Wednesday, August 21

Will Automation Steal The Soul From Social?

There have been several interesting side discussions sparked by my Bob Fass post about his largely unrecognized precursor contributions to social media. Some of them are still simmering, with the most common thread related to where marketing and public relations intend to take social.

Right. If you work in the field, they are talking about you.

And what they have to say might not be taken kindly. There are a growing number of people who are weary of social networks not because they don't like to connect but because conversations are being recorded, even jacked. Some marketers feel they must. Numbers are the measure counted.

"Why spend time counting tweets and retweets when I could actually, you know, connect with other people?" asked David Flores, reflecting on the internal struggle he and other marketers and communicators feel.

Why count indeed? For all the talk about social freeing people from the trappings of unearned authority, some of the liberators have worked diligently to erect new ones. Never mind that the scoring is stacked.

As the New York Times recently cited, some researchers think that only 35 percent of Twitter followers are real people. The balance is made up of bots and semi-automated accounts. That means an account boasting 10,000 might only reach 3,500. But if you ask me, I think it is generous in some cases. Bots attract bots, giving accounts the aura of popularity while never reaching a real human being.

Geoff Livingston recently touched on this too, writing Pop Created The Twitter Link Farm. He focused in on the increasing number of links, with one of the most interesting comments chalking it up to a platform shift. While that might make sense because Twitter never considered itself a social network, the platform shift from conversation to broadcast is a symptom of what marketers measure.

They measure actions (tweets, retweets, link clicks), which discourages dialogue. It discourages it because conversations are not valued on the action scale. It discourages it because the more organic conversations take place, the more marketers have to drown them out with frequency. And it discourages it because scalable actions require automation, which means the marketer isn't participating.

The crux of it reminds me of an Internet infancy story. 

Once upon a time there was a company called America Online (now Aol). No, it wasn't the oddly popular but not so relevant multinational mass media giant we know today. It was a pay-based online service that was the precursor to some of the services people rave about today.

It was also, for many people, the only real option to access the Internet. Sure, there were other choices like the defunct Prodigy or eWorld but not really. Much like they do now, people (and companies) tended to gravitate to where the most people were and that was America Online.

In more ways than one, Twitter is almost akin to the America Online chat room, except it hosts unlimited people as opposed to 23 people at a time. And, in more ways than one, Facebook is akin to America Online communities (with the advent of streaming over threading), right down to its aspiration to be your total and complete online experience. Sure, other networks have borrowed ideas too. Most aren't so new.

For the era, this service worked remarkably well. Most people couldn't even conceive of an Internet without it. It felt like America Online was relatively immortal. And perhaps that is why in addition to charging people $2.95 per hour for usage, the company decided to allow marketers to post links and program bots to run some conversations.

That generated some extra revenue for the company until something unexpected happened. Since marketers knew that the only way to increase their exposure was to increase their frequency, they literally drowned out all human conversations until no one was left except chat rooms of bots, churning away at their pre-programmed content.

How long before marketers reach critical mass again? It's anybody's guess. 

There are only two outcomes for abused message delivery systems. En masse, marketers will either push messages to the point where they become irrelevant (direct mail and pitch lists) or the platform will eventually elevate the rates until it is inaccessible (television) to anyone except those with deep pockets (television and radio). When that happens, people will migrate away to other networks instead.

From my perspective, longevity will favor those marketers that avoid the temptation of the short-term gain because people drive networks, not numbers. After all, as soon as you start thinking about people in terms of numbers, whether how many followers they have or some secret sauce social score, there is a good chance you have already lost them (unless you gamed social to get them in the first place).

At least, that is what I think. What does Brian Solis or Guy Kawasaki or Scott Stratten think? What do you think? Will automation steal the soul from social? Is there something on the horizon that might replace it? Or maybe you would like to strike up some other conversation? The choice belongs to you. The comments are yours. I'll read them too.
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