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Social Media Research: Insights

Summary: Since Marshall McLuhan first described technology as an "extension of the human" in Understanding Media, we have needed a better understanding of how technology affects social interactions. The statements below draw upon linguistic analysis, speech act theory, and social interactionism. These notes were made in 2003 and were early observations of social media use.


"Don't forget the viewer's eyeballs. That's the primary organ involved in the cinema experience." Roger Corman to Jonathan Demme.

While our eyeballs are certainly critical to our experience of the web, they are only a facilitating organ in our case. And thankfully so, for if the web were up against cinema for visual appeal, it would surely lose.

The internet is a communications medium, creating access to people as much as to information. And as increasing numbers of devices exploit internet accessibility (a trend uninterrupted by the dotcom collapse), the impact of networking on human relations will be as profound as it has been on the distribution of information. The implications touch any company using the internet to publish, interact, and dialogue with customers and prospects online.

The following are just a handful of insights or principles worth considering. A quick note: these tips are intended for all manner of organizations, from retail products and services to non-profits. All organizations face the same basic set of challenges, insofar as the loyalty and engagement they seek from members or customers are fundamentally characteristic of a commercially-oriented society.

People are a way to information. In a culture dominated by marketing and advertising messages, it is word of mouth that frequently sways opinion the most. Whether the opinions and trends we circulate through talk originate with advertising doesn't matter. The point is that people believe people. It's a simple fact of human communication that we seek trust and privilege sincerity. Messages close the loop through talk.

Users become interested in one another. Not long ago we used the phrase "sticky" to describe a web site capable of capturing the user's attention and engagement. The term was dropped when it became clear that flash animations, graphical wizardry, and other "interactive" design elements got attention only for their novelty value. They were doing little to engage users in substantive content (read: sales). Even the most interactive web site on the planet can only go so far to compel users if it lacks real human interaction. Information is simply only so interesting. In fact information should promise to be clear and concise so that the user can get in, through, and out with as little frustration and as much reward as possible. Nay, what really interests people is people. Witness the successes of match.com, classmates.com, and amazon.com's user reviews. People are infinitely more interactive and interesting than published content, and will be so always.

What the medium brackets out, users compensate for. Our minds like answers. When confusion and equivocation persist, we tend towards a decision, no matter how arbitrary. Media bracket out a great part of our perceptual experience of the world, be it visual, acoustic, kinesthetic, communicational, etc. What we don't get given to us, we more often than not will invent or imagine. This is as much the secret of online dating as it was the catch to online investing. We project onto the blank screen either the date we hope is behind the email or the news we hope is behind the rumors.

Ambiguity in communication drives interaction. A certain amount of ambiguity is present in all human interaction and communication. In fact it's the residual ambiguities in human relations that cause us to continue with them--as if we are always addressing a fundamental residue of uncertainty and commitment. Communication is iterative (ongoing) because it never completely resolves, it never completely achieves resolution.

Social phenomena tend to self-organize. People in numbers greater than two tend to organize, at least for a time. They will even organize online. Chat rooms and message boards, for example, show emergent social phenomena such as hierarchies, leaders, followers, heckling, attention-getting, gate-keeping, hustling, rumor mongering, and much more. It's how we experience social interactions and encounters. Of course online as well as off, these patterns and those involved in them are not always what they seem. And in most cases, the possibilities for self-censorship and self-management are weaker online than they are in face to face situations. (On the other hand, mediation encourages anonymity, thwarts physical coercion, and benefits alliance formation. The distortions created by physical difference and appearance that lead to bias in real life are replaced by other distortions in mediated encounters. Shy people become funny and witty, bullies appear stupid, women play men, nobodies become somebodies, etc.)

Over time, participants develop habit. Habits take a while to form. All broadcast media are interested in creating habits (viewing habits, listening habits). That's why their programming is scheduled. While habits may seem to form easily around daily schedules and routines, online media are user-driven. How do they then create habits? Think of your product or service offerings. What do you publish and update on a regular basis, and how frequently? If you are not likely to become a habit of routine, can you become a habit of destination? A provider of tips, techniques, advice, reviews, suggestions, sales, etc. to which your customers may return out of habit?

Attention is a scarce resource. We can give our attention to one thing at a time only. And even when we do, our attention span is limited. Media and their programmers battle now more than ever for our attention, and on a field of competing vehicles, the web is not the most heavily armed. That said, the web is inexpensive and democratic. It's a medium outside of the lock on distribution that operates throughout other markets (film, radio, television, publishing, advertising). It's available to the smallest of firms and individuals. And its secrets are not all out yet. Victories will be had by small and nimble players still. But what gets attention online is not flash and sizzle. It's communication and engagement. And getting attention on those levels is a trick unto itself.

