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December 08 2010

15:00

Nicholas Christakis on the networked nature of Twitter

Earlier this fall, Alyssa Milano — known for being on “Who’s the Boss” and, more recently, for being on Twitter — sent out a somewhat surprising tweet to her nearly 1.2 million followers: a link to the Amazon page of a book called Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks & How They Shape Our Lives.

For a book like Connected, penned by two social scientists and built on longitudinal research and academic inquiry — a book, in other words, that may hope to achieve influence over our thinking, but doesn’t aspire to huge sales numbers — you’d think that a message broadcast from a heavily followed Twitter account would lead to a proportionally large spike in sales. Amplification, after all, comes from size: The more followers a person has, the more people who will see a message and who will, potentially, retweet it — and, thus, the more people who will potentially act on it. We know it intuitively: In general, the greater the numbers, the greater the viral power.

So, then, how many extra books did Connected’s authors, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, sell in the wake of their million-follower tweet?

None. Literally, not a one. In fact — insult, meet injury! — in the days and weeks following Milano’s tweet, the book’s sales actually declined. The actress’ follower numbers, in this case, hadn’t been a force for much of anything. “At least with respect to the influence of behavior,” Christakis noted, “these links — these Twitter links — are weak.”

But, hey, maybe it was just an Alyssa Milano thing: It’s pretty fair to figure that the overlap between her followers and the universe of people who might buy a sciency book by two professors would be, you know, low. So Christakis and Fowler asked Tim O’Reillynearly 1.5 million followers, with, ostensibly, more book-interest overlap — to send the Connected link out to his feed.

The result? “We sold one extra copy of the book.”

Same experiment, with Pew’s Susannah Fox (4,960 followers)? Three extra copies.

If you’re interested in the way information spreads online — and if you’re interested in the future of news, you probably are — then the low volume-to-impact rate the authors found (which, though completely anecdotal, flies in the face of so much conventional wisdom) is fascinating. And it begs a question that appears so often in academic inquiry: What’s up?

In a talk yesterday evening at IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center in Cambridge (we wrote about another IBM event, with dataviz guru Jer Thorp, this summer), Christakis, a professor both at Harvard Medical School and its Faculty of Arts and Sciences, dove into that question, discussing the particular (and peculiar) ways that social networks — online and off — work.

The talk focused on the epidemiology of action — how and whether certain behaviors spread through a population. (More on that here.) Though we often talk about social connections in terms of simple binaries — friend vs. not-friend, weak ties versus strong — the ties that bind people together, Christaskis’ research suggests, are nowhere near as simple as we often assume. There’s the obvious — your Facebook friend may not be your friend friend — but also, more murkily but more fascinatingly, the complex of connections that affect our behavior in surprising ways.

For the Lab’s purposes, one especially intriguing element of the discussion focused on Twitter — and the extent to which ideas spread through Twitter’s network actually catch on and have impact. One binary that might actually be relevant in that regard, Christakis suggested: influencer versus influence-ee. “If we’re really going to advance this field, we need to figure out how to identify not just influential people, but also influenceable people,” the professor noted. “We need not just shepherds, but sheep.” And “if we’re going to exploit online ties,” Christakis said — say, by creating communities of interest around news content, and potentially monetizing those communities — then “measures of meaningful interactions will be needed”: We need metrics, in particular, to determine “which online interactions represent real relationships, where an influence might possibly be exerted.”

For that, he continued, “we need to distinguish between influential, or real, ties online, and uninfluential, or weak, ties online.”

The next question: How do you do that? How do you look beyond standard (and, per Christakis’ anecdotal evidence, misleading) metrics like Twitter follower/Facebook friend counts and find more meaningful metrics of influence? One benefit of social networks’ movement online is that their dynamics are (relatively) easily trackable: We’re able as never before to put data behind the interactions that define society as a whole, and, in that, understand them better. (Connected, on the other hand — whose conclusions are based on data sets of social flow that were cultivated, over a period of years, from physical documents — didn’t have that luxury.)

And while Christakis’ talk raised as many questions as it answered — we’re still in early days when it comes to measuring behavioral influences online — one of his core ideas is an insight that several news organizations are already putting to practice: the power of the niche. Much more significant and influential than single celebrities — individual nodes in a network — are the “niches within the network where you have the particular assemblage of influential people and their followers.” When influence is layered — when its fabric is made stronger by tight connections across a smaller network — it’s more predictable, and more powerful.

And that has big implications not only for news organizations, but also for the platforms that are hoping to translate their ubiquity into financial and social gain. If you want your work to have impact, then targeting a bundle of closely connected networks — with news, with links, with messages — may make more sense than going for numbers alone. Spreading a conversation is not the same as affecting it. “I’m not saying that Twitter is useless,” Christakis said, “but I think that the ability of Twitter to disseminate information is different than its ability to influence behavior.”

