Archive for the Bill James Category

The Anti Social Irony of Social Media Monetization Models

Posted in Bill James, Digital Work Ethic, facebook, Functionality, Monetization Models, social media, social media marketing, we engage with tags , , , , , on May 11, 2011 by monozygote43

I’m tired of hearing that building a business following in social media is unavoidably hard work and that fans and followers have to be earned in Facebook.  Why must the work of building a marketing channel in Twitter or LinkedIn be so difficult and so unrelenting?  Why do we have to sweat blood for years to associate and share with our fans, followers and contacts?  Why is this new digital work so hard?

I hate to break it to the cheerleaders for the hip, new, digital work ethic, but the main reason it’s hard to raise fans, followers and contacts in social media is because owners of the large social media applications have made it hard.

The social functionality of social media applications, or lack of it, mirrors the broken designs of the current monetization models applied in social media.

As well as having to endure the dumbed down social functionality, we also have to endure the self righteous cacophony of naive digital romantics and the mantra that building networks wasn’t meant to be easy.  The authenticity and engagement evangelists are urging us to accept our digital drudgery in the spirit of a new digital work ethic.  Shades of Max Weber and the Protestant Work Ethic.

Two monetization models dominate social media.  Both of them anti social, unproductive and causing restricted functionality around search, association and sharing of content.

In the first of these models, users pay to access additional functionality after embracing the initial concept of the application.  That’s the LinkedIn ‘account upgrade’ model.  In this model, users are systematically frustrated by the lack of social functionality in the basic or free account.  The design is to have them ‘upgrade’ to buy relief.  Start with a free ‘basic’ account and pay to go ‘pro’.

This model struggles not only because many users resent being forced to upgrade.  It has failed because users have ways to sidestep the cropped social functionality of the basic account by joining the LinkedIn open networking culture inside and outside of LinkedIn.  There are now so many ‘open networkers’ that LinkedIn just couldn’t get an acceptable financial outcome from the account upgrade model without introducing advertising.  After all, why pay for something you can access from the free basic account type?  That’s not to say that recruiters and those marketing B2B aren’t upgrading to increase search entitlements and in-mails…but not in sufficient numbers to support LinkedIn’s pending IPO.

In the second model, advertising is introduced.  Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter all now rely on advertising.  In Facebook, only business pages can advertize while in Twitter and LinkedIn, there is no distinction between business and personal accounts.  Anyone can advertise in LinkedIn and take a sponsored tweet in Twitter.

So, what’s wrong with advertising?

The problem with relying on advertising as the keystone of revenue raising is that the application has to simultaneously strangle any social functionality which would allow brands to communicate with their marketing demographic or targets by other means within the application, and any functionality allowing users to search and associate with brands.

For example, business pages in Facebook offer primitive social functionality.  They can’t reach or communicate with personal profiles in any way other than through the few loop holes which Facebook has inadvertently left open. These include tagging posts to other business pages that have the same market demographic and swapping ‘likes’ (liking pages whose owners have liked your page).  Other than that, they can only communicate with personal profiles which already ‘like’ them, or if their followers spam their own networks by sharing business page posts.

Will this drive brands to advertise? Facebook hopes so.  Maybe it will, but only after the owners of business pages exhaust less expensive options to drive traffic to their Facebook pages from outside of Facebook including using existing email/sms databases, twitter, and point of sale advertising, etc.

Also, personal profiles can’t search Facebook for businesses by any means other than typing in their account name.  Facebook search is primitive for personal users.  The fact that it’s primitive is not a natural phenomenon.  It’s failure to evolve is by design.  Considering the data Facebook holds regarding business pages (see the Insights package), the types of directories and customizable searches which could be conducted (if Facebook was actually focused on assisting personal profiles to find the brands they want to follow and use) are myriad.

A primitive search function makes perfect sense in the context of trying to force business users to advertise in Facebook.  Hence monetization models define the nature of social functionality and the evolution of social functionality.

The anti social design of both monetization models is clear.  The free ‘basic’ account is slow and tedious with limited functionality.  The paid advertising model is based on the need to ensure that networks which are built through advertising can’t be built by accessing freely available functionality in the application.  It’s meant to be hard work.

One application’s cropped social functionality is another’s business opportunity.  LinkedIn and Twitter both have strong ‘follow back etiquettes’ which will conflict with attempts to raise revenue from advertising.  LinkedIn’s excellent search criteria option together with Twitter’s hash tags will also make it harder to drive users to paid advertising.

The ‘follow back etiquette’ is now dogging the heels of Facebook too.  It’s a recent phenomenon for Facebook and totally due to the introduction of advertising.  The owners of business pages are seeking relief from the restrictions on network building functionality driven by the current monetization model.

