Sunday, 18 February 2007

Social Computing is it a Sustainable Reality?

Can social computing succeed against the drive for commercial organisations to exploit it or governments wanting to control it?

“Freedom is fostered when the means of communication are dispersed, decentralised and easily achievable” Ithiel De Sola Pool (Political Scientist)

Current levels of internet access, speeds of connectivity and ownership of digital cameras & mobile digital telephones mean that you could argue that this is what the internet is capable of delivering, and is in fact the result of what Social computing delivers. The question is, will it be allowed to continue and can it become truly global?

Social computing is growing at a phenomenal rate and large organisations are already developing strategies designed to turn this to their advantage. Start up sites such as Myspace and more recently Youtube have already been swallowed up for unbelievable sums by Newscorp $580m and Google $1.65bn respectively, these are to name but 2 of many examples (facebook, flickr, friends reunited) . This is the sign that the future of social computing will be driven by commercial organisations so can it remain true to the factors that have brought the early success?

Social networks share information, experiences and advice and as a result are very interesting for any business to be able to gain acceptance within these communities. Compete Inc have recently found, through research, that social computing influences online sales, this is being termed social commerce. It has been identified that social site members listen more to peer feedback than any other source of information. This may not come as a big surprise, and early examples can be seen throughout the web, a clear one being the online buying and selling site e-bay. Buyers submit feedback and ratings that act as a comfort or re-assurance for other buyers if they can see feedback about the seller they are looking to buy from. This however can be open to exploitation as there is nothing to stop sellers submitting positive feedback about themselves, both from the private individual level and from a business’ point of view.

The next stage in business exploitation comes as a result of the technological advances online and the growth in blogging (Technorati claim 55 million blogs currently exist Feb 2007), marketers are now looking to take advantage of these opportunities to try and communicate with potential consumers. Marketing is effectively a means used to sell something to someone, what makes it happen does not matter. What one could argue is that an agency or organisation can produce better “stories” which are presented as better content which in turn get noticed. Organisations are generating enormous amounts of content, either directly or through third party agencies with the initial hope of being noticed, but the ultimate objective is to gain acceptance that will lead to sales. Blogs have been used by businesses to spread messages but now with the introduction of even richer rich media - vlogs they have a very effective means of communication, vlogs enable commentary and video that makes bloggers voices heard.

Even websites with the force of major organisations behind them have to make sacrifices in their corporate aims due to pressures from the governments of certain countries. Google’s aim of indexing the world’s information to make it easy for anyone to find whatever they are looking for suffered a setback at the hands of the Chinese Government who have insisted on restricting what actually is made available to the Chinese population. In France the Government insisted that Greenpeace removed a mash up as it contravened an EU law. How can social computing succeed and become truly global if organisations have to bow to regulation and legislation within certain geographies. Potentially more concerning is the question as to whether bloggers become open to prosecution as a result of their site content, the answer to this question is yes on more than one occasion.

3 questions to contemplate in relation to Social computing going forward. Please feel free to offer your opinions.

  1. Will we be able to distinguish between true consumer generated content and organisational content in the future?
  2. Will consumer content become lost amongst a battle ground for organisations and brands to gain share of voice?
  3. Will Governments around the world hinder the chance of social computing to grow to its full potential?


Anonymous said...

A couple of thoughts:

Business generated content under the guise of blogs has the potential to backfire on organisations. Mocking up something that is supposed to be 'unofficial' may well be unmasked. Better to be honest about it.

Having said that brands probably have more to lose by ignoring what is happening within on-line communities and social computing. Certainly should be listening to what is going on (if not just posting loads of content). Really good content will work, lots of average content is probably a waste of resource.

Second thought is that the purchase of sites like Myspace is interesting because of the obligation that the owner has in terms of regulation. For example what do Newscorp do if 'illegal' content is posted that contravenes licensing agreements with other parts of their business?

If the site becomes notably over-corporate / over-reglated / saturated by paid for marketing communications it may begin to lose the appeal for users and particularly early adopters. In theory in an online environment there is little to stop people moving to new, less corporate sites, but something I think is intriguing is how much inertia will build up on line with online communities, and how much will online brands build loyalty?

Peter said...

On 1. There are already problems. I'll try and find some of the cases as I cannot remember right now but corporations have been caught impersonating independent several times. Moreover, I was chatting to a contact from the world of advertising and she told me that she always looks at consumer product recommendations (e.g. on What Car, Amazon & many sites) with a sceptical eye. They are a perfect platform for guerilla marketing. So, can you be sure that the 5-star recommendation is not from a representative of the company? Vice versa, can you be sure that the 1-star recommendation is not from a representative of the competition? According to my contact, "it goes on all the time."
2. On 2, I would say 'no, overall' but see 1. There may be an opportunity for a high-ground, authenticity-checked consumer site. I think if one site works harder than the rest to check the authenticity of its comment-makers, it might win.
3. Here I would be boldest. The answer is 'no.' For example, ask a Chinese student if there are ways round the restrictions over there.

rawn said...

For your third question first, there is an implicit supposition here that social computing deserves to be on a truly global scale with equal rights to all, whether it comes from a commercial or governmental sense. Until the advent of the net, we have never had a medium where people can be considered a citizen of the world, rather than the local business, governmental, environmental and social climate of their geographic area.

