I read a book: Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age

Until recently, Clay Shirky was best known as the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. The book  was widely praised (seriously, Boing Boing calls it a “masterpiece”) and is still referenced  by social media strategist/expert/guru types as a must-read for anyone looking to explore the social dynamics that drive the use of technology, which at the time (and even now, to a certain extent) is not what drives most conversation about the internet and social media in particular.

Rather than focusing the catalyst of online social behavior on specific technologies  (i.e. what makes Facebook so popular?) Shirky argued that social tools facilitates common group behavior, conversation and social interaction. At the time, the beginning of Facebook’s online dominance and in the midst of growing fascination and panic about social media from the mainstream press. Shirky presented a reasoned, articulate and well-researched argument that the idea of “crowdsourcing” was not a new idea, but actually rooted in common, even traditional social interaction. The Internet just made that interaction happen more widely and more rapidly.

If you talk to any social media/internet  “expert” or “enthusiast” these days, this perspective is seen as common knowledge, but without Shirky’s well-presented theory and research to bolster this theory it wouldn’t have taken root.

In 2010, you’d think that this argument wouldn’t need repeating or clarification, but as traditional media continues to evolve and digital use continues to grow and become more ubiquitous, the panic of social theorists and mainstream media commentators continues unabated. The continuing debate of whether the Internet makes you smarter or more stupid seems to have a new chapter each day, but in Cognitive Surplus, Shirky’s latest book, he does add fuel to that fire, but also offers a modified version of his Here Comes Everybody thesis: The Internet has given us the tools to create, publish and share media  faster, cheaper and with more people than ever before

Shirky’s revised thesis is the reason that I think Cognitive Surplus is a must-read (there’s that term again) for media professionals in every field.

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Thinking out loud: What it meant to be a “fan” on Facebook

Yesterday’s announcements from Facebook’s latest developer conference, F8. dropped news of major changes that have rattled online privacy advocates (and everyday users). I am among the rattled, and will get into the privacy implications of Facebook’s Open Graph in an upcoming post.

First though, I’d like to ruminate a bit on a more seemingly innocuous change implemented by Facebook recently, the move from “Become a fan” to “like” in the lexicon of Facebook fan pages.

If you didn’t already know, Facebook fan pages are in theory, Facebook profiles specifically for brands, organizations and public figures. If you have a personal Facebook profile and you’ve ever “become a fan” of something on Facebook, whether its Mr. Peanut, Jason Statham, or “Not being on fire” well, that’s a Fan Page.

The point of these pages, in theory, was to keep personal profiles and brand profiles separate. The interface is slightly different than personal Facebook profiles for both users and administrators, and for marketing professionals there are more bells and whistles on Fan pages. But until recently, the use of Fan Pages was never limited to brands and organizations. The aforementioned “Not being on fire” fan page and similar gag Fan pages (like Aretha Franklin’s Inauguration Hat) have existed since fan pages were introduced.

The recent introduction of Community Pages for Facebook, seems to be a way to discourage the creation of gag pages by users and to insure that brand marketers control the use of Fan Pages exclusively.

Mashable cites an e-mail from Facebook to online advertisers, explaining the meaning of the change:

Facebook is alerting advertisers to the impending change by explaining that “Like” links offer “a simple, consistent way for people to connect with the things they are interested in … in fact, people click “Like” almost two times more than they click “Become a Fan” everyday.”

Little wonder in that; the word “fan” implies a level of engagement and commitment that the word “like” doesn’t quite cover. There’s a lot of things I “like” that I’m not necessarily a fan of. Of course more people would choose to click “like” more than “Become a Fan,” because being a fan tends to mean a little bit more to people.

Not to mention the fact that the “like” button was way more ubiquitous than “Become a Fan” button on Facebook. You could “like” a picture, a news item, someone’s stupid status update. “Liking” something on Facebook essentially implies a user vaguely acknowledges the existence of a piece of content, but doesn’t mean they’re passionate enough  about it to potentially opt-in to regular communications about it. (which is what Fan Pages are about, really)

But  that’s exactly what Facebook is counting on.  Here’s more from the previously mentioned memo:

Like’ offers a simple, consistent way for people to connect with the things they are interested in. These lighter-weight actions mean people will make more connections across the site, including with your branded Facebook Pages. We believe this will result in brands gaining more connections to pages since our research has shown that some users would be more comfortable with the term ‘Like’. The goal is to get the most user connections so that you can have ongoing conversations in the news feeds of as many users as possible.

I think of the times I randomly click on “like” for a piece of content I’ve scanned on Facebook. In some cases, “liking content” on Facebook is essentially saying “I’m too lazy to actually leave a comment on this, so here you go.” It’s the lowest level on engagement I can muster.

