brand and followers, and they'll head off into the sunset hand-in-hand. I'm not so sure. [Those same social marketers will also protest that Ford is getting it wrong by not 'engaging' properly with their followers.]

What if those users are simply clicking the 'Like' link because it's there? I'm sure that some web scraping tool can show me that people are 'engaging' with the brand, yet isn't that 'engagement' the same as seeing a TV or print ad if there is no two-way interaction? And what of social status? Is clicking on a brand 'Like' button the digital equivalent of buying and wearing a pair of knock-off Jimmy Choo's to flaunt in front of your 'friends' - as if they were the real thing?

And when a brand runs a sizable Facebook campaign with all the glittery come-ons, and they garner say, a million new followers, how do those 'friends' feel when the campaign ends and there is no more interaction, no more 'engagement'? Dumped, maybe? [There was evidence of this social web hangover, post Old Spice.]

Let's look at it this way - I think we're all beating the same path to what could be the same wrong conclusions. Marketers assume that online, and especially in Facebook, there's only one meaning of engagement, of interaction and even of relationships; in other words, in order to measure effectiveness of anything, one must arrive at a definition, so things such as two-way conversations, or the number of 'Likes,' become major metrics as measures of interaction.

Yet that is nowhere near the whole story - we have a relationship with everything outside of us, even if that relationship is one of non-action, non-verbal, and non-communicative. "Interaction," "engagement," "two-way," when used to reflect online behavior, appear to be just marketing-speak for "at least something is happening.."

As an example [and this may strike a chord with many,] let's take a look at our relationships with our High School friends, the ones we barely knew who have tracked us down on Facebook. It might look like this - We went to school together. Now we don't. Our relationship has changed over the years; I'll still let you be my "friend" on Facebook though.

How weird is that? I wouldn't ever invite them to my house for dinner with my close friends, yet I'll let them "friend" me on Facebook. And I still have a relationship with them. I have all this baggage from our past that informs every photo, video or status update, etc.. I know who they were, and now love to see who they've become. I never post anything to their walls; in short, I never partake in any of the "interactions" that are used by marketers as measures of success or action.

The point is, there's a unique relationship there that just can't be replicated - we are all voyeurs into our own collective time-passing, nothing else. Perhaps marketers should consider using a Stipple pen before wielding a paintbrush to highlight online actions.

Maybe it's not traditional vs digital at all?
For those of us who work in advertising and marketing, and perhaps more so for those who are Digital Strategists, or mine data culled from measurement and metrics tools, it's obvious that all is not what it seems out there in the social/digital ad world. I often wonder if we are deluding ourselves when it comes to social network marketing. And because our memories are fleeting when it comes to failed advertising campaigns, yet become incredibly focused when it comes to a great "digital campaign," as an example, let's take a look at the online portion of the Old Spice campaign.

Justin, recently wrote a great post about the Old Spice campaign on his blog. It's title Some Questions about the Meaning of Old Spice suggests ambivalence but his thoughts are based more on what the campaign was not as an adjunct to what the common wisdom suggested it was.

He writes:
"For a campaign that’s been regarded as the best social media campaign of the year, and even the best web campaign of the year – it doesn’t look a lot like what we’ve assumed social media and the web look like: It’s not interactive, it’s not communicative, and the one technical boundary it pushed – the video twitter responses – was a boundary of traditional media, not digital. To the extent that there was engagement at all, it was limited to the terms of the brand: they chose a tiny fraction of the communication directed at them to respond to, and then retained absolute control over the tone and length of the “conversation.”

In the end, this all sounds a lot like a different medium: TV."

Here's the data Justin collected to back up his contention:

From 07.23.2010 through 08.29.2010 the Old Spice Twitter account looked like this.
They followed 719 people
They had 116,848 people following them
They were on 3,669 lists
They tweeted 1859 times
Note: that tweet number is slightly odd though because on 08.26 they had 1909 tweets.