The micro network tapestry of social media connects all the major applications. Facebook ‘like’ exchangers are holed up in LinkedIn groups and out of reach from Facebook recrimination.  LinkedIn open networkers meet in open defiance of LinkedIn at URL’s like TopLinked.com.  Networks seeking to restrict social functionality will be choked of ‘blood’ supply and bypassed.  Marshall McLuhan was right.  Social media, like all media, is an extension of human sensory perception.  Humanity has fused itself within a single digital organism comprised of millions of micro networks.  Just as no nation State can isolate itself from the global economic system, no social network can isolate itself from the total fabric of cellular digital society.

The market for social functionality in digital media is beginning to behave like the global market for capital.

If US interest rates are near zero, investors may use their US dollars to buy the currency of another country where domestic interest rates are higher and invest local currency in those local markets for a superior return.  This is called the ‘Carry Trade’.

If the return on effort made to build a social network is higher in one social application than another, or the ‘black markets’ of the ‘follow back etiquette’ offer huge returns for the network builder, users will move their time and effort to those applications and those URLs.

Truly, there is nothing new under the sun.

Why brands should ignore ROI in online and social media for now.

Posted in Bill James, roi, social media, social media engagement, social media marketing, Social Media ROI, social media strategy, we engage with tags , , , , , , , on April 23, 2011 by monozygote43

Management seems confused about why they need to deal with social media.  Most of those with responsibility for profit performance are missing the point when it comes to new media and ignoring the history of past media revolutions.  Consumer markets are going through a transition phase regarding their media preferences.

Right now, ROI isn’t necessarily about new revenue and new sales.  It’s more likely to be measured as the market share a company doesn’t lose.

All other things held constant, the rise of online and social media hasn’t created new markets or consumers (with the exception of those buying and selling stuff needed to engage in social media).  Social media is a new communication preference for existing customers in existing markets to engage, assess and choose the brands with whom they will transact business in future.

Future being the key word.

One facebook account may take over 4 hours a week from the available time of a mother of 2 children.  That’s 4 hours a week less one mother has to spend in other communication channels in future.  Less time in stores, magazines, newspapers, TV and radio.  The same goes for the mobile platform and the sms/mms channel.  Time is a finite resource.

So, not only are we moving into new online and social media, we are moving out of pre-existing communication channels.

Spare us all the engagement and authenticity romanticism.  Spare us all the finger wagging and pious recrimination over brands being unable to demonstrate concrete ROI from social media.  It’s all either pseudo ethical or pseudo academic drivel.

The reason brands must market and engage in online and social media is that the customers they already serve are shifting their preferences as to how they will engage with all brands in future.  If a brand’s existing customers arrive in online and social media and find the brand they have been dealing with is absent, alternative brands with comparable offerings will take future market share.  End of story.  That’s why every media revolution is an opportunity for new brand start ups in mature consumer goods and services markets.

This always starts off sounding like a distant cry until marketing programs through traditional communication channels start showing reduced ROI.  By then, the damage is already being done.

It must have sounded like a distant cry in the early 1950’s when TV appeared on the horizon with few channels, limited broadcasting schedules, little content and small audiences.  I still remember watching the ‘test pattern’ as a kid while waiting for the screen to come to life in the early 1960’s. By 1979 there were 300 million TV set in operation.  By 2001 there were an estimated 1.75 billion TV sets worldwide.  The most notable observation we can make here is that the move into online and social media is much faster than was the revolution into TV.

TV broadcasting licenses and advertising must have seemed expensive and unsupportable investments for some time in comparison to radio, newsprint and cinema.  But look at how market share changed hands after the transition phase to TV got going, and look at the monumental consumer brands that were forged from advertising in the early years of television.  The curse is on the laggard.

That’s the catch with social media ROI.  During this transition phase between traditional, web 1.0 and web 2.0 communication channels, ROI in social media isn’t necessarily measured in new sales revenues.  It’s significantly measured in avoiding the loss of existing market share as existing customers shift their communication preferences to new media.

For new brands, it’s an opportunity to take share from established brands lagging behind in the transition.

If you decide to stay largely out of online and social media until clear evidence of ROI is on the table, you are making a mistake.  You’ll pay for it with lost market share.

The next phase of this revolution will be the competitive phase where the fight for market share will be between those who have entered social and online media.  Then we will see a more relevant and conventional assessment of ROI from within new media channels.