By making “like” and “Become a Fan” equivalent on Facebook,the more passive user behavior of “liking” something is now essentially an opt-in to a brand’s communication stream. Maybe you’re not into Coca-Cola enough to “Become a Fan” but surely you “like” it, right?

It’s pretty shrewd. Facebook is quite transparent that this change was made to increase user interaction with Fan Pages (now the exclusive domain of brands) but it is interesting to me that the implied exclusivity and discrimination of the term “fan” was seen as a liability for Facebook interaction. Traditional marketing values the fan above all others. In the case of Facebook, being a fan meant that you care just a bit too much.

Learned Fangirl at SXSW – Part 1: Black People on Twitter and other Non-Surprising Surprises

So, it’s been awhile, we know, but Learned Fangirl is back from hibernation. TLF was at SXSW Interactive this year and in between all of the panels, parties, networking, meeting old friends and new and trying to run away from drunken street harassers, we’ll be dropping some insights here in the next few days, probably weeks.

Before I get to into discussing the panels and the conference as a whole (and I’ve a lot to say about that), I wanted to use this first post to examine a theme I’ve noticed through the panels I’ve attended thus far.

When I attended last year, some of the attendees (including myself) were very critical of the demographic breakdown of the SXSW panels and panel topics, which like the tech industry as a whole, is pretty heavy on white males between the ages of 25-40.  There was a very public call to improve the diversity of these panels when the call for presenters went up for SXSW last year.

To the organizers’ credit, the SXSW Panel Picker went a long way in attempting to create more a more diverse experience in terms of panel speakers and topics, which was good to see; topics of race/gender difference seem to spring up even on panels that weren’t focused on those issues.

danah boyd‘s keynote talk on online privacy vs. publicity sparked a lot of discussion and thought for me. Some of you may remember boyd’s research on race/class and social networks. and her implication that MySpace is not a dead social network as much as it was perceived to be by the social media thought leaders who no longer spend time there.

This year, boyd brought attention to the black online subculture that exists on Twitter. Later, during his session “How to be Black Online,” comic Baratunde Thurston elaborated on the online user behavior of African-Americans, addressing the differences in technology use and social media conversation from general (i.e. white) online users. It’s great insight that unfortunately still doesn’t seem to stick with some social media experts who still cling to the old “digital native/digital immigrant” argument.

Talk of social media user and age is overstated at this point (yes, the median age of a Facebook user is 44, we know) while race and class stratification of the online world is still the elephant in the room at conferences like SXSW and elsewhere. I’ve noticed many of the “people of difference”  are engaging in digital grassroots activism and DIY/entrepreneurial efforts but not necessarily represented widely as industry leaders.

While the digital divide is arguably not as wide as it used to be (and I am not completely convinced of that) race and even more importantly, class, is mostly an afterthought in conversations about social media and the web. For all the data available on online user behavior, and all the talk about social media audience segmentation, online audiences are still primarily viewed as monolithic; the subject of race and class differences still seem to be a revelation for digital industry experts.  That’s a real shame when you consider the opportunities being missed by the industry as a whole.

The encouraging thing about SXSW 2010, however is that there was at least the beginning of some kind of dialogue started about these issues and that there was room for it. Still we’re outliers; there’s not enough race/gender/class diversity at the table, either at conferences like SXSW or the industry as a whole for the conversation to take place outside of just a off-shoot panel or two. The conversation needs to  become practice in order to lead to any structural change in the way digital experts view user behavior in the online space.

Ah well, maybe next year.

Using Social Media Tools Effectively: Part One: The Obama Campaign

One of our areas of focus this year is the effective use of social media / social netwObamaorking tools. At this point, we are planning to write about Planet Money, and Nine Inch Nails (yay!), but we are starting the series with the Obama campaign.

Of course, we all know that Barack Obama was not the first social media/Internet presidential candidate, that was Howard Dean back in 2003-04. The Obama campaign’s strategy with social media was built off the template established by the Dean campaign:

  • engaging supporters and organizers intimately and directly via social media
  • drawing influence from viral, bottom-up marketing strategies
  • depending on the aggregated impact of indivduals’ influence, Tipping Point style

Back in 2003, it was Meetup.com and blogs. The Obama campaign has MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and not to mention MyBarackObama.com

Last week at my job, the day after Election Day, a co-worker and I talked about Barack Obama’s successful campaign, its use of social media and more to the point, what will be done with all the  user data, access and influence acquired through the campaign’s social media initiatives? Now that Obama is president-elect, would he and his staff use these tools to promote his political agenda and perhaps lead to greater transparancy in the White House? Less than a day later, our answer came in the form of Change.gov, which appears to piggyback off of the success of the Obama campaign’s social media efforts:for a start, there’s a blog (not a great one, seems like rehashed media statements), a page inviting users to share their Election Day stories, and a link to official presidential transition documents.

