No Respect for Train Wrecks

The train wreck scene in Super 8 captivates you with its sheer level of destruction, power and unbridled fear. The scene is an awesome spectacle of sheer force and damage, one that you replay a couple of times to see which parts you missed. That doesn’t mean you want to hang out by the tracks for the next scheduled train wreck.

Yet isn’t that how some online personalities act online?

Image by Grand Canyon NPS

A continuous train wreck of blog posts and social media updates detailing questionable acts and bad decisions definitely commands attention. Affairs, drunken debacles, bad business decisions, on and on. Kim Kardashian or Ozzy Osbourne imitations, the reality blogging is quite stunning. If the bumbling stumbling jalopy of voices keep it going for long enough, they may even command a significant online following. And why not? It’s entertaining (at least to some)!

However, garnering attention through a series of mishaps does not make a great marketer. On the contrary, it is simply a text version of reality TV.

Yet in the world of social media we like to anoint heroes based on follower counts and subscribership, one of the primary reasons why ROI is an elusive pursuit for many online practitioners.

In the end, cheap attention getting tactics don’t earn transactions. And that’s apparent when you look at data that examines conversion per follower with these folks. One chap boasts hundreds of thousands of followers, but can’t even raise $2000 in an online fundraiser.

The lesson: Discerning buyers don’t respect train wrecks. Neither should you.

Revolutions: Don’t Shoot the Social Media Messenger

Image is from NorthJerseyMusic

As we watch protestors risk their lives and demand governmental change in Egypt, a secondary news story has evolved. Pundits are actively debating the role (or lack thereof) that social media and the Internet played in sparking the Egyptian protests, Tunisia’s revolution, and Yemen’s unrest. There’s a whole camp of Malcolm Gladwell-esque voices who bitterly claim only revolutionaries make revolts, social media has no valuable role in the discussion. To deny the use of new tools as exciting and noteworthy in a revolution is a mistake. It’s the equivalent of shooting the messenger, the poor soul carrying information between warring parties.

At the same time, one can see how statements like “the same Web tools that so many Americans use to keep up with college pals and post passing thoughts have a more noble role as well, as a scourge of despotism,” would fuel such angst. Like the messenger, social media is just a communications tool set, and perhaps not even the most powerful one at play.

Consider Al Jazeera’s incredible role in covering the events to date, particularly given that the U.S.-based media was focused on domestic events until the past few days. Al Jazeera’s coverage has been outstanding. Just this morning Egypt shut down Al Jazeera‘s local offices.


The best testimony about social media’s role in these events has to be the efforts of the Tunisian and Egyptian governments to thwart or completely cut off the Internet. As you can see from the above chart published on Mashable, the Internet became a critical communications point leading up to the events of the past few days. It’s no wonder that the autocratic Mubarek regime sought to protect its own power by cutting the Internet.

It should be noted that the protests have significantly escalated since the proverbial kill switch was hit on the Egyptian Internet. So at best social’s role can only be painted as a catalyst, and not the ultimate factor.

Perhaps the most sane analysis of the debate about social media’s role came from Jeremy Littau: “So of course social media caused the uprising in Egypt, and of course it didn’t. It truly is both and to try and pin it on one type of public is too simplistic. It’s never one thing.” Indeed, there are many, many factors at play in the Egyptian protest, most importantly the willingness of individuals to publicly stand against oppression.

Stories, Carrier Pigeons and Prayers


People complaining about stories debating social media’s role will likely remain frustrated. The ongoing conversation is an inevitable story, and rightly so. The fast, networked decentralized capability that social brings to revolutionaries and protesters is incredible. That sword cuts both ways, too. Autocrats can use social media to identify and monitor networks of dissidents!

Framing the argument around using online tools to better activities makes a ton of sense. The tools have evolved, but historically there have always been ways to spread the word in times of unease. Messengers and carrier pigeons were used before the telegraph and radio, which preceded television and email. All were used historically for revolutionary purposes to galvanize human networks, as well as to oppress whole countries and commit genocide. As you can see, it was not the tools, but the people who used them to deliver their messages. Yet watching this week’s conversation, if social media were a carrier pigeon it’s already been well roasted by its various masters.

