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03 May 2009

Social Media Beachcombing - Survival Of The Twittest?

Here's an article I just submitted to Business Week...

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Social Media Beachcombing - Survival Of The Twittest?

Rockefeller famously saw the Wall St. crash coming and got his money out when the shoe shine boy started giving him stock tips; so what does it mean for the Next New Thing in social media when your parents-in-law start telling you about Twitter?

For one thing, any self-respecting digital trendspotter will have started looking elsewhere at least a year ago. But the more important point for brands is how quickly these social media innovations are moving from the margins to the mainstream. As author and teacher Clay Shirky notes, it’s only when technology gets boring – that’s to say, part of the routine for the majority not just the Geekosphere - that it becomes interesting.

Twitter is already becoming one of the first places people look for breaking news, often by eye-witnesses, on everything from plane crashes to earthquakes or, sadly, school shootings. It’s also the place brands look to monitor not just run of the mill customer opinions (“wow walmart super center employees are rude!”) but real-time feedback on their own breaking news stories.

For instance, Dominos Pizza recently used Twitter to engage directly with people spreading the news about a You Tube video showing employees adding, shall we say, non-standard ingredients to the food. The company was seen to be tuning into the scale and intensity of customer mood and averting what could have been a major PR disaster.

Twitter is also becoming an alternative starting point for real-time, social web searches. Would you rather find a good Indian restaurant trawling Google results based on years worth of reviews and links (probably polluted by commercial firms using SEO tactics to game the system), or via a recommendation from someone you know who ate there last night, or possibly even a few minutes ago?

Interestingly, Google has just added user-generated voting, like social news site Digg, where individuals can promote or remove link results depending on how useful they are.

What’s next? Imagine a combination of Digg, Twitter, Wikipedia and consumer review sites like Trip Advisor mashed together into a user-generated decision-making tool which helps you answer any question from “Which laptop should I buy?” to “What colour should I paint my nails?”

Where Twitter prompts users with the question “What are you doing?”, start-up Hunch, from Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake, filters out miscellaneous conversational buzz to focus on useful information to discover and share and asks: “What are you making a decision about?

In theory, the more people who use social answer services like Hunch or Aardvark, the better the recommendations get and the more valuable they become. That said, ‘crowd-sourcing’ a quick view on which film to see or tourist attraction to visit is one thing, but to what extent we might want to outsource our decisions on religion or serious health issues to people we don’t know remains to be seen.

Needless to say, any new tool that helps people decide what to buy could become as important for brands as price comparison sites like, say, Money Supermarket for financial services.

It’s important for brands to really understand all aspects of social media, both positive and negative, to successfully innovate in this space. For instance, social media risks becoming an end in itself when people are constantly broadcasting themselves online in search of affirmation and spending more time announcing what they’re doing than actually doing it (unless you tweet it, is it really happening?). In other words, social media can make us less sociable.

The addictiveness of social networking is partly based on game mechanics where collecting friends and followers or racking up the number of tweets and status updates is like accumulating points. But a recent study showed that whether a Facebook user had 50 or 500 friends they still end up interacting meaningfully with the same small group of about 12. Advertising your life to an audience of casual acquaintances and sharing opinions with people you vaguely know or trust, it turns out, isn’t the same as real friendship.

That’s what made the recent Burger King campaign which rewarded people with a free Whopper for sacrificing 10 Facebook friends so brilliantly mischievous. Based on this insight about the devalued nature of relationships in a virtual world of ‘never-ending friending’, the brand played with social media conventions while driving the redemption of coupons to influence sales. In this case, online friendship in a large social network was worth about the same as 1/10th of a cheeseburger, $0.37 cents.

As brands and businesses see the potential to make digital media more truly social by combining it with objects in the physical world, I think we’ll see a swing away from purely screen-based networking towards a new world of shared digital experiences based on socially connected stuff.

For example, MIT Media Lab’s Fluid Interfaces Group has already prototyped a tiny digital projector connected to your mobile phone that beams Amazon reviews or recommendations and ratings from your social network onto products as you pick them up in a shop. You access this information like a “sixth sense”, as naturally as using sight, sound, smell, taste or touch in other everyday experiences.

We’re also starting to see real-time data streamed from tiny sensors in objects and environments shared through social media. A real-time graph on someone’s blog monitoring the electricity they’re using in their home, for instance, or the Botanicalls experiment where plants Tweet whenever they need watering.

BakerTweet from Digital agency Poke is an interesting e-commerce example - local bakers tell Twitter followers when freshly baked goods have popped out of their ovens. Companies like Dell have already sold a million dollars worth of discounted products through alerts on Twitter, but BakerTweet is a clever semi-automated system combining virtual community with real-time inventory information about perishable products like doughnuts.

In truth, we won’t be able to point to the Next New Thing in social media for a while yet. It always takes time to separate temporary fashions from long-term trends – remember how long it took for Web 2.0 to emerge after the dot-com crash. It will be 3 – 4 years before the current waves of social media innovation recede and we can comb the beach to see what fascinating new digital life forms are left behind


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Andy, you quote a study on Facebook re close comms with only 12 rather than 50 or 500 - can you let me know the source please ?(I've googled but only get your article)

Andy Hobsbawm

Sure - it came from this Economist article: http://www.economist.com/science/displaystory.cfm?story_id=13176775 where they asked FB's sociologist Cameron Marlow to spot some trends/patterns.

Personal Trainer

great article thanks for the info!


I am extremely fond of reading and whenever I got interested in some book, I opened a http://www.pdfqueen.com books search engine, found the book I needed and downloaded it. But as it turned out, in the journals and articles one can sometimes find the info he/she failed to find in the book. Thus can say that from time to time such articles as yours are a very pleasant surprise for me!

Andy Hobsbawm

glad to hear it ;-)


It will be interesting to see where social media takes us. I don't believe it will ever replace mainstream media but it will certainly work well to compliment it.


It will be interesting to see where social media takes us. I don't believe it will ever replace mainstream media but it will certainly work well to compliment it.

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