For the past few days, I have been thinking about the evolution of what media is and its expanded role in the information ecosystem. What got me thinking was Twitter co-founder and Square CEO Jack Dorsey's decision to blog his side of the story about his reduced role at Twitter. A few months ago, when Facebook was buying Instagram, …
When Karl Marx asked: Who owns the presses? he was referring to the ability of wealthy private individuals to control the means of knowledge production and dissemination and thus, influence society as capital owners, not as citizens. The unequal voice of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat was what gave them undue social power. But what happens when the owners and generators of wealth (knowledge, information) shift and the result is a community that relies on the medium of production without the control of it?
Owning the presses
Social media presents something quite unusual when it comes to the traditional views of ownership and wealth creation. It also upends the traditional perspectives of journalism and marketing, where the content is co-created and edited, emergent and distributed through a mesh of networks, uncontrolled. It is a new space for which traditional models of ownership, rights, responsibilities, and governance are all joined up in something that is similar enough to have familiarity, yet different enough to be alien at the same time. It’s not a wicked problem, but it does contain some problem wickedness.
With social media, the messages are that of the users, arguably creating the most democratic (or at least free) environments for communication. Although hosts such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter have occasionally squelched certain users’ voices for reasons of legality, politics or questionable fit with their “community values”, most of what happens on these platforms is up to its users. That is what makes social media as powerful as it is. Social media is nothing without its users’ content.
My definition of social media is:
Social media is any networked electronic media that derives its principal value from user participation
Yet, this does not render Marx’s question about press ownership irrelevant when updated to today, rather it changes the answer.
It’s paradoxical in that the very market forces of competition that can seed innovation and the mechanisms provided by venture capital and capitalist investment is the reason we have the social media platforms we do, yet the manner in which it is governed is much like that of socialism at best, communism at worst. Investment of private financial capital has helped raise the profile and capability of social media companies to leverage social capital. It is why open source, community-owned or shared tools like Diaspora* or Identi.ca have come nowhere close to replacing Facebook and Twitter respectively. The free market creates the tools, yet it is not the free market that sustains the community created by those tools, nor can it fully account for how to grow the capability of those tools.
It is also because these companies operate within markets rather than as national projects, that they can disseminate globally with relative ease. Thanks to this dissemination, citizens living in oppressive media environments can reach out and connect with those outside of such spaces allowing things like the Arab Spring and increased freedoms in Myanmar to emerge with greater outside support than had these tools not been available.
The cost of free
While social media has done much to enhance democracy movements, human rights watches, and access to information, there is a slight problem . The most widespread social networks are all free to use, which means that they need to generate revenue from sources other than user fees, which usually means advertising. And advertising means clutter, clutter leads to confusion and that turns people away (witness the loss of viewership from TV at a time when perhaps the highest quality productions are being aired ). But unlike television, there is a social cost to free with social media. Human capital in the order of millions of hours of time and a similar amount in dollars is spent creating the very content that allows social media to survive and thrive.
With the relaunching of MySpace we are reminded of how far social media platforms can go up and down. Just a few years ago, MySpace was the darling of social media with millions of users and lots of press. Hundreds of thousands of hours of individuals’ time went into making and maintaining MySpace pages, resources that are now, ironically (given Justin Timberlake’s involvement in the platform) Dead and Gone.
It can be argued that similar deep investments of time in building and maintaining Facebook pages, timelines, and Tweet projects exist. What if these go away?
Or what if they become unusable? Anyone who has spent time on Facebook (which is a few hundred million people strong) has seen the steady creep of unsolicited content emerging in their news feed. This includes notices about pages you may like, game invitations, increased posts from companies or services you chose to “like” and more. Facebook needs revenue to justify its initial valuation and a big focus now is on the mobile experience where an increasing amount of its traffic is now generated from. The problem is that mobile ads are even more distracting than those on other systems because of the smaller screen size and different interface. It is difficult enough to surf the content on a laptop, let alone a handheld device. If you think your desktop version of Facebook is cluttered, imagine what the mobile version of that could look like?
Facebook is rapidly becoming a ‘necessary evil’ for me and others like me. I have few other means of communicating with certain people other than Facebook. This should be a good thing for Mark Zuckerberg and company, right? Maybe not. For some, there is little joy in using Facebook anymore as it gets swarmed with messages and the endless quest for likes and attention from those who are not even your friends. The result is that more people in my circles are reducing their use of Facebook or breaking from it altogether largely because it holds far less esteem than other brands such as Apple or Google. There is a brand cost to Facebook’s decisions.
The brand is not the only thing that costs; there are hidden social costs as well. Among those vying for likes and attention are charities, non-profit, health and social service groups who have opted to spend precious resources on building up profiles on social media, curating content and relying on platforms like Facebook and Twitter for building their brand, relationships or using it as part of their internal and external communications. They are doing this because that is where the most people are and they feel the pressure to go where those numbers are, even if they are fickle (see MySpace).
