Posts Tagged 'Social Networking'

Discovery vs. exclusivity: the emerging tragedies of the digital commons

Sheep on the commons via Brian Griffiths

This is getting intense.  It was one thing to read that women over 55 are the fastest growing demo on Facebook.  It was another for that reality to hit my home page.  In the last week alone, I’ve been friended by an aunt, a friend’s mom, and the den mother of my second grade cub scout troop.  I’ve watched my humbly-unaware parents struggle to interpret the snickeringly-inappropriate status messages of my little brother’s friends.  I’ve seen similarly-blushworthy updates posted by people I’d grown up thinking of as grownups and never imagined doing certain things in Vegas.

Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing but love for family and distant friends, I think it’s healthy for people to take each other out of context, and I believe that broader networks which facilitate greater discovery are (almost) always a good thing.  But this sudden diversification of my Facebook stream is indicative of a deeper tension building across the social web; the symptoms of a problem whose solution will fundamentally alter the way we interact online.

The web has always thrived on more users, more content, and greater access.  These things cost essentially nothing and drive the fundamentals of value for everyone involved — users benefit from more things to do and more people to interact with; publishers benefit from more traffic, clicks, page views, contributions, and passalong; advertisers win with more interaction, enhanced tracking capabilities, and of course revenue.

But. There are at least two critical roadblocks that undercut this interconnected value of more.  The first is a classic Internet paradox: more users and more content has always meant more clutter.  The web faces a persistent relevance problem. Signal-to-noise ratios are a fickle factor in the success and failure of almost every great Internet brand.  Google made its first fortune by cutting through the noise with relevant results, but now thrives on the proliferation of content from which to monetize.  Microblogging is on an opposite arc, bursting with the novelty of multidirectional noise but now facing the real challenge of organizing an overwhelming stream of irrelevance.

There is another paradox built into the relevance battle, however, and it’s more abstract than the functional challenges of filtering massive content streams.  The ironic secret ingredient that has nurtured the infancy and adolescence of the social web is precisely that — an element of secrecy.  Exclusivity.  Superiority.   It’s the edge that keeps early adopters adopting and the intrigue that leads the masses to follow.  And it’s in serious jeopardy.

Practical resource scarcities like access and bandwidth aren’t the real threats to the social web.  The emerging tragedies of the digital commons are a crisis of relevance, a bubble of attention, and an impending crash of exclusivity. It’s this ominous threat that pushed Twitter to hastily limit @replies last week and has driven Facebook to refocus on filters and friend lists.  And it’s this brewing storm that is lifting the wings of next-generation micro-communities facilitated by services like Ning and FourSquare.

I believe that a new era of disintegration is inevitable, driven by offline social groups and common interest areas.  What will it mean for the future of cares, causes, and communities?  Will metabrands like green become increasingly isolated as the uninterested tune them out?

Is that a bad thing?


Research Questions for the Social Media Revolutionist

Moldova protest image from

Meme of the moment: the microblog-fueled social change movement.  In the last fortnight alone, activist organizers around the world have used 140-character-or-less messages to bring together anti-government riots in Moldova and tirades in cyberspace.  Fans have rallied behind actor Ashton Kutcher’s noble quest to become the most followed in the Twitterverse.  And around the nation, conservatives painfully unaware of the pop-culture meaning of ‘teabag’ have come together to, well, teabag.

This is by no means a new phenomenon.  Notable recent cases include the organizing and then reporting of unrest in Myanmar,  SMS-fueled demonstrations in China and the grassroots instigation of the 1999 Seattle World Trade Center protests.  Indeed, with a broader view, one could likely argue that short messages passed among social networks have been driving change for centuries if not millenia (I’ll leave that one to the historians).

But the microblog movements of the past two weeks at least represent a new chapter in this story, and may well be canonizing new rules.  They deserve to be studied in earnest.  I already have enough on my academic plate, so here are a few open research questions to get somebody else started:

First off, how is rallying behind a Hollywood star and his mundane messages different from banding together to attempt government overthrow?  It’s a fair question.  How does the decision making process work at the individual level and en mass — can you map the networks from influencers to influenced?  Is there an Oprah of the Moldovan movement, or is it more decentralized?  Do the individual actors on the ground have a more coherent idea of what they’re doing and why?

Secondly, what’s different about movements that spill into widespread ‘real-world’ action as opposed to protests which play out primarily in digital space?  Do they last longer?  Do they involve more people?  Did the action in Moldova share more similarities with the teabaggers in the US than with #Amazonfail and Ashton’s publicity coup?

And ultimately, what does decentralization and time compression mean for the future of political philosophy?  Are we really dissolving into a world of one-off stunts disconnected from justifying ideologies, or was there just as much evidence of flippance in the first tea party in 1773?

Is this really so revolutionary?

Hot Topic

Tom Friedman posted this question (related to his new book) on LinkedIn two weeks ago:

Will the financial crisis be the end of green, or could green be the way to end the economic crisis?

The question is part of a strategy to tap user-gen content in a web-only book update that has to be at least partly marketing-motivated… the asking itself is interesting, but not terribly remarkable.

What’s compelling is that at least 655 business-minded networkers want to talk about it.

© Ryan Cunningham 2008

DIY Brand Partnerships for the Socially Conscious Consumer

SocialVibe Screenshot

SocialVibe Screenshot

SocialVibe is offering an interesting model to users of social networking sites (MySpace, Facebook, and the long tail).

You pick a nonprofit organization from a predetermined list, and then pick a sponsor brand from another predetermined list.  They drop a big app into your profile of choice, which prominently features a 300×250 ad for the sponsor brand and gives you a chance to say that you’re partnering with PowerBar or Adobe or Colgate to save whales or pandas or cancer patients.

Presumably, it’s a CPM-based ad revenue sharing scheme that powers the thing; PowerBar is likely paying a premium to SocialVibe and a fraction of that is getting cut back to the Whaleman Foundation based on how many units are served.

At first glance, this is a no-brainer for everyone: brands get great, eye-popping ad units that users actually WANT on their pages–a fundamental shift in the traditional ethos of online media that encourages users to select their favorite brand ‘artwork’ instead of shutting out their most aggravating interruptions.  Users, meanwhile, get one more nifty badge to illustrate their identities with both social causes and brand affiliations they care about.  And, theoretically, good causes actually get some revenue.

Underneath the obvious, though, there are a lot of questions–success will very much hang in the subtext for this one.  What happens when you let end users play brand strategist and orchestrate partnerships for you?  Will the power of choice build a more authentic relationship and valuable data, or will a cacophony of unstrategic combination lead to awkward and inconsistent partnerships that ultimately dilute both brands and causes?  Will users really embrace the move as genuine, or will they see through the marketing ploy and sniff out the low levels of revenue actually going to organizations at the end of the day?

This one should be interesting to watch…

© Ryan Cunningham 2008

thoughts at the collision of business, brand and creativity

I'm Ryan Cunningham. I help companies and culture play nice with each other. At CREATURE we call this Brand Strategy, a term that carries a nice halo of reliability and structure. Here, I'm just another guy who thinks about the world and writes it down from time to time.

The result is a pile of knowledge to be used in, and for, the future. Feel free to sift through the heap for useful connections.

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