Similarly, take the idea of free markets purely on concept alone. Generally, we know how it supposed to work and it is very widely implemented, but the specifics of how it actually works is such a complex process, usually brought on by national or local governments, because, as most countries have demonstrated, they each think there are local concerns and emphases that need to be applied to something that is in essence a fairly basic idea. This is why World Trade is so complex.

I don't think social computing can escape from this fate. You can rely on local concerns to always impact work on a global scale. That is what we get when we accept the ability to have differing views on matters, call it freedom of thought, lifestyle, tradition, culture, whichever.

To answer your first question, I think it will progressively become harder to tell the difference between what is user-generated and organizationally-produced. However, the issue in my view is that even end-users are "trying to sell something." Everyone, whether individuals or commercial organizations, are trying to sell something even when they are not. In most basic form, it is an idea of theirs. In commercial form, they want that idea to pay off.

This is where it gets into your second question: will individual voices be lost? While this is possible, we have known in history it is possible for a single-person's voice, ideas and opinions to be heard over entire nations. These days you can find single blogs--whether a single person or a handful of folks--that do better than national newspapers. However, what most forget is that having your voice heard has a lot to do with your reputation and the trust you engender in others.

Organizations have a collective reputation, but as I mentioned earlier, it is possible for a single individual to have a bigger reputation than a large company.

The real unseen war now and in the future is one of reputations and trust, who has the best and biggest of the former, and who can gain the most of the latter, to be able to sell their ideas.


Linda said...

The biggest thing getting in the way of social networking sites becoming truly global is language. I would love to get in contact with people from the countries my ancestors came from but I only speak English.

Governments can get in the way too when they censor sites but eventually people will find ways around this.

Fiona Torrance said...


Thank you for visiting and directing me to your site. You raise three complex questions -- here are some thoughts on each:

1. In attempting to distinguish between organizational content and consumer generated content, we need to look at the source of the content, the platform hosting the content and its "filters"/"moderation" and as you've mentioned - regulation too.

Some organizations are genuinely soliciting and publishing all types of consumer generated content/feedback to improve product innovation and sales. There are cases though, such as sites with guest hotel reviews where subjective filtering is occuring and this raises ethical questions when customers make choices based on reviews.

I think it will become harder to distinguish between what is consumer vs organizationally-driven content, and that there will be criteria eventually to evaluate this.

2. The battle ground is in gaining visibility and attracting the DESIRED consumer to generate the DESIRED content for your site. Organizations will specialize in targeting certain consumers to contribute specific kinds of content. I think, in terms of marketing, it's just a different playground and those organizations with the best techniques will succeed.

3. A country like China (or any other) with its regulation cannot alone hinder the social computing evolution that's occurring. I don't personally think regulation and jurisdiction issues can keep up with the pace of technology.

AC said...

Couple of thoughts:

1. I think it is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between true consumer generated content and organisational content. However business's that risk producing content under the guise of a consumer which is subsequently uncovered as such may suffer and lose consumer confidence. I think there was such a case where a group of young people blogged about travelling the globe which turned out to be sponsored by a big multinational (citation needed).

3. I think most countries in the developed world would not intervene with Social Computing, as freedom of speech laws are widely supported. Although they may do so when national security is at risk. However would a terrorist broadcast their plans for all to see?

China is well known for locking-up people who speak their mind online, and the recent article below tells a similar story in Egypt:

Gavino said...

3 – Undoubtedly Governments will seek to restrict access to content that they feel threatens their own interests. Twas ever thus. Every other media in the history of man has fought the same battle. I think what’s more interesting is how the internet should be regulated in local environments.

Here’s a curve ball – the web should exist with tighter regulations. There is often an assumption that regulation per se is a negative force but I don’t believe this to be the case. However I do think that the web has to be better at self regulating

To take some extreme examples: A few weeks ago we had panic headlines in the national newspapers over the fact that a popular community website gave three men a forum to plan a child abduction. Result: Internet gets the blame. After the bombings in London the media was full of stories about how the “internet” is being used to disseminate race hate and how you can “build your own dirty bomb”. Result: Internet gets the blame. It’s these kinds of stories with the scare-mongering that follows, that allows a government to push through what it considers to be justified legislation.

My advice to web owners would be to self-regulate before regulation is imposed upon you. It’s not enough for site owners to sit back and blindly defend freedom of expression or to deny responsibility for views it allows to be published.

We have to accept that the individual’s ability to say whatever he/she wants is not always a good thing. Site owners should take more responsibility for their content by dedicating more resource into identifying risks and site users should be more proactive in identifying and reporting abuse issues. In this instance there is a social contract that goes hand in hand with freedom of individual expression. Lets think in those terms.

2 – Good consumer content will always find a way of getting through. The great thing about the web is that it costs peanuts to publish content. The means of production doesn’t always fall into the hands of those who control capital and this is the real revolution.

In the example of My-Space, I draw on the anecdotal evidence of my 16 year old nephew who has abandoned the site and found an alternative. His reason for defecting? “It’s become too popular and it doesn’t feel like mine anymore”. What’s really interesting about his response is that his friends have gone with them. Smaller communities can break away from larger communities on mass and easily find pasture somewhere else. That’s not something Murdoch can control

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