Beware of Pedestals in the Attention Economy

The Devil's Horns

Danah Boyd wrote a fantastic post last week about Internet fame and its negative impact on individuals. It is easy to buy into the rock star kool aid when people frequently sing your accolades (and fallacies) online and at events, especially when popularity is valued by society as an achievement. But accepting a pedestal as an individual, and viewing a personality in a higher light presents numerous difficulties, many of which are hard to surmount for those who don’t expect to ever receive such accolades.

As the attention economy strengthens, we have failed to provide a balanced view of attention, and how to truly address it. The Boyd post talks about Kiki Kannibal’s trials and objectifcation as a teen Internet celeb, and then Boyd’s own experiences. Having had a turn at microfame, it is easy to identify with Boyd’s comments.

When Now Is Gone came out in 2007, there were so many people saying how great it was, touting the accomplishment of publishing a book, and me as the author (please forgive the rare digression into first person). The lavished perception of brilliance was intoxicating. My wife Caitlin wanted to kill me, and this was the beginning of a long year of difficulties that almost cost us our marriage. Fortunately, we worked things out.

Looking back, I had a timely intervention just weeks after the book came out at the hands of the Fairfax County Police. It came in the form of my third reckless speeding ticket in six months. Speeding to make appointments and work tasks seemed necessary because I was so busy (and important) in my own mind. Virginia DMV had a different take, and felt it would be better if I didn’t drive at all for three months, and suspended my driver’s license.

Employees drove me to appointments, and I spent many, many hours in the DC Metro system. It was virtually impossible to think I was a hot shit personality while I took the bus and metro to meetings. Big blogger boy on the back of the bus. Yeah.

This forced humility was one of the best things that has ever happened to me. As the attention continued, the license suspension reminded me not to take it seriously. And when people became overzealous, I pointed out that I put my pants on one leg at a time, just like they did. Later in 2008, I did a stint of volunteer service at Alexandria County jail; again, a great reminder of where I could be if my self centered speeding and possibly worse manifestations of selfishness had continued. But for the grace of God, as they say.

Applied to the Larger Attention Economy

It has been hard watching several peers succumb to the big Internet influencer hype, a result of the attention economy. Perhaps my reaction has been stronger and more severe than most, partly because I knew these people before they assumed their pedestals, and partly because I see the worst in me when their behavior takes a more ego-centric bend. Truthfully, it scares the crap out of me.

So many of these so called rock stars have fallible sides which we don’t see, or turn a blind eye towards. This is no different than the recent difficulties Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lance Armstrong are experiencing in the larger public limelight. These two men have done great things, but because we put them on and they accepted such high pedestals, their very flawed defects have decimated public trust.

We need to be careful about turning great acts into great myths and legends. Our culture creates unsustainable images that cannot help but disillusion and disappoint both the people who assume these pedestals and their fans. There are no social media Gods, but there are illusions that can cause us to become distracted and lose months, even years of time chasing things that don’t really matter.

In the end, it is our actions that make us noteworthy as people, both good and bad. Greatness is a daily act. So is failure. In an attention economy you can live on a success for a long time, but sooner or later, you have to do something else worthwhile. We have an equal opportunity to do good or act poorly every day, and in fact, rare is the person who isn’t human and doesn’t do a bit of both. That’s why it’s important to beware of pedestals.

Overvaluing Twitter

Scale-A-Week:  25 November 2010
Image by puuikibeach

Given the increased focus on “Twinfluence” thanks to measures like Klout, there are many organizations eager for success with so-called influencers (at least by Twitter metrics). Though some of these measures integrate more than just Twitter, they tend to be extremely 140 character centric. That may be a huge mistake for companies and nonprofits who overvalue the importance of Twitter in the larger social web context.

Let’s start with the fact that Twitter doesn’t even represent a strong minority of the U.S. population. According to Twitter’s last update in September, the network has 145 million members worldwide. Yet regardless of the number of accounts worldwide, active users are estimated to be significantly less. One study released a year ago pegged the active rate at 21%. Can you imagine literally reducing Twitter follower counts by 79% to get the accurate number?

How does this translate to the United States? According to Edison Research, while 87% of Americans are aware of Twitter, only 7% are active users, or approximately 21 million Americans. Compare that to the 41% who are active Facebook users (approximately 123 million Americans).

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Want more statistics? Pew Internet pegged Twitter usage at 8% of the American population. The numbers get worse, according to Pew. Only 6% of American households grossing more than $75,000 use Twitter. Additional analysis reveals that 48% of all active account users check other users’ updates every few weeks at best. Half of your followers are not listening!

This should tell a communicator that only 3.5% to 4% of Americans are actually using Twitter AND are actively reading their update streams. It sure seems like marketers are spending a lot of investment on influencer programs for a relatively small percentage of the population.

