There’s an excellent post over at The Guardian arguing that traditional methodologies for establishing the value (in financial terms) of social networks are hopelessly ill-equipped to pick up on all the different ways in which Twitter has economic value. The article’s author, John Naughton, is completely right to call for a more nuanced approach when trying to evaluate social networks but, in a sense, I feel he doesn’t quite go far enough: we are currently still way behind when it comes to devising appropriate methodologies for researching and understanding social networks in almost every respect, evidenced by the extent to which they still baffle economists, sociologists, ethnographers, political scientists and even anthropologists.
The problem is that social networks have very quickly become integral to how we manage and conduct so many aspects of our lives that scientists and researchers (in the broadest sense of the word) are struggling to keep up. Social media has become vital in how we buy and sell things; how we form and maintain relationships; how we present ourselves to the world and how the world engages with us. It affects what sources and media we use to understand the world; how we manage political election campaigns; how we are educated; find employment and even how we respond to disasters and adversity (from disaster relief funding campaigns on Facebook to more immediate calls for help in emergency situations).
So, with this in mind, I think it’s time we started considering which questions we want our experts answering when it comes to social media. Is the only thing that matters simply knowing how much Twitter, as a company, is worth on the stock market? Or are there other questions, equally difficult to tackle, but which are deserving of attention from experts across the media, academia, and government?
Here are a few questions which I think need to be addressed if we are to gain a more rounded understanding of the place social media has in our lives. Methodologies for answering these questions may not be easy to find given the elusive nature of online life but, in the long run, I think that whoever finds effective ways of answering them will find themselves in great demand…
1. How does social media use affect our inter-personal interaction skills?
We’ve all heard the gripes about how Facebook is destroying young people’s ability to communicate face-to-face in a spontaneous manner – but, in all seriousness, this is an absolutely vital question not only in terms of deciding how much social media is good for children and young adults but also even for adults trying better to understand how social media use is affecting their communication skills. Does social media use make us more or less confident in our offline communication? How big a problem is cyber-bullying? How does it differ from or relate to it’s offline counterpart? Are people with good interpersonal skills more or less likely to use social media?
2. How much does social media marketing contribute to a brand or business?
Everyone knows the answer to this is somewhere in between ‘a fair bit’ and ‘loads’ but quantifying it more precisely is actually quite hard. Some sort of viable metric here would be massively beneficial in helping businesses to plan precisely how much to invest in social media marketing in the same way that they might with more traditional marketing channels. At the moment, while being far from hit-and-miss, there is still a great deal of trial and error in social media marketing and, for certain business types (especially small ones who don’t have market research teams to monitor brand perceptions etc), it is often not easy to track the benefits – even though there are plenty of them.
3. How effective are social media petitions?
We often see online petitions circulating on social media raising awareness about various issues and calling for support in exerting pressure for change. However, while often undeniably successful (see for example the notable campaigns website 38 degrees), we don’t yet really have ample evidence about what factors influence a campaign’s likelihood of success; how online petitions are viewed either by governments or corporations relative to other forms of protest; or even whether such petitions often serve as a substitute for more meaningful types of action?
4. How many social media start-ups fail and what are the typical experiences of these companies?
We are used to successful start-ups receiving massive amounts of coverage in the media often detailing stories of unparalleled success and, sometimes, overnight riches (Facebook’s billions etc). However, in order for this ecosystem to produce these stellar success stories (whether we are speaking about apps or independent games or any other form of start-up is beside the point as the issue is equally valid across the board) many more must be either failing or just about breaking even without making the jump to that next level. Again, because this phenomenon of the under-achieving start-up is less visible, we tend to be under-informed about it. How many start-ups are there out there? How long before people typically abandon an unsuccessful idea and move onto something else? What role do failed start-ups play in nurturing the environment which also produces successful start-ups?
5. How much productivity is lost by social media addiction? What other consequences does social media addiction have?
Plenty of companies monitor employees’ web traffic and even block access to websites where staff may lose/waste inordinate amounts of time (e.g. Facebook) but what we don’t know is how much heavy social media use at home (i.e. in free time) might be affecting people’s lives? Are people simply replacing watching television with spending time on Facebook? Or are they finding this time from other activities which they previously would have done? How can we measure social media addiction? How many people might have what could be considered an addiction to social media? Is an addiction to social media necessarily harmful?