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Keynote speech given at Social Media World Forum on Tuesday 15th March
Hi my name is Toby Beresford, I'm the founder of the Facebook Developer Garage London and commercial director of Nudge Social Media agency based here in London. I've been creating web applications all my professional career from Groupware with IBM through Social Network Site Maker software to Social Applications since 1997 to now.
I expect you like me struggle with the same key issue within your organisation. How to change a fundamental misunderstanding from Marketing to Legal as to what is social media and why it's different. We've all scratched our heads having been given a brief like - here's my Two million dollar TV advert - "make it go viral on Youtube" or perhaps it's the person who asks - now how can we get all these kids on Facebook to look at our website? I'm sure you all can sympathise with this issue. For me it's the fact that, even amongst those of us here who work in social media itself, we have not fully grasped the nature of the revolution that has taken place. That we are using old language like “channel” and “audience”; old paradigms that we are being slow in grasping the scope of what has happened, and what it means. Missing this paradigm shift stops us from moving forward.
I'm here to argue that the future has already happened - its effects are everywhere, from the most mundane interactions in our daily lives to the sphere of geo-politics. Social media may look like "just the web" to an outsider but to those of us on the inside it's the sharp end of change.
What it is
I want to frame this keynote in terms of man versus machine, in a sense recycling a very familiar theme - Blade Runner, I- Robot, 2001, Star Wars and Terminator have all played with this too. But I believe that in this case the machine has already won, that the matrix has already been installed and we've not fully realised this, and are not operating it to its full potential. Rather than clever web sites I like to think of social media as machines. Highly sophisticated, global digital machines that present a simple interface to their users. We're all familiar with the simplicity of the Google start page yet beneath is a clever machine that can find the information you're looking for from billions of items content worldwide, in a few seconds. The seeming simplicity of machine's control panel can be very deceptive. Take this quote from
Age of Absurdity Michael Foley
.. With the growth of communication technology, the machines doing the work are often no longer visible, but somewhere out in the ether, as intangible and mysterious as the mind of God. All that remains is the interface, the screen. So image triumphs over content, presentation over understanding, description over analysis. There is no longer a beneath, there is only the surface; no longer a complex machine, only a bright interface"
Lets take a social media machine we know- Digg.com - and understand why it's a machine.
The Digg tool ranks news items in terms of popularity, or "diggs". That's it, simple voting. The machine lists articles on its home page that have the most diggs. Yet underneath the machine is doing a lot more besides. Most importantly it is authenticating the diggers (who dug what), and continually seeking out the fraudsters who would try to game the digg machine for their own end to get their article to the top. No small feat of engineering in itself. The Digg machine takes away the traditional job of editor who would say what stories are on the front page and what is relegated to the classifieds. And this is really the problem we all face – to collaborate with the machine we must understand it.
History of Machines
Let's look at some examples from history - and I acknowledge that I am not the first person to draw parallels between the arrival of Gutenberg's printing press and the internet's. And in fact they are very comparable: each heralded a revolution whose consequences were total; where the change was systemic. In both cases there have been victims: the scribes, the calligraphers who soon found themselves out of business find their counterpart today in the print journalists and editor who right not are being laid off by the dozen. In both instances different establishments have sought to control and limit - the behaviour of Paul III, Pope in the 16th century who tried to ban the works of renegade Catholic priests like OChino who converted to Protestants and were using Swiss presses to publish their works perhaps finds echoes in the reaction today of Rupert Murdoch. We are in the equivalent period to when the printing presses and the calligraphers coexisted - but, at least from our perspective, there could be no doubt about which way the wind was blowing.
Yet, what starts as an apparent conflict can emerge as a new opportunity. While all revolutions have their victims; it's not a matter of good or bad, it's simply a new reality with which one will eventually have to accommodate oneself Revolutions both create and they destroy, new jobs as printers, typesetters, distributors, paper manufacturers and writers emerged even as old jobs of scribes and calligraphers were washed away. All this is stating what is now commonplace, but it is worth re-stating because there is still a tendency - both among the traditional media, but also manifesting itself in a neurotic uncertainty among the denizens of new media: the feeling that Facebook, say, is just a fad - that there is no permanence; that social networking is just a series of flashes in a variety of pans; that, in the end, we will revert to the old model of a limited number of channels - even if they're online channels; that things will "settle" into a series of acknowledged authorities.
What I want to point out is how utterly pervasive the new social media currently is; how it has become part of our consciousness; how we are already dancing to its tune. I'm calling this the "machine" - and in one sense I'm being provocative because "machine" conjures up so many nightmarish cultural references; but, as I'll get to in a moment, I'm also being quite specific.