Should we care?
The business model of social
One answer is: it doesn’t matter. Social media companies are businesses and it is their prerogative to make money. However, there are real social costs associated with this drive for profit in the social mediasphere. If people start fleeing Facebook or can’t manage Twitter because of restrictions or choices made based on that company’s market optimization plan (e.g., advertising, relaxed privacy etc..), then the social capital created through those services decreases, requiring the increase in new social and financial capital to support something else. For those that sought to dive into social media this means retraining staff, retooling media platforms, redesigning messages, and in some cases rebranding entirely to suit the next big thing. This costs real money.
While it is bad enough that individuals lose their social investment, this has bigger implications for health care and protection providers, charitable organizations, social service groups and alike others who all rely partly on social media for communications and relationship development. A recent paper in the Journal of Medical Internet Research looked at the factors influencing social media adoption among physicians. In that study 58% of physicians surveyed said that social media enabled them to look after patients more effectively, and 60% said it improved the quality of the patient encounter. It has taken a long time to get health care professionals on board, but the stability and relative ubiquity of platforms like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter have made investment in social media a safer bet.
Sure, media changes and evolves, but what we are seeing with social media today (particularly the largest players) is something never seen before. There is a global scale that has fundamentally altered the communications landscape. Facebook and Twitter are not just tools, they are platforms not unlike email and that makes them different.
Virtually every successful social media platform has started out as free, uncluttered and focused on building a user base. And every one of those faces the question: what is the business model? Advertising will only go so far and the efforts to engage in ‘promoted’ anything (tweets, videos etc..) can run the risk of turning a medium based on authenticity into something much less so.
What alternatives? More questions.
We face a situation where the very entrepreneurial spirit and funding through capitalism has produced a somewhat self-governed media system run by workers who produce the knowledge, which is like socialism. All ‘ism’s’ aside for the moment, there is benefit to having conversations about the ownership and control of the social media presses in an era where the media is more than just the messages and now integral to many of the operations and livelihoods of organizations and individuals who do not work for social media. There is a disjuncture between ownership, the means of production, the workers, and the product that doesn’t fit any previous model posed by Marx, Adam Smith or anyone.
Unlike the coal miner and their families that lose when the mine shuts down, there is some foresight available to them knowing that they are in a particular industry. For social media users, their communications are just part of their life not a part of their industry.Put another way, consider email. Right now, if your email service is failing you or fails as a business you have the ability to get a new one without disrupting your experience of and access to the medium itself. Gmail, Yahoo! or any corporate mailserver will generally produce the same thing even if the interface and management of that experience varies. We don’t have real alternative to Facebook or Twitter right now. When over a billion people use these services it is time to ask: should we? Can we? Is that a good idea?
Is social media getting to be an ‘essential service’?
Does social media belong in the commons? If so, will that inhibit the necessary innovation sparks that led to the development of the current tools in the first place? Who would manage it?
If these went away, what would replace it? Or will we see a bubble and lose so much trust in a collapse that these tools fail to regain interest?
Should we pay for social media in exchange for better usability and less clutter? Will anyone who had it for free do this? And who is left out of those social worlds if they can’t pay? Right now social media’s great asset is that anyone can join and join to anyone else who allows it. Nationalism, politics, financial means, sex, race, gender all don’t matter in terms of fundamental access, but that could change.
Would my Twittersphere be less if only people like me were on it? What kinds of conversations wouldn’t take place?
If we all provide the content and labour, should we have a say in who owns (or runs) the presses in a world of social media?
What would Marx and Adam Smith think of all of this? Maybe if they were here today they could Tweet a debate on it.
Social media is any networked information technology, tool or platform that derives its content and principal value from user engagement and permits those users to interact with that content. But last time I checked (in), the content stream being produced through my media stream was becoming a lot less social (Web 2.0) and more of a throwback to the media of old (Web 1.0); the implications could be considerable for those wishing to reach new audiences or create them in the first place.
It’s been a rough ride for social media companies. On Friday Facebook’s shares were at a record low since their IPO a couple months ago. Last month, Twitter provoked much concern after dropping its partnership with LinkedIn as part of its desire to have greater control over its messaging, prompting concern that Twitter might end up closing itself off to 3rd party applications like EchoFon, HootSuite and Tweetbot to ensure quality. This desire for tailoring and control of messages and trends has prompted some to suggest that Twitter may be ruining itself in the process.
The issue is not just one of control, but of a disrespect for the complexity and conversation that makes social media attractive to its users. In short: it’s about the social, not the media.
