It's Social Media Week here in New York City, and in several cities around the world, where digital and social media agencies, as well as marketing and advertising firms, are sponsoring panels, discussions, and parties—to which this anthropologist was lucky enough to attend. Based on the fair number of raised eyebrows I encountered when I introduced myself at events so far, perhaps some explanation may be needed as to why an anthropologist would be interested in social media, and the answer can be found in some of the discussions we've had on this blog (see tags for technology, social order, and social relatedness). Social media has quickly proved that it is an integral component to sociality. It has changed the way we manage our networks, and consequently influenced the nature of our relationships. Our very social order is shifting as a result of the integration of social media in our daily lives. As social media continues to evolve, so too will our methods of relating to and connecting with each other, which will impact the functionality of daily life activities.
Yesterday's panel, Social Graph Optimization, was sponsored by Meebo and hosted by JWT here in New York City. Panelists included Seth Sternberg, co-founder and CEO of Meebo, Mark Ghuneim, founder and CEO of Wiredset, Hashem Bajwa, director of digital strategy at Droga5, and Anna O'Brien, social media enthusiast. David Berkowitz, senior director of emerging media and innovation at 360i, was on hand to moderate the panel. The discussion began with a definition of the social graph—which consists of the various networks individuals belong to. For example, connections on Facebook constitute one social graph, which a Twitter constituency is another. While there is some overlap between graphs, some people prefer to keep them separate (i.e., LinkedIn only for professional contacts, while Facebook permits personal connections.) Prior to the the emergence of the social graph, web driven enterprises were focused on SEO (search engine optimization) as a source of web traffic and promotion. The force and saturation of social media, however, has shifted focus to the social graph as a driving force in not only web traffic, but also as an opportunity to be strategic in reaching people with products and ideas. People aren't relying on search engines as much as they are looking to their connections for information. As dialogic tools, social graphs can be unidirectional (Twitter: I follow you, but you don't have to follow me) or bidirectional (Facebook: To be friends, both parties must agree).
Social media allows for the easy sharing of things of interest, whether it be a product or an idea or an event. In the social media world, an individual's friends are important sources as to how they will organize their world. Therefore a key element in social graph optimization is getting people to share content. However at this point, social graphs are often bigger than individuals can manage and much of the graph is extraneous noise. Individuals are really only interested the opinions and suggestions of a small percentage of their connections. Panelist Anna O'Brien believes that the next evolution of social media will see a culling or organization of networks where varying degrees of relationships are recognized. To a certain degree, a shift in this direction has already begun with the implementation of enhanced privacy settings on Facebook. At the moment, however, social graphs are large and unwieldy for the most part. I approached both Seth and Anna after the panel to discuss end users response to social graph optimization. The issue I raised was whether we would see a desensitization of the end user to social graph optimization methodologies because networks are so large and the "share" option has inundated the web before this culling/organization happens. Seth's response was that since we're relying on individuals to share content, we want to make it feel easy and natural for them to do so. To avoid desensitization, he felt that emphasis on design was necessary. As he mentioned during the panel, simply sticking a "share button" or a Meebo bar on a website doesn't automatically increase the site's effectiveness or standing. Seth stressed understanding how the user would interact with content and how the use could be encouraged to share. Anna suggested that desensitization would drive users to cull their own networks to minimize the "social noise" they are exposed to on a daily basis.
This gives us something to think about in terms of how we use social media to connect with others and the types of information we are obtaining from our social graphs. If the process of culling hasn't begun, how are users processing "important" information? How is share value determined? A key quotation from Mark was that if someone stops following you on Twitter, then you've optimized your social graph because you want to reach people who are interested in you—and this person just wasn't interested. But this stage of social media encourages people to be as connected as possible. You want followers on Twitter, friends on Facebook, subscribers to your blog. At this point, we're still in the process of producing information and have only just starting to explore sorting and managing information, to distinguish from what matters to us in different circles. I think this process is necessary for users to manage the information in their lives. One of the questions I posed to Anna was whether she felt culling would be a natural event (by the users themselves) or something managed by an external application. She suggested that someone has probably already developed an application that would herd people in this direction. But I take a much more optimistic view: I think that as people become more aware of social graph management, culling and organization will be natural outgrowths. I think applications will follow in an effort to help focus people in particular directions, but not until users demonstrate that they are limiting the influx of information. The direction of the dialogue will likely also play a role in where we see this phenomena first. As with the development of enhanced privacy settings on Facebook, in bidirectional settings the need to manage social noise will be most pressing. And we should look to this group to see how network management will evolve in the digital arena.
Share my interest in digital media? Talk to me about your thoughts on the future of online networks and their effectiveness in spreading information.