Bubbling to the top: the Social Media value challenge

The world is full of social media. People everywhere are trying to get their voices heard in the multiple public and private social media platforms which together form what I glibly refer to as the “babblesphere”. They’re doing it for various reasons: perhaps they want to market products, or themselves; perhaps they want to make or keep in touch with friends; perhaps they want to spread ideas, facts or discussion points which they believe are important or just fun. Whatever the reason, it’s a big world and there’s a lot of babble… so how does content bubble to the top? How does it get wide distribution?

That’s the subject at the heart of the recent post “That Hit Song You Love Was a Total Fluke“, by Tim Sullivan in the Harvard Business Review blog.

It’s a question which is fundamental to the success or failure of social media, and in particular to the success or failure of social media as the power behind a “social business”. I’ll leave public platforms such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Google+ behind now because it’s business products, designed to drive collaboration within and between businesses, which interests me here.

The contention in the linked post is worrying: that it’s really not “the best” things that rise to the top. So the songs and books which top the charts aren’t the ones which we each, individually, believe are the best. I think most of us already believed that to be the case, and when it comes to managers bottom, middle and top we also have our own opinions which differ from those who were responsible for putting them there.

Do successful products and people get where they are through luck? The truth has to lie somewhere between a merit-based progression and a fortune-based one. There’s sure to be a vast amount of luck, but hard work – on promotion of a product or person, rather than necessarily on the creation of the product or the career which lies behind the person – certainly must play a large part.

So back to social media. Left without any form of control, posts will become popular based upon how well they and their authors are promoted – either by themselves or by others. We choose to “follow” people largely at random (and sometimes just in the hope that they will “follow” us). Posts which feature popular keywords or which match popular search terms will rate more highly than other posts, regardless of merit. Those posts which appeal to our sense of humour, or perhaps of cruelty (we love to see successful people fall on their arses, right?), will rate more highly because they appeal to us more acutely. And because everyone is too busy all the time, apparently, short posts which are forthright and authoritative may get better billing than those which are longer but also more accurate and informative.

All of this is perfectly reasonable, but does not make our business world of information a better and more effective place.

So there is good reason to architect systems less around popularity and more around informativeness (however that may be measured). As an example, when an expert on artificial intelligence rates a post by someone else as “excellent”, when the majority rate it as “poor”, if the post happens to be about artificial intelligence then shouldn’t the views of the expert count much more strongly than the views of those who may merely be seeking light information or indeed entertainment?

There’s a parallel with popular science. Newspapers, such as the Daily Mail, which aim to appeal to the masses in order to sell more newspapers are very good at misrepresenting scientific reports in line with their own financial aims, editorial bias and readership prejudices. Such misrepresentation goes viral, echoed around forums and pubs with scant regard to reality or the complexities of the issues involved. The same information, when represented in a journal such as Nature, will be found to appear quite different. I suggest we would like our social business platforms to operate more like Nature than the Daily Mail, and their users to operate more like Nature readers than like Daily Mail readers. Business is not, after all, supposed to be entertainment – even if, as a by-product, it does manage to provide entertainment on occasion.

So in building platforms for our social businesses, I suggest we need to not only pay attention to inclusivity, getting everyone involved, but also to quality of information and appraisal of it. We certainly cannot afford our businesses to operate on the “fluke” principle.

About mikbarne
I'm a writer and freelance communications and collaboration consultant with nearly 20 years experience in UK telecommunications, specialising in VoIP, Unified Communications and Collaboration, and building effective communications architectures. Visit my Google+ Profile

One Response to Bubbling to the top: the Social Media value challenge

  1. Pingback: Honest, informative rating of content… please! | Mike Barnes' Blog

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