Social media, non social content
Scanning through my Facebook page its easy to see why their stock is dropping and will continue to do so. In their quest to justify their valuation, Facebook needs to find ways to make money from what people post and pictures of people’s kids, quips about daily hassles and joys, sharing cat videos, and posting check-ins at a local restaurant aren’t enough to justify a $100bn valuation. To do this, they need advertising dollars and deals with game makers and app developers to drive revenue up. Aside from the possibility of games, there is little social about advertising, no matter what kind of spin is offered.
Within a year my Facebook page has gone from a loose collection of social miscellany from friends and family to a steady stream of non-social junk with advertisements in the form of page updates, news stories that require me to accept an app that sends me more ads, and a litany of non-essential information.
The signal to noise ratio has officially flipped from more noise and less signal.
Bit by bit, Facebook is choking its users to death with ephemera and it would not surprise me if in two years we refer to it as we do MySpace today. YouTube is also running perilously close to offering too much media with not enough message as users increasingly have to sit through advertisements or click on banner ads before accessing content. News sites like the Globe and Mail will run a 30 second advertisement before allowing you to see a 20 second news clip, a 150% advertisement to content ratio on some stories.
I remember a few years ago when my email took the same turn. Now, probably 75 per cent of my received (non-spam!) email goes unread and is immediately deleted on sight. This isn’t necessarily spam, much of it is bacn, the kind of updates that I might have subscribed to voluntarily or I receive as part of a professional membership or affiliation. However, it’s severely disabled email’s potential and is now a ‘necessary evil’ instead of a useful tool I welcomed having in my toolkit.
Speaking to colleagues, it is not unreasonable to hear of people receiving messages in the hundreds each day and spending more than 3 hours per day just managing that content alone. How is this helping us communicate better? To learn?
This is one gigantic distraction and is not proving useful to improving our communications or helping us integrate the knowledge we receive and already have. Some claim that the era of big data will allow advertisers to target their ads with such exceptional focus and appropriateness that they will be serving us as much as we are needed to service them. I somehow doubt that.
From Web 2.0 back to 1.0
Consider the definition of what social media is on Wikipedia (as Web 2.0):
Web 2.0 is a concept that takes the network as a platform for information sharing, interoperability, user-centered design, and collaboration on the World Wide Web. A Web 2.0 site allows users to interact and collaborate with each other in a social media dialogue as creators (prosumers) of user-generated content in a virtual community, in contrast to websites where users (consumers) are limited to the passive viewing of content that was created for them. Examples of Web 2.0 include social networking sites, blogs, wikis, video sharing sites, hosted services, web applications, mashups and folksonomies.
When my social media stream is filled with promoted tweets, sponsored posts, ‘like’ requests on advertisements or updates from projects, I lose the social and just end up with media.
Social media is at its best when it is a conversation. Sometimes the conversation involves a lot of talking on one side, but there is a genuine back-and-forth, an unpredictability to it, and a non-linear dynamic that makes it interesting. Straight-to-viewer messages that offer no ways to engage except to watch, click off or ‘like’ don’t make for a conversation.
Imposing Structure and Losing Complexity
In trying to turn a setting where complexity, emergence and non-linearity come alive and work to create conversation, social media property managers are stifling the very thing that makes their tools and platforms so attractive. Creativity is born from serendipity and diverse connections. In imposing structures that remove or highly limit this potential for discovery by adding unnecessary noise, we are a risk of losing some of the best tools for idea testing, discussion, and knowledge translation we have ever known by reducing the opportunities for serendipity.
It is the commercial drive that contributed to bringing these tools in the first place, however that drive can lead to blindness creating an Internet ivory tower rather than a true marketplace of ideas as advocated in the Cluetrain Manifesto, which looked at how markets operate as innovation hubs by promoting conversations.
From markets to artists, the messages that are created by media are related to the media itself. Marshall McLuhan knew that and so did his peer, Edmund Snow Carpenter. Mathematician-artist a Youtube video maker vihart knows this too and spoke to Carpenter’s thesis in a terrific short video below.
In critiquing the push for standard ‘best practices’ in social media, vihart (and Carpenter, by posthumous extension) point to the ways in which the traditional media formats that advertisers desperately wish to use to contain your attention (and limit your feedback) is exactly the opposite of the new media.
Taken from the forward of Carpenter’s book, They Became What They Beheld, (and explicated beautifully by vihart) come some rules of communication commonly pursued by traditionalists and reasons why we shouldn’t pay attention. These rules as noted by Carpenter are:
1. Know your audience and address yourself directly to it
2. Know what you want to say and say it clearly and fully
3. Reach the maximum audience by using existing channels
Whatever sense this may have made in world of print, it makes no sense today. In fact, the reverse of each rule applies.
If you address yourself to an audience, you accept at the outset the basic premises that unite the audience. You put on the audience, repeating cliches familiar to it. But artists don’t address themselves to audiences; they create audiences. The artist talks to himself out lout. If what he has to say is significant, others hear & are affected.