If you’re curious what that looks like – here you go:

Twitter Old Spice Campaign

What Justin finds that is most interesting, is that the Old Spice campaign flies in the face of the conventional social media marketing wisdom as pushed by 'Social Media Experts' - it undermines the premise that brands must act like people online.

Justin again: "Much of the conventional wisdom around brands on the web these days centers on the notions of communication and reciprocity. The idea here is that if a brand wants to be successful within the context of the “social web” they’ll need to act a lot more like people and a lot less like companies. But looking at the Old Spice campaign – I have to question some of that.
In fact – nearly the entire catalog of bi-directional communication, supposedly the point of brands in the social space, happened in a very short window right before the end of the campaign. This was the time when W+K was staging their famous video twitter responses."

And then he leaves open a couple of salient question:
"..was the Old Spice campaign one of the best social media/web/interactive campaigns ever, or, was it actually the perfect example of what a post-web T.V./broadcast/traditional campaign should be?"

I lean toward the latter.

In another post, Justin discusses the time suck and attention span conundrum of the web and mobile - the "always on" problem.

"..all I have is 24 hours each day to split between everything I have to do and everything I want to. And every day, there is another site, and another application, but the same 24 hours.

My question – given that, why would I spend even one second watching a banner ad, let alone minutes interacting with it? If I want entertainment on my phone, I’ll watch a movie on Netflix, or I’ll play a video game. If I need to accomplish something – the last thing I want to see is your advertisement"

Are we drinking too much of the Kool-Aid?
And therein lies the rub. We can talk until the cows come home about 'engagement,' yet if we don't provide value, as in "stop playing that video game on your mobile and pay attention to this, because it's really valuable and therefore worth your valuable time.." then there'll be no eyeballs for our online and mobile ads. And any misunderstanding of that premise might be because online marketers live and work in the same bubble as SEO/SEM folks when it comes to the idea of social media 'engagement.'

In this article, Ad Folks Rank High for Social Engagement, a study finds that ad folks come second only to those who work in the 'search engines/online portals' sector in drinking the social media Kool-Aid. And there was a comment over there too that suggests that the idea of social media is becoming annoying to some - "Oh, I thought you meant social, like actually socializing instead of sitting at a computer and pretending to socialize. The most social industry would be theatre."

With that comment in mind let's look at the latest trend, one that appears to have been started by the social media marketing crowd, where brands are centralizing all of their digital marketing ambitions on Facebook; understandably the brand ought to go where their customers might be online and in the mobile space - but if we use the low bar of “sentiment”, “Likes”, and “engagement” as measurement, who’s worrying about ROI? Like real dollar ROI.

The digital hub
I attended a PAF talk here in Portland last week, given by Chris Murphy, Adidas' Head of Digital Marketing for North America. Chris's talk covered topics such as why Facebook makes sense as a central communications vehicle, how using Facebook media [ads] was more successful than media run outside Facebook, and how to implement Facebook technology. As you may have gathered from that list it was basically a Facebook swoon fest..

We were shown numbers for this and that, that ran into the millions for 'interactions', 'shares' and 'likes' and all was good. The strategy had been determined - Facebook would be the hub of the digital campaign for World Cup 2010, and in the overall campaign strategy, digital would no longer be a spoke of the wheel. A Facebook app was created but arguably, just like the Old Spice campaign, TV and video were the real winners, two mediums that successfully drove the campaign.

Adidas made great use of Zidane, Dwight Howard, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Reggie Bush and B.J. Upton in videos to align different sports fans alongside soccer, a sport that isn't as huge in the USA as in other parts of the world. And even more stars, mostly musicians, were lined up for inclusion in the Adidas originals Daft Punk video that garnered 4.3 million views.

The digital campaign piggybacked the traditional campaign in other words.

I asked Murphy what Adidas' senior management's expectations of ROI was from the digital campaign, and he told us that gaining more 'Likes', more followers etc as long as they numbered in the hundreds of thousands, was one component of the ROI. I pressed him on dollar ROI and he told us that data delivered from web scraping tools, [I didn't catch which tool they use,] were mapped against global sales charts to look for spikes. So it's safe to say that brand awareness was sufficient. And it was presumed that Facebook gave them the biggest bang for their buck. Probably so, but you'd think that someone, somewhere, was tracking the good old-fashioned idea of increasing sales and income as a ROI of the digital campaign?