Expect to see a lot more discussion on the role of social media in the Arab world’s 2011 uprisings. But know until either Twitter or Facebook releases statistical data (if ever) about in country use of the tools preceding and during the revolutionary events, it’s strictly conjecture.

We just know that in some ways, these tools have lent themselves to a higher purpose than talking about Kim Kardashian’s marketing on Twitter. And that’s a great thing. But it pales in comparison to freedom and change in an autocratic regime.

Lest we get too exited about the tools, let’s not forget that people have died. The people are the one’s shouldering the risk invoking this would-be change. So our prayers should go to those souls who are fighting the good fight in Egypt. May there be as little bloodshed as possible.

What do you think of the ongoing debate about social media’s role in the Egyptian, Tunisian and Yemenian uprisings?

Related Reading: Tunisia Teaching Gladwell, Beth Kanter’s Spotlight on Social Media, Crowdsourced Translation, Egyptian Protests and Diplomacy.

How Social Semantic Search Defines People

(Cartoon by David G. Klein from the New York Times)

Search is the underpinning of the Internet today, from the 1 billion traditional searches everyday on Google to providing references about a person on Twitter and delivering their stream feed on Facebook. Search has moved from simple page rank to an increasingly complex algorithm that weight’s social and semantic data points to deliver the outcomes most likely to please you. Personalization of search continues to evolve, but in turn it defines people and their choices.

Search — the technology itself — doesn’t bear responsibility for this. People do. People who use the Internet and its many free tools without understanding how the information is provided to them. They blindly accept search results or the search-based content feed without considering the source.

Consider the DecorMyEyes fiasco broken by the New York Times. Owner Vitaly Borker explained how he used intentionally created negative complaints about DecorMyEyes to game search results and place himself as a top ranked eyeglasses vendor. To Google’s credit, they promptly changed their algorithm to include more semantic weight (all negative or all positive disqualifying you), and the Department of Justice followed up with charges.

Social networks and applications also use search to source preferred content. Facebook’s activity feed is designed to source the most “interesting” content to people in your friends network are using the Open Graph API and likes. Search on Facebook is completely driven by the Open Graph (Like) protocol.

Of course, hashtags have demonstrated the power of search on Twitter. Twitter search was originally based on the acquired Summize search technology, and has been used to reference mentions and trends, too. Now Twitter (and other services) suggests people like you using semantic data.

The Danger of Homogeneous Definition

Google Organic.jpg

The danger in all of this personalized search — particularly when it’s largely based on peer interests — is creating a society of homogeneous sycophants that blindly accept the content sourced to them, either via search or feeds. Lest we think that people actually think through the click, consider organic click through rates on Google (as pictured above by SEO’s Neil Walker). Clicking through on the first few search terms is and has been the norm.

The addition of local semantic data to search only further complicates concepts of popularity. Algorithms tell people which burger joints, music venues, theaters, etc. are most likely to meet their interests.

When popularity is defined by an algorithm and served to people, homogeneos or mob thinking becomes the norm. This thinking feeds on the popular. Society is not currently trained to question the information presented to it. Thus algorithms — designed to create the output that will generate the most click throughs — become a critical determinant in defining people’s lives, and society as a whole.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Semantic information can weigh in when a system is gamed, and social search can provide the latest information based on people’s actual use and check-ins. However, idea markets are increasingly influenced by the popular, and not necessarily in a good way. Algorithms can keep bad ideas popular for longer periods of time.

It all points back to the need for society to teach better information skills. In an information economy, the ability to question and discern quality data presented via a plethora of media is an essential quality for democracy and individualism. It’s important to look deeper at online search, whether that’s because a search provided direct information or because an algorithm sourced a friend or influencer touting an idea or product. Quoting Doug Haslam, “Think for yourself. …you needn’t be part of some pack that can’t brook disagreement with your heroes.”

An educated Fifth Estate creates an evolutionary society, a mindless one creates results like Kim Kardashian as the number one search term on Bing for 2010. While many people find Kardashian attractive, should social semantic search tell every person — man and woman alike — what the icon of attractive is? Parents across America may object.

What do you think about how search and algorithms are defining our society?