The trouble with knowing what to say and saying it clearly and fully, is that clear speaking is generally obsolete thinking. Clear statement is like an art object: it is the afterlife of the process which called it into being. The process itself is the significant step and, especially at the beginning, is often incomplete and uncertain.
The problem with full statement is that it doesn’t involve: it leaves no room for participation; it’s address to consumer, not co-producer.
One is left watching this video with the question: what happens when social media has too much media, not enough message?
Paying attention to the social, technological, economic and environmental stresses and challenges we face isn’t always conducive to positive thinking and sometimes its useful to look at where problems are being addressed rather than created. Where to go for such inspiration is question is where this post begins.
And all the roads that lead you there are winding
And all the lights that light the way are blinding
There are many things that I
Would like to say to you but I don’t know how
I said maybe, you’re gonna be the one that saves me
And after all, you’re my wonderwall
- lyrics from “Wonderwall” by Oasis (1995)
Inspiring words and the desire for inspiring action
Marketer and blogger Mitch Joel recently wrote on the growing trend towards appending inspirational quotes to images and posting them on Facebook. I’ve seen it, too. Sites like Values.com, apps like Little Buddha and tweet feeds like @Zen_Moments do a great job of providing a daily dose of inspiring words. These daily doses of inspiring words can motivate further action or pacify us, but it is only when something happens that our world is changed. There is wishing for change, imagining change, intending change and then there is action. Our social world only experiences the latter and thus, for social innovation to take place we need to understand actions not just words.
With that, it occurred to me that there are far fewer places online that provide the same sort of wonderwall of resources highlighting actions as there is words. As I mindfully comb through the Web in my daily journeys I find myself amazed at what social innovations are out there facilitated by technology with the World Wide Web. These range from simple one-horse projects to complex initiatives, all working towards making the world a better place.
Why don’t we have a social innovation wonderwall?
With the many challenges facing us in adapting to a rapidly changing social world it would be useful to have some places and examples that show actions (and particularly the lessons learned from those actions). Listed here are three examples of resources I’ve found and highlight creative examples of social action from fundraising to creation to sharing.
Three socially innovative contributions to a wonderwall
1. Kickstarter. I’m a big fan of Kickstarter and have supported many projects on that site. Kickstarter has projects that are not all social ventures, but many aim to do good. Films, books, performances and other projects that don’t have mechanisms for raising funds from grants or attracting funding from traditional venture capitalists or lenders. Browse through and you will find a host of creative ways to use technology, share ideas and maybe find something you want to back.
2. OneWorld Futbol . I am a big fan of Sting‘s music and enjoy his fabulous (and free!) iPad app and noticed a link on the latest update that led to the latest charitable initiative he’s supporting called the OneWorld Futbol project. The idea brings technological innovation together with social need to create an indestructible soccer ball that can be distributed globally to children in war-torn and impoverished countries. Through a buy-one-get-one program, you can get your own ball to perhaps inspire youth here to connect to their peers in less advantaged parts of the world. Soccer will not save the world and, like similar-spirited programs such as Right to Play, there is no mistaking sport for replacing the need for food, clean water and shelter, but it adds a quality of life to youth that is also important while providing opportunities for leadership and joy-making.
3. Fast Company. The social design and technology magazine has long been a leader in reporting on innovations, but recently it launched three spin-off sites (FastCoDesign, FastCoCreate and FastCoExist) that highlight ideas and products that are making a difference in the world in creative ways. For-profit, for-benefit and governmental innovations are all profiled here. Nearly every day there are updates on initiatives taking place across the globe (although mostly in the United States) providing a veritable feast of inspiring actions taken to potentially spur social innovation.
These are but three examples to show how actions are being done in different ways: raising funds, creating products, and showcasing work of products already created. Know of more? Add them to the comments and perhaps we can start creating a wonderwall to inspire others.
* Photo of the Wonder Octopus from the Wikimedia Commons used under license.
Facebook has introduced new roles for pages (see graphic). The manager of a page can assign the following roles:
- Content Creator
- Insight Analyst
What is unclear to me is that the manager of the page does not have the same rights as the other roles and is not able to create content, edits the page, add apps, respond to and delete comments, send message, create ads, or view insights.
Social innovation is often about engaging complicated systems like technology (dry) with complex systems like humans (wet). The implementation and evaluation approaches we take must match wet with dry and knowing when we are dealing with each.
If you’ve ever fixed any kind of machinery, you know that a device that’s exposed to the elements is incredibly difficult to maintain. A washing machine or the underside of a car gets grungy, fast.
On the other hand, the dryest, cleanest environment of all is the digital one. Code stays code. If it works today, it’s probably going to work tomorrow.
The wettest, weirdest environment is human interaction. Whatever we build gets misunderstood, corroded and chronic, and it happens quickly and in unpredictable ways. That’s one reason why the web is so fascinating–it’s a collision between the analytic world of code and wet world of people.