On the surface the Adidas World Cup campaign certainly felt effective but I'd love to see the numbers in terms of sales that would confirm that.

And this brings me to another thought – when Ford, Old Spice and Adidas don’t follow you back, or respond to wall comments, or follow you on Twitter, or stop Tweeting altogether, how does that make you feel about your “friend”? If you look at the data that Justin Spohn tracked during the online portion of the Old Spice campaign, it is clear that thousands of Twitter followers were not followed back and there was interaction only with a tiny slice of those followers. [I was contacted through Twitter by @OldSpice and told that the reason they never followed many people was because they were doing block & tackle searches to interact, whatever that means.]

They had 116,848 people following them, they followed 719 people

We might infer from this lack of activity from the brand side [if all else is true, ie interaction requires a two-way set of communication, brands must act like people etc..] that thousands of those followers or ‘Likes’ moved on pretty quickly after clicking on the required buttons. In other words they were not exactly “engaged.” As Justin pointed out to me recently, “while “engagement” is really a pretty terrible metric – even that low bar isn’t achieved with follower/friend collection campaigns.”

Ana Andjelic in a post on her blog I Love Marketing, titled Rules to Execute By has this to say in rule #2:

2. Build Media Behavioral Plan. Having a very a narrow view of consumers actions based on them rating something, updating, RTing, checking-in, clicking on, etc. prevents us from seeing the impact that our solutions have on the larger behavior that we want to change/inspire. Too often we think about the most effective communication channels for reaching consumers instead of asking how to align diverse behavioral tactics in order to achieve a desired change.

Television worked well for Old Spice and Adidas and in these rough economic times more people are tuning in than ever rather than going out and spending. I think it's worth noting that in 2009 there were 254,392,246 TV sets in the USA and so far in 2010, there are 257,208,958. Yes, that number is going up. In the USA there are 150 million Facebook users and that number appears to have peaked.. just another thought.

Ok, you've probably read enough, it's time to get to the dénouement.

With the advent of new technological breakthroughs and the disruptions they cause, there has been a tendency to dismiss prior technologies. The Internet or to be exact, the web, caused much disruption across many media and across many industries - publishing, music, film - come quickly to mind. It often took those industries quite a while before they even knew they had been cut off at the knees; the pain wasn't immediately apparent.

It might be worth considering disruption happening in another direction. The social media gold rush has a hardcore base of supporters, in whose interest it is to ensure that the current obsession with social media marketing remains intact. Common wisdom suggests that a brand should put all of its eggs in a couple of online baskets - Facebook and Twitter. So we have campaigns built by digital strategists that push online users to Facebook tabs where they are "invited" to 'Like' the brand, but only after the user gives her permission to have her actions and the data associated with those actions, and her friends' information [!], to be accessed and owned by the brand.

Anyone who has wanted to interact with a brand or an application on Facebook has seen this:
Facebook Data Login NORTH

[NB: Friend Facts is trademarked, you'll see the ™ mark if you look closely. They've protected their brand name. On Facebook your personal brand isn't protected by default, you have to choose to remain private - you give up that privacy once you authorize an application such as Friend Facts™.]

Now let's not forget that Mark Zuckerberg [and Google's Eric Schmidt too] has announced openly that privacy no longer matters online. [Time article See also Facebook and your privacy Part 1 and Part 2] What happens when users tire of being asked to constantly do this? What happens when users decide - enough is enough? What happens when two guys or girls in a garage in Palo Alto come up with a true community platform? [And you know they will. Steve Jobs knows, that's why he buys up smaller competitors.]

Sure, Friendster still lives and MySpace chugs along - both companies have their niche users who are sticking with them. My question is, why do brands and marketers insist on putting all their digital eggs in the Facebook basket? Do they really believe it is here to stay? Do they really trust that measuring 'Likes' and mining the data they garner, tells them all they need to know about those people who they think are "engaging" with the brand?