July 16 2010

15:00

No, seriously: What the Old Spice ads can teach us about news’ future

BrandFlakesforBreakfast might have put it best: “…If you live in a cave, you need to be aware of the fact that Old Spice owned the internet yesterday.”

Indeed. How the brand did that owning is fascinating (and, if you haven’t seen it already, ReadWriteWeb’s detailed description of that process is well worth the read); essentially, Old Spice’s ad agency spent the entire day yesterday curating the real-time web, writing and producing videos based on that curation, and posting them to YouTube — where, again, the real-time web could do its thing. It was, as Josh pointed out, the advertising world’s answer to the Demand Media model of content creation: research, churn, rinse, repeat.

And — here’s where Old Spice parts ways with Demand Media — pretty much everyone seems to love it. (As one web metrics firm noted, “We took a look at some of the most explosive viral videos we’ve measured, including Bush dodging Iraqi shoes, Obama giving his electoral victory speech, and Susan Boyle, and found that in the first 24 hours, Old Spice Responses outpaces all of them.”) And it’s a popularity that seems to bridge the culture. The Atlantic wondered whether the campaign augurs the future of online video, while Reddit posted an open letter declaring, “Ok, you won us all over Mr. Old Spice Man. On reddit…our demographic is notoriously difficult to crack. And hell, you cracked it well, on our home turf which we patrol carefully, and we liked it.” Online denizens from Alyssa “big on Twitter” Milano to 4chan — yes, that 4chan — have also apparently hopped onto Mr. Old Spice Man’s horse.

So (putting aside the fact that we now live in a world where the members of 4chan and Alyssa Milano have only one degree of separation between them, and thus that End Times approach) we have to wonder: What might the Internet-owning power of the towel-clad spokesman hint about, yes, the future of news?

There’s the obvious, of course: the fact that the ads are personalized. That their content is created for, and curated from, the conversational tumult of the web — “audience engagement,” personified. Literally. The videos are, in that sense, a direct assault on top-down, author’s-artistic-vision-driven, mass media broadcast sensibilities.

But they’re an assault on mass media in another way, as well. The real hook of the videos isn’t the OSM’s awesomely burly baritone, or the whimsy of his monologues (the scepter! the bubbles! the fish!), or the postfeminist irony of his Rugged Manliness, or any of that. It’s the fact that we’re seeing all those things play out dynamically, serially, in (semi-)real-time. And: in video. Video that, though laughable in production quality when compared to most of its made-for-TV counterparts, is literally laughable in a way that most of those counterparts simply are not. The ads are weird and wonderful and hilarious. And the made-for-YouTube gag is part of the joke; the poor production value, relatively speaking, is part of the point.

In other words: The process of the videos, here, matters as much as the product. (Sound familiar?)

So, then, here’s the news angle. We often, in our focus on content (the news itself) and context (the newsgathering project, engagement with users, etc.), forget the more superficial side of things: the presentation framework of news content as its own component of journalism’s trajectory. The question of production value — essentially, to what extent do consumers care about high-quality production in the presentation of their news? — is still very much an open one in online journalism, and one that probably doesn’t get enough attention when we think about what the news will become as we adapt it to the digital world. That’s particularly so for video. Any given MediaStorm video, say, with its expertise and artistry, is likely going to be superior, aesthetically, to any given YouTube video. The question, though, is how much better. And whether, for cash- and time- and staff- and generally resource-strapped news organizations, the value added by finesse justifies the investment in it.

The Old Spice videos are a particularly instructive case, since, for journalistic purposes, they essentially lack content; they’re marketing messages, not news. Measured against the high-production-value ads on TV, they allow for a nice little side-by-side comparison of audience reception. And judging by the campaign’s expansive popularity, audiences not only don’t seem to mind that the ads are relatively low in quality; they actually seem to like that they are. The straight-to-YouTube thing is not just a means to virality, or an implied little irony; it’s also part of a broader shift: low(-ish) production value as a ratification of, rather than a threat to, the content in contains. When it comes to news video, slickness can be a drawback; in an increasingly UGC-driven world, it’s video that’s grainy (and bumpy, and poorly framed, and generally amateurish) that tends to imply authenticity. As we move, in our news, from vertical structures to horizontal, our expectations about images themselves are moving along with us.

Does that mean that news organizations should abandon high-quality video production, if they’re already engaged in it? Or that their sites should eschew lush data visualizations or artistic photography? No, certainly not. But it does mean that we should be cognizant of production value as an independent factor in journalism — one that can and should be open to moderation and experimentation, either for better or, when warranted, worse. Quality content tends to speak for itself; the Old Spice ads, with their churned-out, on-the-fly, Flipcam-y feeling, are reminders that consumers recognize that better than anyone. Not all journalism needs to be slick or sharp or beautiful; some of it might actually benefit from a little messiness. And from, yes, a little spice.

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