Much of social innovation is becoming like this: a collision between the wet world of people and the dry world of technology. It is hard not to be impressed at the technological capabilities we have at our disposal and how they can be put to use to serve humankind. Mobile handsets, low-cost portable computing tablets, social network platforms like Facebook or LinkedIn, or digital common spaces created by tools like Reddit and Twitter all provide incredible means to connect people and ideas together. Stop and think about what we have at our disposal and it is truly mindblowing, particularly when you think how much that’s changed in just 5 years, 10 years or 20 years.
Yet, the enormity of the scale of these tools and their ubiquity can mask their significance and not always for good. Take Facebook, which just launched its IPO and is the current champion of social networks with over 900 million users. It’s easy to forget that Facebook didn’t even exist 8 years ago and now almost one in 7 citizens on this earth have an account with its service.
This could be a tremendous opportunity for social innovation. Yet, it also speaks to the issue of Seth Godin’s wet and dry analogies for design.
Tom Chatfield, a tech writer from the UK, recently blogged about rethinking our social networks. He points to Dunbar’s number, a well-researched figure that estimates the limits to meaningful human relationships to be between 100 and 230. The drive to scale technologies (the dry) to ever-expanding and increasing numbers is problematic if the limits to my ability to meaningfully connect with the networks they create (the wet) are relatively fixed or difficult to change.
It’s dangerously easy simply to gawp and grimace at the sheer scale of the networks connecting us. The numbers are staggering, and offer a powerful index of how much and how fast our world is changing. But we mustn’t overlook the great lesson to be drawn from work like Dunbar’s: the weight of a special few will always outweigh the many, no matter how great the “many” becomes.
Some have argued that Dunbar’s number is a fallacy in the social media world, choosing to rely more heavily on sociologist Mark Granovetter’s work often summed up as the argument for The Strength of Weak Ties . His early research (see link [pdf] for original paper) focused not on the strong ties between people who were close, but the ‘friends of friends’ effects on transmission of information, which is the space where many innovations and novelty comes from in a network.
This confuses the potential innovation and the human capability to connect across large, diverse networks (a technical, ‘dry’ issue) with the quality of the interaction (a relational, ‘wet’ one). Both exist and both will exist, but there is a difference between learning something new and taking it to scale.
Novelty of information and new ideas comes from the intersection created by cognitive diversity in the design process. This is why designers seek to bring people with different perspectives together to explore concepts and generate ‘wild ideas’ as part of an ideation phase. Lots of information can be very useful in this situation and allow designers (social and otherwise) to see things they might miss if they stuck with a narrow band of perspectives. Yet, bringing these ideas to focus, refining them and transforming them into a social innovation that matters to people is far more relational than we give credit for.
Facebook might be great at linking us to ‘friends’ we’ve lost track of, but in applying a model where all of these friends are treated more or less equally, along with all of the information streamed at us through the main feed, our ‘wet’ interactions are made to feel ‘dry’. Drawing the motivation to scale ideas and engage in the efforts needed to make real change happen from such an approach is unlikely.
A recent post from FastCoExist, part of the Fast Company network of sites, by Ashoka changemakers Alexa Kay and Jon Camfield pointed to the barriers and facilitators for making change happen. Among their principal barriers is the need to connect deeper, rather than broader with each other:
How do we learn to be change makers? Much of the art of change making involves soft skills that we absorb from others that model or demonstrate change making behaviors. This means that learning opportunities are limited by one-to-one interactions and by exposure to other change makers. Compared to traditional fields like entrepreneurship, where there are plentiful resources for training, the practice of change making is still far from being widespread.
One of their principles for change reflects the complexity of social change by encouraging and supporting self-organized networks:
Often leaders or institutions promote dependency with a community. But successful change making communities depend on reducing dependence on one anointed leader. Flat networks and peer-based accountability structures are necessary if a community is to sustain change beyond one individual. The need for change communities and networks to be self-regulating is vital for their sustainability.
This is where walled gardens like Facebook are likely to fall down, just as many custom Ning-based communities have fallen into disuse. Create systems that are too bounded (dry) and we risk sucking the moisture from the human elements (the wet) that make real social innovation happen. Our challenge is finding the right balance between the controlled, stable environments that these new technologies afford and the self-organized, emergent and innovative environments needed to implement and scale our initiatives more effectively.
Wet Leaf By Faustas L, via Wikimedia Commons used under Creative Commons License
Social media is finally catching on with healthcare, public health, and health promotion. With a few recent articles published in the academic literature to rest on, academic health sciences has finally (and I might argue, begrudgingly) conceded that 900+ million users and $100B valuations (Facebook), and thousands of messages exchanged every milisecond (microblogs like Twitter and Sina Wiebo) might have some value for the public beyond entertainment.