Until then, as the song says, “don’t count your money while you’re sitting at the table”…especially when other players are moving to new tables.

facebook marketing : the new network dilemma

Posted in Bill James, facebook, facebook marketing, social media, Uncategorized, we engage with tags , , , , , , , , on April 4, 2011 by monozygote43

How do you build a new network in facebook (FB), when without fans (‘likes’), the customer doesn’t receive your message or content?  How do you break free from this circular causal dilemma?

Every day, excellent brands offer outstanding value through FB, yet many fail to extend their network in FB.  Some slug away, clueless as to the reasons for their failure, while they post, link, follow, upload and micro blog (yes, whether it’s 140 or 420 characters, it’s still a micro blog) for months and even years in FB without any significant growth of their fan base or their related sales.

When a business page is created in FB, the means to broadcast, consume and share content is created. Nothing more.

To exercise those means, other networks in FB have to consent to receive content from your network.

‘Liking’ a business page and becoming a fan is the equivalent of giving consent to a brand to publish content into your network.  When a business page is ‘liked’, consent is given to receive the brand’s message in a personal newsfeed (and from February 2011, the newsfeed of another business page).  Business pages have achieved equality with personal profiles in network politics.

In order to obtain this consent, the brand must demonstrate relevance to the customer.  In order to demonstrate relevance, contact between the brand and the customer has to occur.

How can this contact occur when the customer has yet to give consent to the brand and the new network has no fans in FB?

Provided the brand promise offers value, in social media marketing, 80% of success is overcoming this causal dilemma.  The other 20% is a lot of things including content, consistency, sanity and karma.

So, the brand doesn’t have a social network in the beginning.  It doesn’t have much of anything.  It certainly doesn’t have a significant audience or any form of consensual engagement with potential customers. Following others and consuming their content isn’t the answer.

The noise made by a brand posting to its own FB page is like the noise of a bee buzzing inside a glass jar with the lid firmly affixed.  That’s no noise at all if you are standing outside of the jar.

There are literally millions of small brand curators buzzing away inside their little glass jars inside FB.  FB is not one social media network.  It is millions of interlinked network private networks coexisting within one software application and URL.  Some much smaller and much less interlinked than others.

If a bee buzzes inside a sealed glass jar and there is no one inside the jar to hear it, does it make a sound?  A web 2.0 application for an old existentialist riddle.

As far as social media networks are concerned, the answer is “no”.

So the new network dilemma in FB is:

“In order to build a new network in FB, a brand has to demonstrate its relevance and gain consent to publish to other networks in FB.  However, the new network can’t demonstrate its relevance because it has no connections and is unable to publish to other networks. So, how does the brand build its new network in FB?

To wit, when you first realized you needed 25 ‘likes’ to get a unique URL in FB, what did you do?  Did you post to your page wall where no one was listening in pious hope that if you posted, the network would come?  Did you pick up the phone and start sending emails to ask people you already knew through your existing networks and channels to clock up those first 25 ‘likes’?  Maybe you joined LinkedIn and the Social Media Marketing Group where you could find a list of 7,000 people who will ‘follow back’ your page in FB.  Maybe you ‘arm twisted’ all your personal ‘friends’ in FB?

Whether you have zero ‘likes’ or 5,000 ‘likes’, new ‘fans’ are  best reached outside of your fledgling network in FB and very likely outside of FB itself.  The only edge offered to you by your initial tiny following in FB is the marginal possibility that your few fans will ‘share’ your posts and content within their networks.  Don’t hold your breath waiting for this viral miracle.  There is a powerful FB etiquette that rails against spamming friends with shared posts from business pages and creating viral content is a hit and miss affair at best.  Buy a lottery ticket instead.

Suffice to say, hoping the ‘share’ button gets used is not a viable FB network growth strategy.  Larger brands will grow organically as they are searched for and found by existing customers in FB.  This type of organic growth doesn’t amount to a proactive marketing strategy either.

Sure, you can try FB or LinkedIn advertising too.  Use ‘pay per click’ and target your customer using your page ‘Insights’ data or target using LinkedIn profile data.  When you are done, calculate the cost of acquiring a new ‘like’ and ask yourself what it would have cost if you had reached out through your existing channels first. Email, direct mail, direct marketing via telephony and point of sale (POS) to name a few.

This causal dilemma has numerous implication for the intending FB network builder.  Chief among them is that if you are building a network in a particular channel for a brand, you had better get the message out using a dynamic combination of alternative social media applications and traditional, web 1.0 and web 2.0 based communication channels. Relatively few are listening to you inside your new FB glass jar (even if you are the greatest orator since Pericles).

