Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Social Media part 3

We've seen that social networking has a global reach, and that because it's in the hands of ordinary people, it can be impossible to control. This can lead to personal bias being widely broadcast very quickly. And because the medium is popular, the results can be seen and read by millions of people. In my last blog I mentioned Wikipedia. Another popular social media site is FaceBook. Here you can create a profile of yourself (or your organisation) and invite people to become "friends". The more friends, the higher up the popularity table you rise and the more chance there is of people viewing your FaceBook site.

In 2007 the UK's FaceBook population grew from about 1 million (Jan 1007) to over 8.5 million by 2008 - a 712% growth rate! In the UK visits to social network sites like this are now more popular than visits to web-based email (like Hotmail) [Source: David Lavenda (2008) 'Vive la revolution' IT Now, July 2008, p.7 (IT Now is the British Computer Society's magazine)].

The old adage about bad news travelling faster really comes into its own on the Internet. Stories can grow "virally" - it's picked up by a popular blog. Hundreds or even thousands of blogs link to it, so the story quickly spreads. People who read the blogs have RSS feeds so they can almost instantly see when new posts to their favourite sites arrive, and then they can visit the site and post comments. This is all completely beyond the control of the corporate communications department.

Here’s an example. There's another very interesting recent book on this phenomenon of social media, called Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations by Clay Shirky. As you might guess from the title, it majors on the same basic idea as Groundswell - that people can and do gain control and influence in areas where organisations previously reigned, due to the power of social media.
In May 2006 a woman, Ivanna, loses her expensive mobile phone in a New York taxi. She asks an IT literate friend, Evan, to offer a reward for its return. Because the new "owner" of the phone continued to use it, it was possible to track down who she was (a teenager in Queens, New York) and even get her email address. So Ivanna emails and asks for the phone's return. What follows is a series of highly emotive messages which basically tell Ivanna to leave off or she'll get her military police buddy to come and see to her!
Nothing very special or spectacular about this. But Evan goes on a crusade and uses the power of social media to help. He posts an item on his blog (you can still see it here) and if you Google "StolenSidekick" you'll get nearly 9000 hits! Things very quickly snowball as friends pick up the story and paste to their blogs. The media picks it up too as a curiosity story. A NY policeman reads it and emails to suggest filing a complaint and how to do it. So Ivanna files a complaint but the New York Police Department (who after all have better things to do) call it lost property rather than theft. Evan doesn't let go - it's not the value of the phone, it's the principle. The blog gets so popular it gets on the front page of Digg (which lists the most popular sites based on user ratings and visits). Digg gets a million visits a day!

You can read the details in the book, but what transpires is that so much public pressure is put on the NYPD that they reassign the complaint to theft and send two officers around to retrieve the phone and make an arrest. One person (Evan) was able to change the "immovable force" of the NYPD through the use of social media. This all happened in 10 days.

This is the power of social media. It's unpredictable. It's fickle. It's ruled by people, not organisations. We avoid it at our peril.

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