Actually, the UK has been a pioneer in this level of transparency in government from back in 2003 with direct.gov.uk, the official website of the UK government, which provides documents and information to users.  In this article from UK magazine .net, MP Tom Watson talks the future of transformational government and the Internet:

Government 2.0 is a dreadful term but I can’t think of a better one that adequately gets over the point that public services have got to be more personal and responsive to the collective voice of their users and that there’s a very big shift happening in the way people live their lives and use services. The public sector is not immune to this. It goes back to my original point about wrapping services around the user in a form that works for them.

It’s an early start for Change.gov, but a step in a very interesting direction for this nascent administration and its efforts to engage and motivate its supporters.

Oh, and by the way? Nobody cares about Facebook.

So the Interwebz’ collective panties are in a twist as a result of a recent study that says essentially that MySpace still rules (and I mean significantly) when it comes to web traffic, despite Facebook’s dominance in the media.

Traffic analysts Hitwise released numbers today indicating that things are not as they might seem. Apparently, all the Facebook hype has not translated into a huge growth in social network market share among US users. Hitwise says that Myspace received 72.32% of US visits to the top ten social networks in December 2007, while Facebook received just over 16%.

Even so, Facebook is still the media/tech geek darling, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg on board to bore the hell out of people until Harold and Kumar shows up speak at SXSW Interactive in March.

But honestly, the Facebook vs. MySpace war is a rather pointless one. People will go, ultimately, where the content is, and that’s where MySpace rules. All the goofy applications in the world won’t make up for that. As long as musicians stream new music and film companies post exclusive trailer on MySpace, MySpace is where people will spend their free time. Until something better comes along.

I have no particular affinity toward one or the other as a user.But for anyone interested in using either for marketing purposes, this is a game-changer.

Facebook and the culture of total transparency

So … did ya watch the 60 Minutes interview with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg on Sunday night? You didn’t? Well that makes you, me and a few million other people, since it brought 60 Minutes its lowest ratings of the year thus far. Big surprise? Not really. I don’t think most casual users care so much about the creator of Facebook, even if they have an account, and those that are more invested in it (web marketing professionals and start-up execs, etc.) don’t necessarily hold Zuckerberg in such high regard.

So yeah, the Facebook piece was a bomb for CBS, but that’s not even the point of this post. Even if you could care less about Mark Zuckerberg, if you have a Facebook account – or a My Space account, or a Friendster account, or even just a blog – the issue of transparency in social networking sites (i.e. letting your online “friends” in on all of your business) is a huge issue.

It’s probably a bit ironic – if not hypocritical – for me to say this: a person with two blogs and six social networking profiles, and who spends a good part of her working day researching this kind of stuff, but I find this new culture of 100% online transparency to be pretty freaking annoying.

And this is really all Facebook’s fault. While Friendster, My Space and other sites allow users to have a selective level of anonymity through online aliases, Facebook allows no such thing, your full, real name is a required part of your profile, and your work, personal information and interests are automatically served up for personal consumption on news feeds until you select to have that particular feed removed.

This insistence on total tranparency, combined with Facebook’s very aggressive approach of mining this information for marketing purposes had certainly won a large share of detractors, which has been well documented. It’s annoying to me as a user; when I decided to take my relationship status off of Facebook (I use it for professional networking more than socializing) I got three messages from people asking there was a new “special guy in my life.” Three!

But, as an individual who manages a Facebook group for Association of Women Journalists, I will readily admit I’ve taken advantage of user’s openness about their interests to invite them to the group. And it’s an inevitability that I will be advocating a similar use of Facebook at my current job. Far from being dooced, I was actually hired in part because of my professional experience with blogging.

Total tranparency online as a default is certainly problematic when it comes to privacy issues, but as a culture, we’re moving more and more in that direction. Going back to the “good old days” of online anonymity isn’t really an option when you’ve got an entire generation of online users who are used to throwing their business up online to a “friends” list that consists of friends, relatives, c0-workers and total strangers.

Not to mention, anonymity on the web these days is seen as suspect. If one is not open about your identity on some level it’s assumed you have something to hide. (which is true, in a lot of cases)

But at the same time, I find myself not really caring if someone on my friends list just ate a cheeseburger two minutes ago or posted to a group of Clay Aiken fans, and I am sure my online friends feel the same way about my activities, and I shouldn’t have to work to not make that the default for my online experiences.