When TV appeared in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the owners of fledgling TV networks had little content, few channels and small audiences.  Where did they go to market their TV content offerings?  Radio, newspapers and cinema. Competing and preceding content distribution channels.  You’ve seen advertisements by Living Social on TV.  So it has been through numerous revolutions from one communication medium to its successors or usurpers.

This unsophisticated dilemma is a condition belonging to the transition phase from traditional media and web 1.0 to web 2.0 applications like FB.

As social media applications mature and develop, more brands will move into a competitive phase where large scale inflows of customers into social media have subsided and the task of growing a network becomes a matter of fighting with competitor brands for relevance and engagement in the eyes of their customers.

So, give some thought to shouting through loud halers, using email, surface mail, leaflets, radio, TV, newspapers, magazines, conferences, trade shows, FB & LI advertising, networking events, web sites, blogs, groups, point of sale, marketing alliances and other social media applications to bring attention to your new FB network.

Definitely employ giveaways, coupons and sweepstakes to drive traffic from other networks and channels into FB.  Just remember, if you just post, they won’t come.

SXSW Interactive Festival, 2011 Core Discussion. Trust in Social Media: Is Censorship Succeeding?

Posted in Bill James, facebook, social media, sxsw, Trust, we engage with tags , , , , , , , on March 6, 2011 by monozygote43

What is Trust in Social Media?

Why is trust in social media important?

If we accept the importance which Brian Solis, Chris Brogan and others attach to social media as an agent of profound change in human relations, it seems that leaving the custodianship of it to Mark Zuckerberg would be akin to leaving the drafting of the United States constitution to Richie Rich. 

It seems almost intuitive that users of social media would want to trust the content of the posts, tweets and blogs of their peers and friends more than those of brands and people outside of their personal network.  If not wholly intuitive, it’s been confirmed by a million surveys over recent years.

Indeed, the difference between social media and traditional media is our new ability to link up horizontally to the networks of our peers and monitor their comments and content…and to circumvent traditional networks where we probably knew no one personally who was responsible for creating and publishing content.

Most of us used to be passive consumers of traditional media content.  Now all of us have the opportunity to both create content and publish it independently of traditional networks.

As Marshall McLuhan said in 1964, the medium is the message.

The message of this medium, or social media, is that everyone is now a potential broadcaster, publisher and creator of content…or is it?

With so many now empowered to speak, the pressing question has become who will listen?

In November 2009, prominent author and social media evangelist Brian Solis had said “Access to free and expansive media platforms and distribution channels has democratized influence and shifted the power of authority from those who previously controlled the media to those who disseminate it.”

Brian Solis was not saying this would happen.  He was saying it had happened.

In December 2009, he continued “This is our industrial revolution and its reward for participation is relevance. The socialization of online societies democratized the publishing industry and equalized influence.”  Again, he cites these changes as historical facts.

He concluded “those who can participate or permeate these trust communities must first earn the prominence of what Chris Brogan and Julien Smith call ‘Trust Agents’…those individuals who are deserving of your time and attention as demonstrated through their actions and words.”

Solis continued “It is these concentrated communities that ultimately form the premise for a much larger and more meaningful human network…a collection of trust networks that represent the market and exchanges for your focus, investment, participation and ultimately your actions.”

So according to Solis, Brogan and Smith, trust is the currency which enables an exchange of value in social media.  Conversely, a lack of trust precludes an exchange of value between people and networks.

Trust is the key that opens the door to influence.  Without trust, nobody will listen.

This Core Discussion at SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin Texas in 2011 asks whether censorship has succeeded in enhancing and sustaining a culture of trust in social media. It also asks whether expectations of a new “trust economy” in social media are naive in the context of the socio-economic framework of the United States.  It raises different perspectives on censorship and proposes ideas about how we may enhance and sustain trust in social media.

The Naivety of Social Media Romanticism

When Solis said “The socialization of online communities democratized the publishing industry and equalized influence”, I wondered briefly if I had missed a pivotal reshaping of the political economy of the United States. Equal influence by virtue of access alone?  Where’s mine?  Theoretically, I can buy prime time advertisements during Super Bowl.  I’ve got access. What’s stopping me?

Sure, many more individuals may now publish in a very limited scope using social media.  There are legions of voices and points of view, each one like a bee trapped in a tiny glass jar.  Who can hear the buzzing?  Anyone can make and post a video or photograph.  Anyone can publish a blog or opinion. There are a handful of great success stories where companies or individuals have shot to prominence and popularity by viral ascendency to the realm of the digital self made man.  But equal influence?

Beyond those brands and personalities which have come to new prominence because they are part of the social media industry itself (the social media applications and their supply chains), the same brands and personalities which dominated their markets before the social media revolution continue to dominate those markets in 2011.

