Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Logic of Crowds

“It’s all about me,” went the rallying cry of web 2.0. The governing principle was empowerment of the individual – Facebook pages about me, my MySpace, people following me on Twitter. As we move into an evolutionary world where terms like web 2.0, 3.0 and beyond are increasingly meaningless, I have to ask: “is it still all about me?”

Here let me suggest something a little subversive:

it has always been all about you (and me)

Communicators talk about “the people formerly known as audiences,” as though a great emancipation has begun. While the term, ‘audience,’ implies passive listening – audentia (Latin for ‘hearing’), it’s not as though the willingness to engage in a conversation has been absent. After all, the term ‘audience participation’ was first coined in 1940 when communications largely meant radio, film, newspapers and magazines. There has always been the theoretical potential to talk back to the creators of the media content you just consumed. Of course there was that niggling need to master film production or learn how to operate a printing press, but still… I had this toy printing press when I was a kid and ran my own newspaper until the crushing tedium of manual typesetting took the fun out of it. That’s talking back.

In the 1940s this man (Paul Lazarsfeld) came along:

He looked at communications during an election and found that, rather than media reaching audiences directly, it was mediated by opinion leaders... kind of like 'early adopters' of information. This led to his two step flow theory that looks something like this:

This is quite obviously not wholly the case any more because (a) opinion leaders have proliferated (including previously marginalized voices), (b) individuals are now in contact directly with each other, thanks to social media and (c) they're talking back more easily, thanks to technology.

Two step flow is dead. I've just shown you why. Instead we have a different environment that's less about the relationship between monolithic mass media entities and the individual and more about the individual and the communities he or she belongs to.

You're probably wondering when I'll stop pontificating and say something useful. How about right now? Let's start with a basic situation analysis:

  • Audiences are not so much fragmented as completely splintered
  • For all the talk about individuals and individualized communications, audience segmentation is still an effective tool
  • Audiences are self-organizing into groups (and companies like Seesmic are really enabling it)
  • Groups fill a 'bridging function,' connecting to other groups, borrowing ideas and content from each other
  • Understanding how groups (or 'communities,' if you prefer) work, who belongs, how they connect and talk provides insight into message flow and penetration
Let's look at one approach to this. Twitter is based on the individual, whether a person, an organization or a brand. To be really useful to the communications planner we need to see a bigger picture. Some sort of aggregation has to happen. That's where Tinker comes in. It's a service that enables you to follow events, not just individuals. It gives you a broader view of the chatter (sorry... buzz) going on about stuff that interests you and your organization. You get to see the connections between people and groups. Cool, no?

So yes, it's still all about me but that's not particularly helpful for communicators trying to do our jobs - getting the message out. It now has to also be all about communities.

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