If you note how long it took the health sector to start using the telephone as a serious means of engaging their patients or the public, this is lightning-quick adoption. Still, the barriers to adoption are high and the approach to using the technology is scattered. Indeed, just like the start of Internet-delivered telehealth (or cybermedicine (PDF), which has now evolved into eHealth), there is a mad rush to get liked, followed or some other metrics that most health professionals barely understand.
And that is part of the problem.
Meaningful Social Media Metrics
What is a meaningful metric for social media and health? A recently published article in Health Promotion Practice suggested four metrics that are taken from social marketing and applied to social media. These Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) are:
- Insights (consumer feedback)
- Exposure (media impressions, visits, views, etc..)
- Reach (# people who connect to the social media application)
- Engagement (level of interaction with the content)
These are reasonable, but to to the uninitiated I would suggest a few words of caution and commentary to this list.
Firstly, the insights suggested by Neiger and colleagues “can be derived from practices such as sentiment analysis or data mining that uses algorithms to extract consumer attitudes and other perspectives on a particular topic” (p.162). While not incorrect, this makes the job sound relatively simple and it is not. Qualitative analysis + quantitative metrics such as those derived from data mining are key. Context counts immeasurably in social media use. It’s only in situations where social media is used as a broadcasting tool that gross measures of likes and sentiment analysis work with little qualification.
Even that is problematic. Counts of ‘likes’, ‘visits’, ‘follows’ and such are highly problematic and can be easily gamed. I am ‘followed’ on Twitter by people who have tens of thousands of followers, yet virtually no presence online. Most often they are from marketing fields where the standard practice is to always follow back those who follow you. Do this enough and pretty quickly you, too can have 23,000 followers and follow 20,000 more. This is meaningless from the perspective of developing relationships.
Engagement is the most meaningful of these metrics and the hardest to fully apply. This category gets us to consider the difference between “OMG! AWESOME!” and “That last post made me think of this situation [described here] and I suggest you read [reference] here for more” as comments. Without understanding the context in which these are made within the post, between posts (temporally and sequentially), and in relation to a larger social and informational context, simple text analysis won’t do.
Social Media Evidence: Problems and More Problems
One of the objections to the use of social media by some is that it is not evidence-based. To that extent I would largely agree that this is the case, but then we’ve been jumping out of airplanes with parachutes despite any randomized controlled trial to prove their worth.
Another article in Health Promotion Practice in 2011 highlights potential applications for social media and behaviour change without drawing on specific examples from the literature, but rather on theoretical and rhetorical arguments. An article published in the latest issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science highlights the current state of research on Facebook, which is timely given that its IPO is set for today. That review by Wilson and colleagues illustrates the largely descriptive nature of the field and offers some insight on to the motivation of Facebook users and their online activities, but rather little in what Facebook does to promote active change in individuals and communities when they leave the platform.
The answer to whether social media like platforms such as Facebook ‘work’ as methods of promoting change is simply: we don’t know.
Does social media provide support to people? Yes. Does it inform them? Yes to that too. Does that information produce something other than passive activity on the topic? We don’t know.
In order to answer these questions, health sciences professionals, evaluators, and tech developers need to consider not just followership, but leadership. In this respect, it means creating changes to the way we gather evidence, the tools and methods we use to analyse data, and the organizational structures necessary to support the kind of real-time, rapid cycle evaluation and developmental design work necessary to make programs and evidence relevant to a changing context.
As Facebook launches into its new role as a public company it is almost assured to be introducing new innovations at a rapid pace to ensure that investor expectations (which are enormous) are met. This means that today’s Facebook will not be next month’s. Having funding mechanisms, review and approval mechanisms, a staff trained and oriented to rapid response research, and an overall organizational support system for innovation is the key.
Right now, we are a long way from that. Hospitals are very large, risk averse organizations; public health units are not much different. They both operate in a command-and-control environment suited for complicated, not complex informational and social environments. Social media is largely within the latter.
Systems thinking, design thinking, developmental evaluation, creativity, networks and innovation: these are the keywords for health in the coming years. They are as author Eric Topol calls the dawning of the creative destruction of medicine.
The public is already using social media for health and now the time has come for health (care, promotion and protection) systems to get on board and make the changes necessary to join them.
Malcolm Gladwell’s recently published essay on social media and activism has been gaining a lot of attention from the tech world and social innovation crowd. For good reason too. He has managed to articulately skewer the idea that online social activism and the tools that advance it are any better or even as good as previous forms of activism such as the type witnessed during the civil rights movement.
Gladwell also takes aim at innovators.
Innovators tend to be solipsists. They often want to cram every stray fact and experience into their new model. As the historian Robert Darnton has written, “The marvels of communication technology in the present have produced a false consciousness about the past—even a sense that communication has no history, or had nothing of importance to consider before the days of television and the Internet.” But there is something else at work here, in the outsized enthusiasm for social media. Fifty years after one of the most extraordinary episodes of social upheaval in American history, we seem to have forgotten what activism is.