I want to provide a few illustrations, large and small, of how social networking has radically altered our interaction with each other, our understanding of the world. When social networks first emerged, they were widely considered a gimmick - a novelty. Reported in the press as being a place for losers to get lost or rather, to find one another. Mixed in with this was fear - of stalkers, perverts,
paedophiles: social networks fulfilled the roll of the forest in a fairytale. Goblins lurked in there ... and in truth, there's still a lot of mileage in such stories. But social networks were patronised - primarily viewed as gimmicks. The demise of Friends Reunited was a satisfying morality lesson - the gimmick wears off; the relative decline of My Space, and Bebo - proof of the fickleness of the internet generation. Even now, when 400m around the world are on Facebook, when LinkedIn has grown from 55m to 60m in the last two months; there is depending on your stance - either a gleeful anticipation or anxious fear that it's all going to unravel.
And yet this is to fail to see the signs, to read the runes. To fail to understand that the virtual has already become the real. Culture has changed to accommodate the rise of the symbolic Avatar - the real virtual me. In the past we've seen our online selves as varied as World of Warcraft characters to Myspace profiles and Second Life characters but all have had that element of Escapism. Fantasy worlds in which actions apparently do not matter. The real virtual me, Friends Reunited, Ecademy, Google Connect and of course Facebook, is a different beast entirely. It is a symbolic form of your real self. Its got your real name, your real friends and details your real activity… often as vividly as photos from last night’s office party. And this is what makes the movie Avatar so powerful – it’s not a really political message about cultural vandalism or even a simple love story- more it’s about the absolute reality of the virtual. He enters into his avatar and doesn’t come back – that’s what makes it different.
Evidence abounds. There are the cases that have been made famous by the media - for instance, David Pollard, the man who met and married his wife in Second Life, then had an affair with another players Avatar , divorced his wife to marry the new player. A couple that sued for divorce after cyber affair where nothing more physical was exchanged than bits and bytes. On a smaller scale our own personal relationships are now bounded by it. Witness the friend of mine who was offered a Facebook ultimatum "add me as your girlfriend or you're dumped!" How many conversations have you started in the pub that refer to recent Status updates without even mentioning the word Facebook? Cyber bullying is a problem that gets that bit closer to home. I had a recent run in with a crank caller who found my public profile online and threatened my Facebook friends with a painful death by samurai sword, not something my education really trained me to deal with. Although to be honest the bullies themselves remain the same. So, if we're calling social networks a machine - in the way that the printing press was; in the way TV was; in the way writing was - then it has already reached into and altered the most personal parts of our lives. We are already dancing to its tune.
It really is a revolution and its already making big waves outside the personal sphere.
The election of President Obama could be seen to be a victory for the new machine I'm talking about. His grassroots campaign needed the thousands of Facebook groups, shared stories and invited events to energise and activate the USA voters in his favour. This is a man who knew who won it for him when he thanked his Facebook fans before going on TV to thank the country for voting him in. But, what he called his "improbable journey" was in fact the relentless drive of the social media machine. For those who voted for Obama, empowerment came not just from the process of election, but from creating one of their own. Empowerment came from becoming a FB "fan"; this translated into donations; even if you weren't even online, it was this sense of being a part of a micromovement; a movement over which the participants had ownership - had a stake. It wasn't the party machine, or the political machine; it was a different sort of machine - one that, I am arguing, has become dominant; has become the new establishment.
So we've got our real selves out there on the web in a symbolic form, we've removed the editors and replaced them with a machine, and we don't quite understand the revolutionary forces we've unleashed. Now as Bill Clinton would say there is no "Us and Them" only "Us"
Understanding the machine
But what, exactly, do we mean by "the machine"? It conjures up so many ghastly images - Big Brother; Stalinism; Secondary School. But let's be a bit more concrete.
The social media machine is virtual but that doesn't mean it is abstract - no it's a real mechanism but without emotional intelligence. Its intelligence is programmed, tuned and tweaked by its creators. Let's pick the Facebook machine and look at it in more detail. I'm choosing Facebook because it's the machine I know best, and it's also the biggest. There are now 200 million of our fellow human beings who check in at the social media machine every day. Why are they logging in, daily?
For Facebook users the News Feed is the Google Home page of utter online satisfaction. Without lifting a finger I get a daily newspaper tailored uniquely to me. It's a Stream made from the stories of my friends that Facebook thinks I'll find most interesting. And users agree – we spend 60% of our Facebook online time on this one page alone – that’s about half an hour a day. All the time the Facebook machine is processing stories especially for me. There are 5 billion pieces of content shared each week.. Its quite a task, not something a human editor could even begin to attempt. The black box of how it does this is Facebook's secret sauce but with a bit of prodding we can see the basics of how it works. First up it splits everything into stories – every status update, photo uploaded or shared link is considered a story. A description of reality with perhaps an image, some copy, a comment, a publisher and a publishing medium. But, how does Facebook decide what to show me?