So why all the hype still? Unlike Facebook, Twitter is public and searchable (see Google Social Search story). And that makes Twitter imminently more friendly to two key stakeholder communities; marketers and content publishers, such as the media. Given what marketers and media companies do professionally, everyone hears a lot of noise about Twitter, but that awareness has not converted to actual usage (thus Edison’s very revealing statistics).

In 2009, the New York Times has attributed 10% of its web site traffic to Twitter. But according to Pew that gives the New York Times access to three audiences; young adults, minority internet users, and of course, urbanites. At that, consider that these are still small percentage of these demographics. What about the other 96% of the country?

One can have a lot of success with Twitter. But it is not the primary social network, and one with a lot of inactive accounts and relatively limited portion of the population. Proceed with caution if your market needs to reach more than this limited group of communities.

More importantly, make sure you know who your communities are, and where they like to talk. Don’t over value Twinfluence. Given that 92-93% of Internet using Americans don’t actively use Twitter, consider looking elsewhere an essential part of your research.

What do you think? Is Twitter overvalued as a medium?

The Over Commercialization of GeoSocial

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This holiday season has seen a flurry of geolocation deal posts, where people can find great offers by checking in. Foursquare even offers the Holiday Hero badge in conjunction with Radioshack, a 20% discount for mobile courage. But the deals highlight a larger problem, which is a flat (even shrinking) geosocial marketplace according to Pew Internet, with Foursquare and Gowalla showing flat usage during the second half of the year.

There are serious problems with geosocial in its current incarnation, including well discussed privacy issues, but also a boredom factor that cannot be ignored. After so many badges, the game element loses its interest. If one is not extremely open about their physical whereabouts (and older people and parents are much less likely to be open), then the geosocial experience in its current incarnation has challenges. Finally, add in the constant deal spam that seems to pop up wherever you check in now, and the experience has become a turn off.

The Britney Circus Comes to Madison Square Garden

Allyson Kapin discussed the matter in her post on nonprofit use of Foursquare and Gowalla: “My hunch is that Foursquare and Gowalla and similar services are going to need to adapt to survive. Why? Because most of the world does not really care about mapping their check-ins to let their friends know that they are grabbing coffee down the street.”

Since the beginning of the year, this commercialization — the monetization of geosocial — has been the primary development point in the two main networks. Deals are great when you are looking for them, and God news the crazy valuations that Groupon and LivingSocial received last week proved that deals have a place in social media. But deals only offers a limited use experience, and not everyone wants to be the Groupon Lady/Guy.

A balance between community interest and commercialization has been struck, and it has flattened the growth curve. While ROI has been achieved Pew shows a one point drop to 4% of total Americans accessing Foursquare and Gowalla services. The user experience isn’t compelling enough to keep momentum going.

Current geosocial users are primarily young, single people in the 18-29 age range. A powerful demographic indeed, yet Gowalla and Foursquare will need to go further if they intend to be anything more than niche mobile social networks. More needs to be done to develop a meaningful community experience that appeals to additional demographics.

Last week marked the release of Gowalla 3.0 for the iPhone, which saw cross-platform integration with Foursquare and Facebook Places. There is a new Notes feature that goes beyon public tips so users can leave short private messages for friends at specific locations. This provides a much more personal feature set that makes sharing location interesting and exciting. Bookmarks were also added for favorite locations. With more features, more personalization, and increased cross-platform functionality, this new release may be a turn towards the right direction.

The End of the Social Media Adoption Road

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Two recent studies made me think we’re rapidly approaching the end of the technology adoption curve for social media. Yesterday’s Forrester 2010 Technographics research showed a retraction in the percentage of content creators, critics (people who comment), and collectors (link sharers) in the United States. While there is an increase in joiners, this can be accounted for by the older late adopters who are now coming on to Facebook.

Pew Internet’s social media adoption study last August showed the greatest growth in social media:

  • Half (47%) of internet users ages 50-64
  • One in four (26%) users age 65 and older now use social networking sites

Meanwhile adoption in the 18-49 segments has slowed down significantly.

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The Forrester analysis demonstrates that people are settling into natural roles. The decrease in content creation clearly shows a strategic opportunity for organizations that can provide valuable content for their communities. As another Pew study shows, blogging has slowed down with social network adoption even though content creators often serve as voices of authority within these same communities.

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From an adoption perspective, we’re likely moving into the laggard stage currently. By year end 2011, social media will not be special, new or unique anymore. In my opinion, online will be just another information source.

Companies, nonprofits and the vendors that serve them will settle into a maturation phase where best practices become the point of competition. While there will always be new social technologies to adapt — such as augmented reality and location based technologies — the principles of two way communications will remain the same. It will come down to who can work with communities in the best fashion.

The above is draft material for my next book, Welcome to the Fifth Estate (the follow up to Now Is Gone, which is almost out of print). Comments may be used in the final edition. You can download the first drafted chapter of the new edition — Welcome to the Fifth Estate — for free.