Gladwell points to a new book, “The Dragonfly Effect: Quick, Effective, and Powerful Ways to Use Social Media to Drive Social Change,” by business consultant Andy Smith and Stanford Business School professor Jennifer Aaker, and how they use illustrations of how small acts such as forwarding an email request to search out bone marrow donors as examples of activism. His comparison is with the acts perpetuated in the 1950′s and 60′s in the United States south as part of the Civil Rights Movement where people physically put themselves in harms way and literally took action.
The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960. “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.
This is an important distinction between participation and activism. But I argue that this paints things in too much of a black and white way of viewing the issue. What does activism mean? Gladwell doesn’t really say, pointing to examples like the protest at the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, NC and how it grew through people literally standing up and sitting down for their rights, as activism. Using Gladwell’s example, one might not distinguish between those sitting at the lunch counter from those outside. But is there a difference? Does it matter if you are at the front or the back of the line, after all, it still is a line isn’t it?
I think that really depends on what the line means in terms of its goals and actions. Participation is the same way. Does it matter if you watch a football game at home compared to watching it in a stadium, live, with 40000 other people? What about if you are watching it from the sidelines, on the bench, or whether you’re in the game handing the ball? When does it cease to be participation and when does it begin?
Social media is like that. There are those with dozens, hundreds even hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter. Some people I know have more than 800 Facebook friends, even if Dunbar’s number suggests that we really can only have close to 150 substantive relationships in our lives. So what does that mean?
The problem I have with Gladwell’s analysis is that it slips too far towards either/or thinking about social media without considering the nuance withing a social network. Indeed, there are many who will sign a petition, forward on an email, and join a Facebook group denouncing something, supporting something else, and advocating another thing with little real attention paid to the topic or outcome. But the same is true of anything social. Most human beings like to be where others are.
Thousands join protests, yet only a few commit to the issue enough to go beyond the protest to write letters, put up posters, vocalize, and study the problem. The same is true of social networks. The difference is that social networks enable passive engagement easier than through other means. So it makes sense that the gap between those who do little and those who do a lot is large, but in the end, are there more people active? The stats are hard to confirm, because activism is so much different now.
Back in the 1950′s and 1960′s, a protest and a sit-in was novel, thus it attracted a lot of attention. Today, we have protest staging areas at events like the G20 because they are expected and almost predictable. Thus, they’ve lost their ability to hold the same level of attention as they once did. Same with the petition.
We’ve hit marks with Facebook groups pretty quickly illustrating how quick things go from novel to trite. The lesson isn’t that social media doesn’t work, rather it is that the speed to which we adapt is increasing. Innovations are coming far faster. Twitter is now the rage, but soon it might be something else, maybe something with video. But they all will have some staying power, the issue is that we just don’t know what that will be.
But if we continue to view things as working/not working, good/bad, real/fake we start to miss the point that these tools and technologies are doing something and are supporting real people, some of whom are doing a lot; to dismiss that is to risk squashing the spirit and potential that we all have to advocate and participate in change.
An interesting discussion has been taking place on the SourcePOV blog (hosted by Chris Jones) this week on the importance of communication — specifically the need for clarity and the methods that can promote it — and the trouble that ambiguity brings in a digital world. The debate, critique and insight from the many participants (myself included) has been a breath of fresh intellectual air this chilly week, not only because of the level of thought put into the discussion, but because the dialogue is challenging our collective assumptions about language in the present day digital era. Alas, we haven’t solved the problems of language and clarity in the information landscape, but we have posed some interesting questions.
One of the challenges that has come up is improving clarity in communications given the changing nature of the tools we use and the contexts in which we apply them. I’m not going to re-hash the debate here, rather I’d encourage you to join in at the source (no pun intended!) and add to the rich conversation going on there. What I am interested with this post is building on those ideas and offering some new ones on the future of communication. A few weeks ago I posted a highly unscientific, partly tongue-in-cheek poll to confirm or challenge something I was seeing in my personal communications, which was a shift from Facebook to Twitter and blogs in the number and nature of messages being shared. Facebook seemed to be getting quieter and Twitter and my blog-roll were heating up with messages and I wanted to know whether this was something unique to me and my network or something broader.
A few brave readers responded with 63 per cent (N=5) saying that Twitter and blog traffic is going up, while 1 participant felt there was no change and 2 voted for ‘other’. Unfortunately, no one commented and suggested to me what ‘other’ meant, as I’d hoped. Lesson: don’t expect much from half-serious polls.
