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Sunday, February 6 2011

You Say You Want A Revolution

'My goal is to simplify complexity.'  So said Twitter creator Jack Dorsey, in a recent interview with Charlie Rose to explain his new C2C credit card project, Square.  Well, you sure don't get much simpler than 140 characters, and in an increasingly complex world, who doesn't crave simplicity?  Yet revolutions are anything but simple events, and anyone who has been pointing to social media like Twitter and Facebook as the underlying mechanisms to explain the recent uprisings in Egypt and other Middle Eastern states is sorely mistaken.  And if anyone has been doing the job in perpetuating that myth, you simply have to look at traditional media outlets. 

The role of Twitter in fomenting the mass anti-government protests in Egypt was initially questioned by Malcolm Gladwell, in his recent The New Yorker blog:

Right now there are protests in Egypt that look like they might bring down the government. There are a thousand important things that can be said about their origins and implications: as I wrote last fall in The New Yorker, “high risk” social activism requires deep roots and strong ties. But surely the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another. Please. People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along. Barely anyone in East Germany in the nineteen-eighties had a phone—and they ended up with hundreds of thousands of people in central Leipzig and brought down a regime that we all thought would last another hundred years—and in the French Revolution the crowd in the streets spoke to one another with that strange, today largely unknown instrument known as the human voice. People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.

Perhaps even more damning was this Sunday's simple observation by The New York Times' op-ed columnist Frank Rich, that at no time were the protests last week more intense and populated than the day immediately after the shutdown of social media sites by Mubarack and his gang:

The social networking hype eventually had to subside for a simple reason: The Egyptian government pulled the plug on its four main Internet providers and yet the revolution only got stronger. “Let’s get a reality check here,” said Jim Clancy, a CNN International anchor, who broke through the bloviation on Jan. 29 by noting that the biggest demonstrations to date occurred on a day when the Internet was down. “There wasn’t any Twitter. There wasn’t any Facebook,” he said. No less exasperated was another knowledgeable on-the-scene journalist, Richard Engel, who set the record straight on MSNBC in a satellite hook-up with Rachel Maddow. “This didn’t have anything to do with Twitter and Facebook,” he said. “This had to do with people’s dignity, people’s pride. People are not able to feed their families.”

Citing Evgeny Morozov's new book, The Net Delusion, Rich reminds us that there were only 19,235 registered Twitter accounts in Iran at the time of that country's American-dubbed 'Twitter Revolution.'  That's .027% of the Iranian population, hardly enough to create a groundswell.  And, of course, there is the growing likelihood that authoritarian regimes will put digital tools and technology to their own malevolent purposes, to spread propaganda and trace dissident networks.

 Like Rich, I would not begin to deny the power of social media for 'organizing, publicizing and empowering participants in political movements' around the world.  Certainly there is great potential there - when mainstream journalists quote unidentified tweeters, this enables getting word from people right where events are happening - but unless you know the source, and the overall context of the situation, what does it mean?  As the technology evolves, so too will the impact of social media.  For example, early last week, Google and Twitter unveiled a new speak-to-tweet service (@speak2tweet) that lets anyone with a voice connection upload a tweet, even without an Internet access. But to attribute such historic movements to social media alone is simplifying matters to such an extent that I doubt that even Jack Dorsey would approve.

Friday, October 29 2010

Bursting Social Media Myths: Zombies or Gadflies?

I ride the Paris metro on a daily basis, and lately I have been having the distinct impression that Paris is slowly but surely being taken over by zombies. Forget about eye contact, there are growing indications that the text-induced multitudes that I see frantically texting, scrolling, tweeting, and squinting are completely devoid of any iota of recognition that they are actually in the physical presence of other living organisms, and that includes the mice. That can get very tedious when one needs to squeeze past a couple text-crazed passengers to reach a free window seat. 'Hello, anybody home?' The logical conclusion is that all this portable technology is undermining our capacity to be human, to acknowledge the social world around us. Yet, aha, here is the paradox, because after all, while the hordes of apparent texting, tweeting, etc. automatons are ignoring us in favor of their portable devices, they are connecting with somebody. All this leading up to that timeless question that people have been asking since day 1, Internet age: 'Do social media make us more or less social?'

No less than Malcolm Gladwell, in his article, 'Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not be Tweeted,' and Mark W. Schaeffer, in his blog post 'Is Social Media Creating a Generation of Cowards' have argued that social media inhibit human interaction and make people less sociable.  On the research side, a widely-cited, early study by Robert Kraut and his colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University famously found a variety of negative effects associated with Internet use on a measures of social involvement and psychological well-being among Pittsburgh (USA) families in 1995-1996.  This, they contended, supported their fears that Internet usage replaces close social interaction and thereby increases isolation.  Just around the time that social scientists began to rush out of their cubicles screaming, 'We're all doomed!', some nitpickers started to identify some methodological flaws in the Internet=loneliness study (e.g., the nature of the recruitment process led to the selection of research participants who were very likely to experience a decrease in social contacts and community involvement during the course of the study, even without Internet access).  Lo and behold, in a follow-up paper published three years later, Kraut et al. (2001) reported that the negative effects identified in their earlier study actually dissipated over time and that another of their studies revealed a variety of positive effects of Internet use on communication, social involvement, and personal well-being, regardless of age.

