James O'Neill's Blog

November 23, 2009

A few thoughts on the power of social media

Filed under: General musings,Social Media — jamesone111 @ 1:12 pm

Click for the originalBack in the middle of October I started writing about couple of big events so-called “world of social media”. One was the reaction to a piece which appeared in Daily Mail about the death of Stephen Gately. On Twitter Stephen Fry showed 140 characters is no bar to a devastating response. “I gather a repulsive nobody writing in a paper no one of any decency would be seen dead with has written something loathesome [sic] and inhumane.”  Without the space constraint his blog post,  covered more of the issues including his self-confessed tendency to engage the mouth before the Brain is up to sufficient revs. By linking up some of the other comments – not least Charlie Brooker’s demolition piece – Fry became a focus for the the reaction (in fact, to a lot of the media it seems Twitter is Stephen Fry). The storm of complains to the press complaints commission was greater than their web site could handle. Derren Brown picked up the story and linked it with another I had also seen on Twitter: to travel on the London underground – or indeed to simply be in London at all means having cameras of many different organizations watching your movements.  The latin tag Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? “who can guard the guards themselves” has been around for a couple of thousand years: recently people have said looked at their camera-phone and thought “We Can”, and started to turn lenses back at the organizations who watch them.  Jonathan MacDonald did that when he saw a London Underground employee being abusive to a passenger. It caused a fuss on twitter and reached the Mayor of London and powers-that-be at Transport for London, and within a few days the man had resigned.

Both can be held up as examples of how campaigns can be “Orchestrated” using social media. But only by people who don’t understand it.

One of Margaret Thatcher’s more famous quotes was “There is no such thing as society”; and, if I understood what she meant correctly, she would have argued that there is no such thing as a cloud – just billions of water droplets in lose formation. That thinking says Society is not an entity of its own right , just the imprint of millions of individuals: society doesn’t do things people do things, and so on. Seeing the impact of “society” is like seeing a shadow : unless you live in the world of Peter Pan, a shadow does not lead a life of its own. I’m sure arguments can be had about whether the idea is right (and whether I’ve correctly explained the sound bite) but it is a good way to think about “Social Media”.This cartoon of Hugh’s came in about the same time, and summarized part of what I had been writing

From the start, internet has reduced the “friction” in communication. I don’t know if Bill Gates coined “at the speed of thought” which was part of one of his book titles, but with (effectively) instant one-to-Many or Many-to-many communication, ideas can spread about fast as you can think them. Forums pre-date the Web: dial-up bulletin boards were there in the 80s. But it would take hours for a message to spread, the same effort pushing out a message on the internet causes it to spread faster and further (because there are more people on-line), that’s what “less friction” means. Initially the web had a model was like newspapers: few had the capital needed to get their message out and there was little by way of reply. Your choice was simple, read or not read. Web 2.0 has become a shorthand for describing a place where anyone can choose to have a voice, and inevitably most of those voices are noise. Trying orchestrate that is as pointless trying to shape clouds. But every so often someone will say “I think this” and others will join in and say “So do I”, and a wave develops.

Click for full size version Once, Daily Mail columnists could assert, with relative impunity, that as a homosexual Steven Gately lived an unnatural life and died an unnatural death. If people found such a column “loathsome and inhumane” what could they do about it ? Who would write a letter to the paper or the press complaints commission? I suspect the only people who would have put to paper would be those who felt their own lives were being called “unnatural”. But in October people who neither cared much for Gately’s music nor shared his way of living his life paused and said “No one should be written about like that”. It’s possible to argue that people adopted that view because someone like Stephen Fry told them to, but Jonathan MacDonald’s video didn’t have a famous name telling people to do anything  and still people saw it and said “No one should be treated like that”.  Each comment saying so was like a rain drop – and when a lot of people coalesce around an idea we get a storm. The BBC’s Moral Maze programme was not the only place where people wondered aloud when this legitimate democratic protest (and they cited the Trafigura injunction case, described by PR week here) and when it shades into rule by lynch mob – I can’t help feeling that the answer is “when you disagree with it”.

The ability for ideas to spread quickly changes how we put our messages across. On the right are a couple of comments a few minutes apart from my Twitter feed. First, Sharon links to this comment – again from Stephen Fry. “Today, Britney Spears tells her PR manager, ‘Why should I care about this journalist of this newspaper with a big circulation? I will reach their circulation just by typing into my keyboard.’ So well, whole newspapers are on the one side filled with resentment against Twitter, on the other side they are using it and searching Twitter messages.”  It seems it is not just Britney who thinks like that. James picked up that McLaren tweeted the fact that they signed Jenson Button for next season 15 minutes or so before they posted the press release.

I’m starting to see people in Microsoft get that what is said about us in the different kinds of social media is at least as important as what we say. It isn’t always knowing to know what is being said and it is telling much harder to tell noise from the thunder of an approaching storm, but we are learning, for example what was said about Tech-ed or our Wembley on twitter was used as evidence for the success or failure of different parts of those events. And for the launch of Windows 7 the main Microsoft web page had a collection of quotes from ordinary people on twitter about how great the product – in past years these would have come from journalists. Does that mean the profession  of journalist will peter out ? I doubt it, because just as social media allows a spotlight to pointed at the “loathsome and inhumane” so it allows it to be pointed at the great piece of writing or photography: that’s all that happens when a you-tube video “goes Viral”

This post originally appeared on my technet blog.

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