@ 1to1 Media

Social Media Measurement: Blind Date with Ancient Traditions
Andrew Edwards | May 26, 2010

Today’s wave of social media venues–YouTube, Twitter, the “blogosphere”, Yelp, Yammer, Facebook, comments on Facebook and beyond–have become, with their multithreaded, ungoverned, one-to-one and one-to-many interactions, the IP-powered equivalent of the ancient Commons.

The Public Commons was the riot and roar of the medieval city center; antedated by the rumor-driven, mob-centric ant-hills that we now understand the Forums of the Roman Empire to have been; and is rooted yet farther back in time when ill-informed, distracted individuals gathered in front of caves or huts and exchanged fragmentary, personal, often irresponsible monologue, dialogue, and multilevel arguments with other barely recognized, easily misunderstood individuals of uncertain provenance. Like social media, this worldwide form of interaction was no-cost-to-user, ungoverned, and personal.

With social media we now hearken back to an age of namelessness, of fragmentation, of shouts, murmurs, and innuendo; to an age where the anonymous presentation of a freakish anomaly can excite, titillate, pass beyond rumor and, by faceless, irresponsible consensus, become accepted fact.

Social media has performed this dubious favor for us because it has returned nearly all marketplace power to whence it came before the days of government/corporate control and editorial responsibility. It has returned communications power to the masses–much the same place it was before any of today’s enabling technologies were dreamt.

Many will see this as the apotheosis of that digital utopianism proffered by Esther Dyson. Witness the blogger, whose thoughts can, at the touch of a button, be seen by everyone in the world. Or the Facebook user who can now communicate with everyone they ever knew or thought they knew. This sudden vault of humanity into a state of permanent inter-participation is jolting–an inhalation of pure oxygen for a world made tired by airless sitcoms, talent-free sensations, and corporate communiqués. And yet it is far from utopian.

Social media empowers a billion individuals with unregulated influence over the body politic, cultural tropes, and even products at the supermarket. News, as commentator Bill Maher has said, is no longer influenced by editors but by people “slacking off at work” and “surfing the Internet”–largely looking, I would submit, for funny cat pictures or videos of exploding fuel dumps.

The new paradigm is less a step forward than an enormous throwback. We are beyond and yet have been brought full circle from the world made by media. No longer is “The Public” merely on the receiving end of a one-way stream of influence.

The matrimony of packet-oriented, universally available information, plus the advertiser’s hunger for global visibility via these packets, gave rise to the now mature (but still inefficiently measured) advertising-supported Web-content model. But the Web-based model still assumes, much as older content delivery mechanisms did, controlled outlets and generally a non-participatory public.

Social media has brought this mercuric business model to its knees.

Social media is repudiation of “expert” culture; of “star” culture; of “authority” culture; sadly, of “fact-checked” culture. In its place we find a billion tweets: sound and fury with little apparent significance.

We find the media-ocean plied not by great, sleek liners wisely captained, but thick instead with plankton moving in near-measureless waves across the surface of enabling technology. They feed on and recombine information packets in numbers uncounted.

Advertisers know they must stay the course in this ocean. Their response to social media looks much more like advertising might have been before the Web than many may yet understand. They need to “create buzz” (something tweetworthy?); create response via events in the real world; engage individuals at high volume; or locate “influencers” and connect with them without destroying the sense of anarchy that seems to fuel the glee of the social media user.

Again we are thrown back: we must seek influence in an almost medievalized world where “artists” have no names but create (collectively) cathedrals of opinion and behavior; and must measure how many and what kind of visitors enter the never-finished halls–to discern whether they buy a postcard or add a brick or move a column or shake the buttresses.

Reliance on measurability has never been greater than in a world where all prior paradigms of media-influence have been shattered and yet in which all interaction is packet-driven and therefore measurable.

We are beginning to find our way: by scripting especially for mobile tracking, by measuring interactive applications; by creating packets that “travel” with redistributed content; by publicizing in the real world and then watching keyword usage patterns and content popularity; and a number of other ways.

In the future two currents will interweave in the ocean of media: one will be that vast, amorphous, multitudinous mass of leaderless participants. The other will be the great works of measurement such that marketers can better understand the masses coursing through the ocean in numbers almost incalculable.

The winning business model in this new age of near-total disintermediation–in which content is created by unacknowledged artisans–will be those advertisers that can successfully launch brand-associated awareness packets into “cyberspace” and then track their erratic path in the universe of social media.

We come again back to an old requirement: be convincing with your product and your presentation. And then, because the advertiser today enjoys a packet-oriented foothold on the superstructure of IP-based communication, the most successful brand will be the one that has learned to measure the sound and the fury; to parse out echoes from the deep; and hear murmurs as well as shouts. Then, teamed with both superior technologists and superior creatives, reacts.

Create, listen, and react.

These are the truisms leading to success in the marketplace, and have been since the days of the Neolithic princedoms. A whisper at the vegetable-stall becomes a rumor at the fountain, becomes a hue and cry from the rooftops, and soon the leader is either newly empowered or is thrown over and banished.

Behold: Social media has made everything very old, very new again.