Perhaps another lesson is that our electronic communications and online social networks are beginning to change. A look at the traffic for both sites over the past year shows that there was a big gain in March and April and a steady move upward or level since then. But what I see, and cannot be gained from these numbers, is a shift in the sophistication and quality of the content that I’m seeing on Twitter and my favourite blogs versus what is on Facebook. I would argue that 80 per cent or more of the very best content that I get on a daily basis can be traced back to my Google Reader and Twitter feeds.
It is not from academic journals or books or from formal presentations, rather it is content in the form of narrative fragments, little bits of information linked together, either unorganized or disorganized, and often free of any larger narrative beyond a general area of interest. Critics (too many to list here) suggest that this is a threat to literacy, a juvenile form of communicating, and out of sync with the way humans naturally communicate, which is based on stories with a beginning, middle and end.
While I agree that we are storytelling beings, I’d challenge the suggestion that stories (at least complete ones) are natural, while others suggesting that the electronic world of narrative fragments might very well be taking storytelling to a new level. The idea of ‘natural’ complete stories is a myth. When was the last time you sat down and told a complete story to someone (other than reading a bedtime story to a child) that could be reasonably understood and interpreted by someone other than the person you were communicating to? (In other words, you could take a transcript and show it to someone out of context and they would know what you’re talking about? No insider knowledge would be necessary, no shared history, no temporal or physical connection present). Probably not very often. The truth is that we communicate in fragments all the time. Twitter posts and Facebook updates work because the fragments we use have some other shared contexts with the audiences — intended or otherwise. These contexts shift and change and tools like Twitter, or text messages or other media provide a concise way to adapt quickly to rapidly changing contexts. This is why I think Twitter and blogs more generally are becoming the more powerful tool set for communicating and why I am seeing a change in my communication patterns.
In the days of Dickens people’s lives were far less complex than they were today. A person would communicate with a few dozen others at best and assume a few social roles. Today, we communicate with potentially thousands in many roles because of our vast networks and global reach through technologies. Yet the stories we tell are still done in fragments most of the time and require context to fully appreciate. So while our future of communication will require tools that enable us to communicate quickly in a variety of contexts to a broad audience, the importance of context will become as important as in Dickens time. A tool that allows us the ability to attract the right people (that is develop a shared context) and allow us to adapt it to the changes in context will be the one that fits with our natural communications and more likely to thrive. So the future will indeed be the past. Fire up the Delorean!
Join the discussion at the SourcePOV blog or here and in keeping with Dickens may I wish you all a Merry Christmas for those celebrating it and a happy holiday and insightful 2010 to all.
The term social was big in 2009. Whether it was social networks, social media or social context — this six-letter word had quite a year. It seems that public and academic discourse is shifting away from the lone, rational actor to the social being making decisions in consort with her or his peers. Whether it is offline, online, or some type of hybrid environment, social interaction has now widely been given its due by decision makers, researchers and the public. We see this in the rapid adoption of tools like Facebook, Twitter, and custom networks on Ning in business, health, and education sectors and by the use of video or photo sharing, citizen journalism, and reader/viewer comments into mainstream media. Even academic health journals from the traditional publishers like the New England Journal of Medicine with its use of podcasts and reader comments to the new Open Medicine, which has explored the use of wikis, are incorporating some social aspects to their online content.
It seems that mainstream institutions have finally picked up what social psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists have always known: we are social beings and we’re more productive, creative and happier when we have opportunities to engage with others.
Lest we pat ourselves on the back for finally ‘getting it’, there is a long way to go before these tools, technologies and systems of working truly produce the dividends that we are looking for in public policy, health care, science and innovation.
What is missing is emotion.
In their new book, Connected, social network researchers Nick Christakis and James Fowler describe the importance of emotion in their exploration of the evolution of social activity:
The development of emotion in humans, the display of emotions, and the ability to read the emotions of others helped coordinate group activity by three means: facilitating interpersonal bonds, synchronizing behavior, and communicating information (p.36)
Our social media and networks have done a reasonable job of the third part (communicating information), but a relatively poor job at the first two. Yes, we can meet people online through social tools or dating sites, but my 15 years of work with online communities has shown me that these technologies are good at facilitating introductions and sustaining relationships over time, but they are lousy at growing relationships. Why? Consider the volume of emotional information that is exchanged when you meet someone and interact with them for even a short period of time. Whether it is a look, a smell, a touch, the tonality of the voice or some combination of them all, the sensory experience that comes from a personal encounter is something that can’t be replicated in our current tools for nurturing social networks.
The rise in the use of video, which provides many more streams of information than text, is one of the hopeful points for social networking. Facebook’s addition of video to its service and the already growing use of Twitter-like tools such as 12 Seconds and Seesmic video suggest that we could be seeing a new style of networking in 2010. Apple’s new iPod Nano also features simple video capture and upload tools. And as video grows in use, so too will the complexity of the messages that are communicated and the ability to express and share emotion within online and mobile networks. Once that happens, we may start to see social networking and social media live up to its full potential.