It appears accumulated capital has the same power to acquire pervasive influence in this medium as it has in preceding communication media. Money buys audience, influence, repetition and sophisticated content.  Additionally, it is clear that the private companies which literally hold social media life on their servers are in the process of being bought. Goldman Sachs funding of Facebook for $450M lays the framework for the absorption of this new media into ownership by all the same entities owning traditional media.  LinkedIn will go to its IPO in 2011, and there are strong rumors that Twitter will be acquired by Facebook in 2011.

So, does talk of unique social media where trust is the currency of relevance amount to pious hope? .  Are the proponents of this hope themselves hopeless romantics?  Perhaps the mantra of trust and authenticity is a money spinner in its own right?

One thing is for certain.  If social media is on some path to a cultural equalization with its predecessors, that can mean only one direction for the fortunes of trust and authenticity.  Down , down, deeper and down.

Is this social media Woodstock over? Do we now take the path of the baby boomers after the dizzy intellectual masturbation of their decade of hope, the decade of television, the 1960’s, and climb on the gravy train to build our own stash?  What lasting cultural advantage can we salvage from this latest media revolution?

More or Less Trust in Social Media in 2011?

I’m calling it.  I’m calling bullshit.  If there ever was a social media revolution,  if social media ever was the new communication channel where trust and relevance were the currency of engagement and democratized influence was the outcome, I’m pronouncing it dead… or on life support and in critical condition.

Some users do thirst for trust and authenticity in social media but if they get it, it will be in spite of the current owners of social media and only with considerable future intrusion from government regulation, oversight and court rulings. The owners of social media networks simply aren’t getting the job done.

Everything appears to be up for sale in social media.  Rankings in the search engines, tweets, posts, blogs, opinions and recommendations.

I don’t believe any of the major social media applications are really focused on maintaining a culture of trust or authenticity in the long term. They may wish to maintain order in their digital digs so as to ensure businesses run uninterrupted and raise no red flags to groups like the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).  As for sustaining an attempt to improve human relations or promote trust and authenticity among users, the major applications seem terminally distracted by their search for the business model that will drive revenues, profits, IPOs, mergers and acquisitions.

While I share the desire of Solis, Brogan and Smith regarding the creation of a “trust economy” and the potential of social media to lead to a profound change in human relations, I believe it’s farcical to expect that “democratized influence” in social media should or could ever exist solely within the confines of a few private companies and their web sites.

If we accept the importance which Solis and others attach to social media as an agent of profound change in human relations and influence, it seems that leaving the custodianship of it to Mark Zuckerberg would be akin to leaving the drafting of the United States constitution to Richie Rich.  Zuckerberg is a hugely successful businessman.  That doesn’t necessarily equip him to defend or sustain ‘democratized influence’ in social media.

The revolution in social media now seems largely a headlong rush by a new generation of private media network owners and their financiers to fill a partial vacuum of power, influence and profitability created by the rise of new interactive media (and the contraction of traditional media).  Now that a new crop of consumers have been lured in to the digital landscape with the promise of a new, open and trusting community and economy, the scene is set for commerce interests and amorality to roll right in…and maybe that’s just the way things are in America.

The social media revolution is looking a little like the revolution in Libya from Moammar Gadhafi to the interim government of his Justice Minister, Mustafa Abdul Jalil.  If it happens, it’s likely to have very little to do with installing democratic principles and much more to do with sponsoring a new river of money and influence to a new cadre of worthy beneficiaries.  It has to look different, doesn’t it?  Every revolution needs to wrap itself in a justifying rallying song or catch cry.  Long live democratized influence!  Hail the trust agents and protectors of authenticity!

The gulf between rhetoric and resource expended to sustain trust and authenticity is looking a lot like the gulf between the Federal government’s pledges to secure the border with Mexico (and end illegal immigration) and its real investment of resource and capital for that purpose (putting aside your position on the issue of immigration itself).  Tell it to the US border guards getting their backsides shot off.

Anecdotally, and as measured by instruments like the Edelman Trust Barometer 2011, trust is declining with both our peers and in the media.  Especially in the United States.  That’s in line with my personal experience in LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere generally.  However, ask yourself about human relations in the application you use.  More or less spam?  More or less trolls?  More or less salesmen and sales pitches?  More or less scams, phishing, privacy intrusion and advertising?  More or less undisclosed payment for opinion and comment?  More or less frustration when seeking help and consultation with the owners of the applications and brands you use regarding the functionality you require?

If you answer “more”, how can the owners of social media applications not be culpable?