Clearly, anyone who has regretted posting those drunken party pictures knows that the web is about permanence, yet paradoxically it is also ever-changing. That change is often driven by web user needs and desires, or by developers who actually use the web themselves and come up with products that extend or simplify certain activities; Web 2.0 and social media tools are prime examples.

This constant shift means that almost by default Facebook will run into a huge wall of competition. The zero-barrier-to-entry model of the Web demands that it will happen. A child born today, October 5th 2010, will, by October 5th 2018, be using a different array of platforms than the ones we use today.

As we know, there is no longer a one-size-fits-all marketing campaign. Brands can't simply define themselves these days as everyone now has a voice due to the open format of the web; and precisely because marketers exploited that ability by "inviting" everyone in to 'Like' the brands. People now define what it means to be a brand online.

It surely makes sense then, that in a post-web T.V./broadcast/traditional ad world, brands should have an adaptive center of the universe, with an increased definition of their universal view.

Let's not forget that the lowly home page was once the center of a brand's digital universe. If one thinks of how we used to discover brands online before the social media gold rush, it may have had this kind of short trajectory - we saw a print ad or TV spot with a URL, we followed that link. That kind of invitation to visit a brand's online world feels quaint compared to today's exaltations to 'Like' a brand's Facebook page.

Is Facebook the new America Online?
Back in the 90's millions of online users thought that America Online, yes AOL, was the Web - they had no idea how the Internet worked, nor did they understand that the Web was an application that sat upon it, and they happily snacked on the content that AOL fed them within the confines of that walled garden. When they discovered that they could pay for their own ISP account and actually surf the Web, they fled, and the AOL business model began to collapse. [Today, the AOL web site has this mission statement - At AOL, we're in the business of making the Internet better -- period. Thanks, AOL...but I think you mean the Web]

Here we are in 2010 and once again it feels like a major corporation is the Web. Facebook may well be around for some time, in one form or another, yet brands and marketers should watch closely the actions it takes, and those of its users, for hints of when it takes a step in the wrong direction one too many times. Or loses its relevance.

Brands and marketers should definitely work harder at discovering what Facebook users actually do, not just assume that 'Hey brand, I Like You' is good enough for measurement purposes.

I'd like to end on this insight from Anil Dash from his post - The Facebook Reckoning, as it resonates well with me:

"The truth is, I care deeply about the culture of the web, and am concerned that many of the decisions Facebook makes are detrimental to its [the Web's] culture, particularly when Facebook inadvertently imposes an extreme set of values on its users without adequately communicating the consequences of those choices."

The reading list behind the article

What Happens When Facebook Trumps Your Brand Site? - AdAge

The Social Media Bubble - Umair Haque

Facebook: The Reckoning - Anil Dash

The Face of Facebook - New Yorker

7 Deadly Social Media Sins - Fast Company

Twitter - We Are Not A Social Network

Multitasking Through the News - Howard Kurtz

How Tomorrow's User is Changing the Way We Buy, Sell and Consume - David Skokna

A Guide to Engaging Audiences Through Social Media

Facebook Friends - How Do They Interact - ReadWriteWeb

Engagementdb Social Engagement Rankings

Best Social Media Stats So Far

I'm Still Here: True, Insane or Brilliant? - Johanna Schneller

The Future of Ad Agencies and Social Media - Mashable

Lady Gaga - The Manufactured Misfit - Andrew Sullivan

Foursquare and McDonalds - Getting the story wrong

Catfish - NYT Movie Review

Terry Jones; The Audience Shares The Blame - NY Times

6 Critical Services Agencies Must Provide To Stay Relevant in Social Media

A Test Plan For Social Media Marketing

Virginia Hefferman and the death of the open web – a refute

Soul of the Community

How Social Supports Email in the Interactive Marketing Hub

The end of decency - in search of a civil society

Really looking forward to this..