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It’s fine to plot the interest graph, but what happens next? (Social Media Week panel)

In a panel discussion today on social listening at the swanky new SF PeopleBrowsr office, the interest graph formed the basis of a lot of the discussion. I guess I’m out of touch with social media monitoring as this concept was new to me. First we had the social graph, of which I’m aware: a mapping of all your connections (say friends and family) to whom you are connected across social networks. Now with some degree of overlap, you can also plot an interest graph: this time mapping connections based on a shared interest. Susan Etlinger of Altimeter used the example of a fashion site where people build connections based on couture. You may not share these interests with your grandma, but only a small subset of your friends, and the extended network of aesthetes you meet on the fashion site.

Jodee Rich from PeopleBrowsr suggests these interest networks are of more value to businesses as it gives a truer value of an individual’s importance to them. Businesses will get more value by targeting their communications around those people who have authority in that interest area (interest graph). Context is everything. You only have authority in relation to an interest (or theme). Having 500K followers on Twitter means nothing unless those followers share the common interest which is of value to the business tracking you.

This got me thinking where my own social presence and my social and interest graphs lie. By day I work in the technology sector and I generally share with people with this interest (from within my company or external folk) on Twitter. This is where I geek-out. Now I do have the other side to my online communication: where I share pictures of my newborn, other interests like music and art and bizarre oddities I find on the web. This extra-curricula activity all happens on Facebook. And rarely do the twain meet. I know not everyone divides up their online existence to this extreme, but many will have some degree of division and in these cases businesses need to ensure that they have tools that can map across the different networks in use.

When it came to what businesses should do with all this listening intelligence they build, I felt that there were more questions than answers. Tim O’Reilly proffered that sophisticated companies will go beyond business intelligence and use social listening to shape business processes. Effectively molding products and services around what the audience says it wants. However, he also suggested that this ‘autonomic’ model of business should have some human component if I understand rightly what he later said about ‘humans going the last mile’. Computers can only go so far before some level of human intervention is required to make sense of the data and take appropriate action. I’m uncertain as to at what point human intervention really makes sense and I know this is a hot topic of debate in decision management science.

O’Reilly also states that ‘great companies have everybody listening’. Listening isn’t just the domain of marketing or comms departments, but everyone can get involved and use this input from the market to drive the company forward.

I can see a flaw in this plan: the tooling.

I have problems enabling anyone to listen who doesn’t have social media responsibilities written into some part of their function. Even if I can get them access to a social media monitoring dashboard, they’ll be looking at the predefined generic terms determined by the marketing/comms team that setup the tool. This won’t include the terms that a local office would need to monitor the conversation relevant to them. So I inevitably end up pointing them to personal social media tools like Tweetdeck, which lacking any kind of workflow, offers no scope for coordinating conversations.

Brian Solis deserves a shout-out for doing a wonderful job of guiding the conversation and even working in a ‘sexy’ Marvin Gaye reference.

Will social networks be like air?

According to Charlene Li, prominent social media analyst and founder of the Altimeter Group, the answer to this question is a resounding ‘yes’. The idea, that has been floating for some time, is that rather than us making a conscious effort to visit Facebook, Twitter or other social networks, these will be so interwoven into the web experience that we’ll hardly realize we are using them (hence the parallel with air: we hardly notice we need the stuff to breathe).I recently had the opportunity to hear her expound further on this idea on an SES webcast hosted by Matt McGowen.

She proffered the compelling example of buying books on Amazon. It’s one thing seeing book recommendations from people with supposedly similar tastes and interests. But what about if you can bring your social network to the table – ie. those in your group who also buy books from Amazon. Wouldn’t you be interested in knowing what they’ve bought too? Given that we’re more inclined to take advice from those we trust, book recommendations from our friends are more powerful than those from a stranger. That leads to the benefits for site owners: more sales to be made by allowing us to see relevant information from our circle of friends (often referred to as the social graph). So runs the theory.

Social networks will be like air

Mirroring the mall

In the real world, this scenario plays out in malls and shopping centers across the globe every Saturday afternoon. For instance, gangs of school girls prowl malls and shops, bonding over rails of the latest skin-tight jeans and boob tubes, sharing fashion tips of the moment and goading each other to spend. This is often the beginning of a social shopping habit that can last well into the 40’s, if the Sex in the City ‘gang’ are anything to go by.

Whilst the social aspect to shopping has been around as long as we’ve had high streets, the online shopping experience has been largely a solitary affair. The somewhat bulky task of emailing a page to a friend is about as social as it gets. But all that could change if Charlene’s predictions play out and social networks are weaved into the general browsing experience. The web also allows us to go that much further. You can tap networks of friends from around the globe and even those you wouldn’t necessarily shop with (eg. work colleagues).

As Charlene points out, this is more than the future: this ‘social portability’ is already available through services such as Facebook Connect and Google Friend Connect – both services that can embed social elements into any old web page. Launched over the last year, both services have been growing steadily.

I should point out that you can take your social graphics and apply it to whatever the application: it doesn’t just have to be shopping. For instance, if I’m attending an event, I could start networking and finding those with similar interests before I arrive. When it comes to commenting on blogs, we’re already beginning to see tie-ups with Twitter, so my followers can instantly check out my opinions on other blog posts.

How social do we want to be?

Will these connection services become more prevalent in the future? I think so. Will this be the dominant/pervasive model? Here’s where I have some reservation. There are times where, to paraphrase Greta Garbos, we just want to be alone. Some of our shopping is by necessity furtive: like buying a surprise gift, or pandering to those desires that fall outside the social norm.

There’s also the question of the notion that ‘social’ intrinsically means ‘good’. At the extreme think Lord of the Flies and Stalin. The alphas in any group can cajole and bully us into accepting their tastes (and in some instances berate us to the extent that we don’t make a purchase we would have made if alone). The privacy of online shopping can be a healthy respite from this.

Just exactly how neat is our social graph?

We have many sides to our personality and have friends for different reasons. In reality we share different parts of ourselves with friends, work colleagues and family, to name just some groupings. This leaves many of us with more than one social graph. What’s more, many of these graphs bleed into each other. Think of the work colleague you get close to and consider a friend. Existing social networks like Facebook are still grappling with how to factor this in and allow us to manage our social graphs in a more useful way. Going back to the Amazon example, are we really interested in seeing the book-buying habits of all our so-called friends?

Conclusion: social networks with limited connectivity

So whilst there are a number of advantages to tying our social graph into our web browsing experience, there are instances where the model isn’t appropriate or may not offer relevant information. There comes a point where our social graph fragments and can’t be neatly modeled. Furthermore, there is something compelling in the solitary aspect to the web.

In closing I’ll offer an anecdote around listening to music online. Recently, two music-loving friends who had previously been fans of Last.fm said they had switched to Spotify.  Both offered the same reason: you don’t need to show the world what you’re listening to. In a race to be social, are we forgetting one major appeal of the web: the joy of being anonymous?

More information

Charlene Li webcast on ‘how to integrate social media into your business strategy‘ (including a discussion on how social networks of the future will be like air).