The authenticity mantra and its principal mandarins have served well to populate the digital landscape with new ‘consumers’.  Now they provide the veil behind which the new social media barons can focus on building accommodation for digital commerce.  As long at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) doesn’t come knocking and the users don’t revolt, who really cares if the happenings in the application engender trust and authenticity?  Let the users sort out the definition of ‘netiquette’, truth and authenticity!

It struck me as being a fateful moment when Facebook recently rolled out their new pages functionality, allowing pages their own news feed and the ability to shape shift and shed skins with the click of a “switch”.  There was a time when the personal profile was the center of the Facebook universe.  That shoe has since moved to the other foot.  Now it seems that your personal profile is a staging point for the various business pages you administer.  It’s not difficult to see in which direction the gaze of Facebook is riveted.

Nobody can see the future with absolute clarity, but I would not be surprised to hear that Facebook finds itself in the courts in future defending against demands that it be broken up subject to anti-trust laws.  Perhaps those calls will go out if Facebook attempts to acquire Twitter in 2011…then again, probably not.

We have had anti-trust laws for the banking industry since early last century.  Look where that got us.  The Federal Reserve System and the privately owned regional Federal Reserve Banks, derivative financial products and unregulated speculation, the merger of monetary and fiscal policy, the miracle of elastic currency and the Great Recession.  On that point, let me just say…end the Fed.

What is Censorship?

Censorship is more than one entity deleting or editing content published by another entity.  Censorship extends to decisions an entity makes to self censor… and the reasons for those decisions.  That raises factors like law and regulation together with court rulings and self interest.  Censorship can also extend to simply denying an entity access to a communication channel.  That raises factors like control over social media and the cost of access together with the cost of manufacturing content.  Censorship is also often applied subject to mob rule by users in micro communities.  The source and means of censorship is by no means obvious.

We seem to fixate on the classic censorship events and conspiracy theories that usually involve government intrusion into social media.  It makes for sensational reading and involves larger than life characters.  It usually also tends to sit in the province of political conspiracy theory, which is always tantalizing.

There have been plenty of celebrated examples in the last few years, ending most recently in 2011 with alleged attempts by the national governments of Egypt and Libya to pull the plug on Twitter and Facebook, just as the downtrodden Arabic masses look like they want to embrace democracy (so we are told).

When WikiLeaks allegedly leaked thousands of documents in November 2010, repeatedly embarrassing the US government, elements of the government allegedly responded with cyber attacks on the WikiLeaks web site and global extra judicial intimidation of WikiLeaks Director Julian Assange.

Then there was the alleged flotilla hash-tag controversy in May 2010 in Twitter where the US government was supposed to have leaned on Twitter to mess with trending issues relating to the #flotilla.  It trended popular after several boats were sunk off the coast of Gaza by Israeli forces killing many innocents.

Other examples include Wikipedia owner ‘Jimbo’ Wales allegedly purging his site of graphic sex images after complaints by co founder Larry Sanger and interest from Fox News which led to unrest among Wikipedia contributors.  There was also of course YouTube (then recently acquired by Google) being attacked for censorship of 9/11 truth sites, allegedly under political pressure from Senator Lieberman. It was also applying veiled algorithms which searched for and led to the deletion of allegedly copyrighted material.

Sure, these are important events and questions, but how have they impacted trust in social media any more than other media?  Is government always the boogeyman in matters of censorship?  What about the censorship right in front of our faces?  What about failure to censor?  Is it possible that we need more censorship rather than less?  We know that the Government has the power to censor here in the US and elsewhere.  There’s more to the world of social media than government.

Self Censorship?

Has regulation and resulting self censorship acted to sustain and improve trust and authenticity?

Many social media evangelists and influencers became persons of interest to companies who wished to purchase influence and raise their brands to viral prominence in the new social media marketing channel.  This raised the old specter of a financial conflict of interest where, without full and frank disclosure, trusting consumers could be easily confused and misled in a new communication medium.

Up until October 2010, social media was literally a free-for-all marketing channel where purchased opinion was right there alongside obvious marketing content.  Any influencer with a large following could offer opinion, publish content and make recommendations while being paid to do so on behalf of a particular brand.  There was no clear legal requirement to disclose.

Enter the Federal Trade Commission in early 2009 and its recommendations to update existing Guides concerning the use of endorsements and testimonials in advertising and public relations.  Suddenly, all about us we heard social media evangelists and influencers engaged in a prayer like incantation or mantra of “disclosure”.  Was this a forced addendum to the evangelical vision of authenticity, or was there another reason for the change in behavior?  What had changed?  Clearly, the threat of penalties and prosecution had appeared, and this immediately had an effect on what people thought they could and should say.  We were seeing self censorship driven by Federal regulation…in the interest of consumers!  Good or bad?