Now added to the mix is research just released by ExactTarget and CoTweet.  Based on an assessment of data accrued from ExactTarget's subscribers, followers, and fans, consumers’ increased usage of social media directly corresponds to more face-to-face interactions.  As illustrated in the following graph, the study revealed that Internet users 'who are becoming more active on Facebook and Twitter are also interacting with friends in “real” (not virtual) settings more often', which flies in the face of the popularly held contention that social media use makes people less social.

Well, contrary to ExtraTarget's claim, one study does not make a myth bust in my personal opinion, especially given that ExtraTarget has kept the detail of its methodology and sample largely under wraps.  However, the evidence is building.  People won't be putting away their portable devices, so the impact of our growing synergy/singularity with technology on an individual level certainly warrants continued analysis.  In the meantime, my hat goes off to Apple for its new Type n Walk iPhone app.  If only there was something we could do about those metro zombies.

(And more French mass transit strikes is not exactly what I have in mind.)

Monday, June 28 2010

The Klout Score: A New Influencer Metric

In Connecting With Consumers, I devote an entire chapter to research and measurement, including a discussion of techniques for identifying influencers. Without getting too deeply into the Gladwell vs. Watts debate over whether a small core of super-influential consumers matter more than others in determining how everyone else behaves in the marketplace, the notion of a well-connected, powerful few is a compelling one for marketers, and the numbers prove it: more than $1 billion is spent per year on WOM campaigns targeting influentials, an amount that is growing at 36% per year.

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“Marketers love the idea of needing to reach a small group of people to ‘tip’ a product. You’re saying ‘I am in control—I am the biggest influencer, because I’m going to influence the influencers!’”
  - Joe Pilotta, VP Big Research

The influentials idea in marketing harkens back to the long-standing 80/20 principle (also known as 'Pareto's principle') from economics, which suggests that in most situations, be it marketing, politics, sports, whatever, a small minority of people (20%) are vital in having an impact over the rest of the population. Given their predilection towards inflation, some marketers have upped the ante by suggesting that a 90/10 principle operates for consumers.  So let's just assume that influentials are massively important.  The first question that then comes to mind is how does one find these characters?  Although I describe a number of ways that marketers have attempted to identify consumer influentials, I think my personal favorite is the elegantly simple peer nomination approach, whereby group members are asked to name the individual within the social group that is most admired and apt to be emulated.  The basic logic here is that true opinion leaders are persons likely to be highly regarded by their peers.  This was the approach used by Hasbro back in 2001 to identify opinion leaders who would be in the best position to spread the work about its handheld game POX.  Company representatives visited video arcades, skate parks, and playgrounds and posed the following question to adolescent boys: 'Who's the coolest kid you know?'  They then sought out the designated cool kids and asked them the same question until the resulting hierarchy of cool finally led them to someone who answered 'Me!'  

The peer nominations approach, and the similar self-designation (or 'key informant' method ), are likely to be impractical for marketers more bent toward quantification, not only in the sense of identifying influentials, but also of measuring their likely impact and reach, so efforts continue in the development of influencer measurement instruments.  And so it is that a brand new Twitter-based influencer metric has been added to the connected marketing arsenal - the Klout Score.  Developed by Joe Fernandez's San Francisco-based company--you guessed it, Klout--an influencer score is obtained via the assessment of more than 25 variables intended to tap three critical measures:

  • True Reach: the size of your engaged audience and friends (essentially based on number of followers you have clear influence over minus spam followers and inactive accounts)

  • Amplification Probability: the likelihood that your message content will be acted upon (i.e., it generates retweets, sparks a conversation, or leads to clicking on a link)

  • Network Score: the influence level of your engaged audience (i.e., the extent to which you stimulate an action or capture the attention of influential audience members)

Fernandez explains that the idea for the metric came to him while he was recovering from painful jaw surgery:  "During that time all I could do was tweet and update my Facebook status," he says. "With all these conversations going on, I thought it'd be amazing if we could measure who had the most impact."

In addition to a determination of a Klout score, the approach also enables the placement of an influencer into a Klout classification scheme, which is comprised of 16 specific style of influence classes.  The classification is based on factors such as how often you tweet, who you follow, who follows you, and how your audience interacts with your messages (e.g., 'thought leader,' 'syndicator,' 'networker,' 'specialist,' and so on).

According to the Klout blog, the Klout score has been successfully combined with location tracking and tweet tags to find top influencers for Virgin America.

Want to know what kind of influencer you are?  Go to, insert your Twitter name, and find out. 

More information on Klout's influencer metrics is available at and at the Klout website.

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