Friend Filter Choosing which friends interest me most, those with whom I have a confirmed relationship is Facebook's primary cut on the masses of story data available. We are more interested in what our close friends thought of Alice in Wonderland that what Mr J Smith of Pinner thought - the social graph lets us see the world through the lens of our Friends experience. Brand Filter Next Facebook asks me to pick the brands and companies I trust and value. I don't own an Xbox so I don't want to hear from them but I sign up to the Playstation fan page because I've got a Playstation. I don't much like Marmite so they can't message me on Facebook but I love Nutella - new extra nutty flavour just launched? Bring it on. Content Rank Each item of content can then be ranked for me. The factors that most likely matter are popularity - if 20 of my friends are going to an event it's more likely to be of interest to me than if 10 of them are relevance - is the content likely to interest me? I have Owl City as my preferred band in my profile - does the content mention Owl City, have I signed up to the Owl City fan page? importance - how important is this content with regard to the rest of Facebook and the web. If everyone else is reading and linking to this article then it's likely to be of interest to me too
Friend Rank Facebook then looks at each publisher, the Friend who shared their photos or this link or that status with Facebook and ranks them according to how interesting you find them What matters to the Facebook machine? interactivity - how much have you interacted with them? visited their profile? accepted an invite? sent them a message. Try visiting a particular friend's profile over a few days, quite soon you'll see more posts appearing in your news feed from that person. More scarily they may even see more of you in theirs. Recency - how recently have you made them your friend - Facebook recognises that we human beings are fickle social butterflies - we're interested in our newest friends Relevance - are you two 20 something singles? If yes then you'll see more posts from each other. Are you both into MGMT and Heroes - yes Facebook plays the dating game, albeit under the cover of news. Application Rank What about the application you used to publish the content itself. HOw important is that in the grand scheme of things? Yes if use Facebook Notes to publish an article about your friends that will receive higher ranking than if you simply write a status update or buy a cow shed on Farmville.
Trained Behaviour Your behaviour also trains the machine - have you placed this friend on a limited profile, are they in a friend list you interact with regularly, have you hit a button
to say "hide content from this user", did you click or comment on a story of theirs last week - it all matters.
All this comes together to bring you a news feed of great news content, that you are really interested in, at just the right speed for you to consume it, not too much, not too little. A wonderful way to pass the time, and 400 million people agree.
What's coming next?
And the revolution is still happening. It's technology stupid, it never stands still. What we've seen in 2009 the rise of real time. I'm more interested in what happened just now than I am in what happened a few hours ago. Witness the maniacal addiction of your news junkies to twitter with it's every second updates. Really quite stressful for many of us who like to take life at a slower pace. 2010 is already seen as the year of location awareness. Another way to rank stories - if a friend shares a story of a sale happening at Macy's this afternoon I'm likely to be more interested if I am actually in New York. Foursquare and Gowalla are fighting it out to be the feeding platform of choice for this data. It's all going into the Facebook machine though. Cash counts too. Facebook Payments brings a way to charge for content micropayments on a massive scale - whether virtual goods or real donations what I pay for is clearly more important than something that's free. Facebook rolled out Beacon, it's "I just bought a jumper at Debenhams" technology a few years to early but the technology is still out there. Check out the Blippy.com social network and you can see what books your friends are buying at Amazon. Something for 2011 perhaps.
Collaborate or Compete
So the machine keeps growing - and its not just one machine it is many, all linked together with Web 2.0 glue. My Flickr photos can be seen by Facebook friends just as they can wonder at my latest Youtube video I favourited. And yet, those of us who work in social networking, have not fully understood the "psychology" - are not collaborating with it. My own company, Nudge has at least started the process of collaboration. Our social remix approach attempts to find a natural bridge between users, the machine and the advertisers; it's a bottom-up, participatory approach to advertising where people retain genuine ownership.
Ironically to close
So my point is two-fold: firstly, that we have not fully appreciated the scope of what has happened; and secondly, that we have not fully appreciated its nature that there is no longer an obvious switching off point between the virtual and the real. We need to stop fretting about whether we're a flash in the pan; and we need to ditch the old language. Away with channels - welcome in apps, the stream and social actions. Good bye web sites and hello social media machines. Finally I want us to think of a recent famous example of the power of social media: the campaign to stop Simon Cowell's dominance of the Christmas Number One. In the same way that President Obama swept aside the establishment's favoured candidate, Rage Against the Machine stormed to the top spot with a simple Facebook group of nearly a million people. But here's the great irony - nothing more emphatically demonstrating the cultural dominance of the social network machine: it has so co-opted us, that we
sing to the machine's tune while imagining that we are raging against it. The new social media machine has brought about a new order and its high priests are here in this room! Enjoy the day.
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