The guidelines had not been updated since 1980, which was well before the advent of social media (aka ‘web 2.0’).  The connection between guidelines and the practice of blogging in social media were made explicit in the revision in October 2010.

The revised Guides also added new examples to illustrate a long standing principle that “material connections” (sometimes payments or free products) between advertisers and endorsers, connections that consumers would not expect, must be disclosed. These examples addressed what constituted an endorsement when the message was conveyed by bloggers or other “word-of-mouth” marketers. The revised Guides specified that while decisions would be reached on a case-by-case basis, the post of a blogger who received cash or in-kind payment to review a product was considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers who made an endorsement must disclose the material connections they shared with the seller of the product or service.  

Enter also the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), an independent federal agency charged with safeguarding employees’ rights and holding employers accountable for their labor practices.  It ruled in 2010 that an employees’ use of Facebook is legally protected by free speech under many circumstances, even when it expresses negative sentiment about their employers.

The ruling came in response to the case of a medical technician named Dawn Marie Souza, who was unhappy that her supervisor would not let her get assistance from a union representative in responding to a customer’s complaint. Ms. Souza reportedly “using several vulgarities” to mock her supervisor on Facebook and compared him to a psychiatric patient; her co-workers chimed in, leading to “further negative comments about the supervisor.” While Souza did all this on her own time and on her own computer, her employer ultimately fired her over these Facebook posts.  According to the NLRB ruling, this action was illegal.

The board compared protected speech on Facebook to water-cooler discussion around the office.

Did this ruling have an effect on self censorship?  Would any ordinary employee who harbored ill feeling toward an employer now take comfort from the outcome and post on Facebook accordingly?

Censorship by Social Media Applications

Have the social media applications themselves actually made a concerted and serious attempt to defend trust and authenticity?

Facebook itself censors or at least proposes rules for engagement and acceptable content within its application terms and conditions.  This, however, leaves enforcement and compliance unresolved.  Like texting while driving, it’s one thing to have a law banning or requiring a behavior and entirely another to enforce the law and obtain compliance.

Facebook is undoubtedly in a race to remain the largest single force in online advertising and the hub for interactive digital communication.  It has recently taken funding from Goldman Sachs for $450M subject to a valuation of $50B for Facebook’s business.  Even a blind man can see the public listing of the company looming (get in line behind the bankers’ cartel).

Is Facebook really interested in preserving the ‘trust economy’ of Brian Solis, or is it instead focused on the growth of its own business revenues?  Does it want to upset its commercial constituents?

Facebook have clear terms and conditions prohibiting the use of personal profiles for commercial benefit.  Yet, an examination of personal profiles in Facebook would reveal tens of thousands of personal profiles being used to represent businesses and their users to be in breach of Facebook terms and conditions.

Facebook has long been accused of censoring mentions of Twitter and inconsistently censoring the prodigious numbers of “Fuck Islam”, “Fuck Christianity” and “Fuck Judaism” groups, legions of which continue to stain the site today.  Facebook allowed the creation of groups who included the word “fuck” in their name and who existed to propel religious or racial intolerance.  Paradoxically, users were likely to be censored if their Facebook status updates included the word “fuck”.

It seems censorship is not only rife but apparently arbitrary due to a simple lack of policy and management focus.  Is Facebook simply distracted by the growth of its own business?  Is the effective governance of human relations in Facebook the furthest thing from its mind?  Does this explain the inconsistency in the administration of censorship?  If trust is a casualty in Facebook, is it a case of too much censorship or not enough?

Facebook revenues were estimated at $2B in 2010, and many believe 2011 may see the acquisition of Twitter by Facebook.  It’s easy to see how Facebook could be distracted from its social governance responsibilities.

Other applications like LinkedIn and Wikipedia are also under the influence of commercial considerations…the strain of trying either to cover costs or rise out of a sea of red ink.

LinkedIn, sporting net revenues of only $10M, is coming to market to raise $175M from an IPO in 2011 after losses in 2009, marginal profitability in 2010 and forecasted losses in 2011.  Wikipedia’s money troubles continue, and in 2011 it has returned to its tin-cup approach to funding.  Wikimedia (the non-profit which owns the site) remains a conspicuous holdout against adding advertizing to its site, reputedly the 5th most popular site in the world with over 400M users.