Information in its raw form is complemented by trust supplied through expertise. Raw information by nature provides little meaning. Data is just that: unpackaged content. Expertise creates a wrapper around information, supplying content with opinion, suggestion, evaluation, interpretation, and recommendation. In fact we get most of our information from experts--people entrusted with the task of making sense of the raw stuff and giving us only what matters the most. In an age overflowing with information, expertise is a necessary navigation tool. It helps us to overcome anxiety, uncertainty, and arbitrariness. It guides us, steers us, and provides orientation amidst competing facts and figures, and choices too numerous for us to make alone.

Transactions are subject to reciprocity and obligation. All human transactions create debt and an obligation (respected or not) for reciprocity. This is what makes interactions social in the first place: they establish an economy in which transactions serve as the circulatory system of individual relations. While capitalism favors transactions reduced the equivalence of money value, individuals within society engage in many different kinds of economy. Talk is an economy of statements (news value); favors are an economy of friendship; families have economies of obligation and commitment; organizations have economies of work and responsibility. And there are other kinds of economy, from the informal to the formal. Your company or organization participates in these. A restaurant meal may participate in the family economy or dating economy. A ski resort participates in the economies of friends and social networks (as well as fashion and brand economies). These various economies involve different tendencies among people to keep circulation going. See where and how you fit in, and make use of it.

The digital domain propagates communication. Digital copies are perfect, and for the most part, infinitely reproducible. This fundamentally challenges notions as well as facts of ownership and exchange. To "share" a digital consumable today is not the same as to share one that is analog. Simply recall the ease with which music fans "shared" digital music files. Not once did a fan have to go without his record for the day. This digital transformation will be fought out in the courts until, step by step, creators and distributors reach a new model and pricing structure for ownership in the digital era. Until then, it seems likely that those companies most threatened by the great digital difference will continue to miss the point as they get hung up on the challenge to ownership: the reproducibility of messages and files alike propagates communication. This creates a radically new engine of interaction and exchange, and presents all those involved with opportunities for creating buzz and participation. Some day, perhaps, marketers will have developed models for the speed and reach of their audiences, and for their penetration of particular communities. They may have produced metrics for the virulence of a community, and mapped the brokers and lead adopters and valued them for their pass-along potential. Advertisers may have dynamic pricing models based not only on an individual's purchasing history, but on that of his friends' also. The proliferation of ideas, suggestions, recommendations, invitations and more through the Net is most profound when seen for what it is: a distribution network that excites human communication.

The net proliferates connections. On the net, all points are effectively equidistant to one another. Physical distance, in other words, is made irrelevant. That means that physical relations are equally irrelevant. Instead, relations are produced through connection and not through physical proximity. Consider, for a moment, the power of this. A communications network that enables interaction with no disregard whatsoever for physical location or distance. And what are we doing to benefit from this? Spam? If only spam were simply a technical tragedy. It's not. It's a tragedy of creativity. Email will survive the abuses of spam, and reward those who are creative. Creative in how they leverage connections by making them, rewarding them, leveraging them, and maintaining them.

Human relations constrain and enable interaction and communication. All of the countless exchanges that occur each and every day between people engaged in an equally innumerable spectrum of activities occur within a deep web of existing interpersonal relations. It seems easy for us to forget this. The comparatively small number of relations we're each able to maintain (it's less than 100, far less for many of us) creates an enduring, persisting social network. This network both constrains us and enables us: to act, perform, connect, create, make meaning. New technologies of communication (especially asynchronous: email, chat, SMS, etc.) may only create thin connections. However, those connections map to the deeper social web that holds up the floor of a life.

Communication tends to produce redundancy and repetition. It's not a sign of our stupidity that we repeat our actions all the time. Rather, it's a fact of our basic social nature that we build institutions out of habits that we then perpetuate in order to maintain our institutions. Social structures have no physical material. They exist only by virtue of the ongoing repetition of routines and habits. Practices iterated such that they become second nature, a social reality. So much of commerce, on the other hand, lives by numbers produced and forgotten in the short term. Organizations may think strategically, but more often than not they behave tactically. That is to say, we sacrifice long-term strategic goals for the quick tactical gains of today. Long relationships take time, and patience, and must be tended to with as much care as the zeal with which they are pursued in the first place. If communication is iterative, so too are other kinds of relations. Each point of contact and each moment of exchange is important to the relationship. Follow through is as important as the sale.

Human experiences with new media will first test its limits and explore its possibilities. Our first experiences with a new technology are tentative and experimental. We test the thing out before developing confidence. When it comes to communications technologies, we also play with aspects of communication, and what the technology does to them, or how it transforms them. What do we seem like through the technology? Is there anything missing? What happens to our identity? What can others do to us (for better or worse)? Technologies and media discover their limits only through the active participation of users in finding those limits. And as is the case with culture in general, there will always be a number of people who enjoy hanging out at those limits once found.