M-A-M™: Misunderstanding Social Media

So, last time I spoke about some of the best ways to think about using social media (SM). I gave some examples about how different companies are trying to use social interaction to gain affiliation with its customers, but we need to take a look at the darker, realistic side of SM. “Field of Dreams” has a lot to answer for: if you build it, they will not come.

During the 1990s Academic conferences were full of the promise of the Internet as a motivation for social change. Political activism was seen as the “Killer App” in a lot of cases for the WWW and Internet – at least among political communication theorists. Gender theorists saw the technology as both an enabler of gender equality as well as an anchor for “maintaining the male-dominated paradigm of gender biases and totalitarian hegemony.”

Ahem. (Yes, the self-contradictory nature of academics isn’t lost on me either.)

As it turned out, the problem with academics – much like the problem with Madison Avenue – is that people will see any new technology within the light that they want to see it. Observers of this type of phenomenon generally break down into two groups: those who see what can happen (e.g., what is possible) with a new technology, and those who see how people are likely to use any new technology.

Sadly, the former crowd often outnumbers the latter, which often leads to a competition of who can shout the loudest.

Take Duncan Watts, for instance. In 2008 FastCompany magazine published an article called, “Is the Tipping Point Toast?”. Watts’ primary point was that the conventional wisdom of early adopters/primary influencers as the key to successful marketing was wrong.

Conventional wisdom over the years has accepted the notion of “Six Degrees of Separation” being the channel for “Influencers” to drive market trends. Watts challenged this through diligent modeling and meticulous longitudinal research (that is, research that takes a long time to complete).

What he found is not what people want to hear: you simply cannot control marketing trends by finding the “magic person” to spread the word for you.

The reaction from Madison Avenue was understandably unpleasant, even defensive. “I can tell that you, sir, have never spent any time with these so-called ‘hipsters’ and influencers,” challenged one attendee of a FastCompany event discussing the issue. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The issue here is that we have all seen how certain cultural icons become influencers of smaller social circles. In some cases, powerful influences can be generated on a much larger scale (e.g., in the 1970s the Fonz got a library card on TV’s “Happy Days,” resulting in hundreds of thousands of new library card applications within the following week).

To that end, Watts was not saying that these things do not happen at all; rather what he’s saying is that the genesis of that trend, or what makes one person an influencer versus another, is not predictable. In fact, the actual ebb and flow of the waves of trends begin by highly random elements: sometimes the ecosystem is ready for a trend and sometimes it isn’t.

This is something that has been shown over and over again in a variety of models of complex adaptive systems. One of the earliest was John Conway’s Game of Life, which showed a perfect example of emergence and self-organization based upon randomness with some very basic rules (in this case, only four rules).

In essence, very complex patterns can emerge from the implementation of some very simple rules. “Life” also showed that trends can emerge spontaneously (or not at all) in the absence of a designer.

Within the context of social media, this means that trends of viral media may begin with or without a designer (influencer, fan page, twitter account, etc.) and that chance has as big (or the biggest) of a role than any planned action.

The key to understanding how these trends work, then, is to understand the ecosystem involved. At the most basic level this means understanding the constantly-moving dynamic of the marriage between medium, audience and message. This MAM approach scales well, from one-to-one communication, from one-to-many communication, and the more hybrid approach that media outlets such as Twitter can provide.

Some institutions and governments are using this to great effect for their own purposes – to diffuse trends. Evgeny Morozov explains in particular how Iran and China both have managed to capitalize on the fundamental nature of their political ecology to divide and conquer dissent without needing to seek out a specific “thought influencer” to perpetuate their political messages.

At a smaller fractal level (because corporations do not have the resources – generally speaking – of world governments), what this means is that social media can backfire painfully. All too often companies become an obstacle to their own desire to trend their identity.

In other words, they stifle any trends of their own accidentally in the same way the Iranian and Chinese governments do it intentionally.

Riding the wave of a trend is difficult and dangerous stuff. Granted, just like in surfing it’s better to be on top of a wave than under it, but without understanding just how flat or rough the surf is no one should even bother getting on a board.

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