Both LinkedIn and Wikipedia threw the nasty and expensive task of censoring content and moderating behavior to their users.  Wikipedia Sysops (system operators) and the LinkedIn Lynch Mob certainly censored content, but censorship in those applications is largely subject to the control of anointed users like the Sysops  or the first three LinkedIn users who choose to flag a question or answer causing it to be deleted in LinkedIn Q & A forums.  The approach by the owners of these applications seemed to be to avoid the expense and pain of enforcing anything by simply empowering users to decide when censorship should be practiced…and, more importantly, why it should be practiced. Visions of a digital Pontius Pilate washing his hands in a virtual bowl of water ensue.

As a long time user of LinkedIn, it always felt to me like users were kept in a prison complex where the jailer would only intervene if the brawl unexpectedly turned deadly.  LinkedIn seemed to simply allow the prevailing balance of power in its forums and the owners of groups to dispense arbitrary justice.  All the same, it was dispensed.  Consequently, the forums frequently erupted in internecine warfare.  Users were left to vent their frustration against the censorship of other users.  The most interesting Q & A forums in LinkedIn were those dedicated to asking why other users had flagged and deleted questions and comments.  Users debating the censorship of other users.  Groups were simply placed under the authoritarian stewardship of their ‘owners’.  If you didn’t like the form of censorship practiced in a group, you were simply out of luck.  There was no appeal from Caesar to Caesar and Caesar may not have been interested in trust and authenticity.

Twitter, which lost money in 2010 on a reported $45M revenue, is perpetually struggling to find an effective business model,  In Twitter, the Trust and Safety team are paid employees attempting to stamp out spammers, phishing scams and users gaming the application to assemble ever increasing numbers of ‘followers’.  I don’t see any evidence of their final success.  None at all.  Is the Trust and Safety Team a genuine attempt to preserve Trust, or is it paying lip service to the authenticity mantra in deference to the deluded romantics in its fold?

For many marketers, Twitter has become a cost effective alternative to indirect marketing through mail and email. The micro blog darling of social media was fighting a revolution from within….fighting for ownership of its own soul.

The Twitter brand seems publicly pointed at maintaining a platform for authentic and private interaction between people who need not invest significantly in order to become engaged in social media.  After all, that was its genesis and that’s the whole point of only needing 140 characters in order to participate.

But all the while, it has found itself ranged against users that wanted to use the application as a one way broadcasting platform to mount digital indirect marketing campaigns to millions of consumers.  Authentic and social interaction seemed the furthest thing from the minds of these users.  Enter the spam bots, the automated follow and un-follow applications and the buying and selling of followers.  Will the real Twitter please stand up?

Censorship had been applied to solve problems and maintain trust among users and in the media generally, but it could be argued that trust and authenticity were casualties of applying censorship, or applying it without effect.  It could also be argued that trust was becoming a convenient fiction behind which to extract profit in a new and lawless digital frontier.

Is the Twitter Trust and Safety Team an act of lip service toward netiquette correctness?  Do they represent a credible attempt to stop spam and sustain trust and authenticity?

If there’s a Problem, What’s the Fix?

This time around I think government oversight on the important issues like privacy, ownership of content, fraud and conflict of interest are front and center and need to be accelerated.  Bodies like the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) have begun to move into the space with Guides and statements concerning both privacy and trust, like disclosure in sponsorship, advertizing online and freedom of speech.  However, they are slow to have impact, and I would urge individual Congressmen and Senators who have an active interest in social media to support and guide these bodies with appropriate legislation.  The answers will not come from profit focused private companies, and bodies like these can only really react to situations.

After having grown up in a closed environment with a handful of large media networks dominating culture and communication in Australia, I believe publicly funded organizations like the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) are essential.  The ABC doesn’t advertise.  It runs under an independent board and so much valuable content that would never have found access to a widespread audience in Australia if money was the price of access, owes its success to government funding through the ABC.

The big fix in my mind would be a government funded social media network option where we aren’t waiting on the pleasure of a profit focused private company and its executives to do something about the shortcomings of user functionality, privacy, trust and the enforcement of terms and conditions.  Maybe something like a government funded Diaspora where information lives on the user’s server and development of functionality is in the hands of the user through an open sourcing.

I know I’m going to be attacked for saying this when the GOP are banging the pot in the US trying to starve out government funded broadcasting by cutting funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).  However, in my opinion, supporters of government funded broadcasting should be pushing back hard to increase funding to CPB and establish an online interactive division under its management.  Rather than cutting funding to groups like the National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in television, funding should be increased to support publicly funded broadcasting and to embrace a public option in interactive media.

Ultimately, it’s in all of our hands, and it’s just absurd to argue that trust in social media should be left in the hands of a few private companies, individuals and their financiers.