Social media and the shift of trust from institutions into processes

This is actually chapter 6 from my book.  I have put it here in order to liberate it from a restrictive means of distribution – so it can operate effectively in the social digital space. The liberation of content from a restrictive means of distribution is, of course, what the social media revolution is all about. Apologies therefore for its reference to other chapters and concepts not similarly liberated (unless you wish to buy the book of course).

Back in chapter two I mentioned that I think one of the most profound changes that the world of social media is heralding is a shift of trust from institutions into processes. The reason this is so important is that trust (and its close cousin influence) is the single most important commodity upon which all societies are built.

We live in a society where trust lives in institutions. We trust banks to look after our money, because there isn’t another way to create the bonds of trust necessary to conduct financial transactions at any form of scale (insert your own joke about trust and bankers here). We trust the media to present to us a representation of the truth (insert your own joke about…). We also trust governments… (say no more). We are, perhaps co-incidentally, at the moment suffering a reversal in our trust of institutions but perhaps this may be more than just co-incidental. Part of the reason may be that we are starting to see other ways to scale the creation of trust, that don’t rely on its management within institutions. There is nothing like a bit of competition to create dissatisfaction with the established order.

There are different ways we can establish trust other than locking it up in institutions. For example, we can do it on the basis of individual experience: you get to know someone and make a decision as the extent to which you will trust them. This essentially was the way trust worked in the world from pre-history to pre-Gutenberg. The problem with this approach was that it didn’t scale well. Every individual had to build their own trust networks, albeit they were assisted in this process by forms of tradition and practice, most of which had their roots in forms of oral culture.

Gutenberg created a print culture and what this did was allow us to start to trust things which lay outside of the narrow boundaries of personal experience. In effect, printing made it possible to start to build reputation amongst audiences of people, rather than just between individuals. You may start to see here an interesting juxtaposition, given that everything I have talked about thus far has been about moving from audiences back to individuals, although the key difference the world of liberated information delivers is the ability to add scale to individual trust relationships: an ability that was not previously available when information and thus trust, was locked up in institutionalised channels.

The ability to add scale to trust is critical to the world we have now created.  We couldn’t have created societies of size, especially large urban societies, without having first scaling the creation of trust. This is why the printing press is probably the most important tool necessary to build a city of any significant size: not something we are accustomed to recognising (see my point in chapter two about woolly mammoths in the last ice age not realising it was cold).

As an aside, it is curious to note how long it has taken us to recognise the fundamental importance of the impact of printing and mass communication on the shaping of our societies. It wasn’t until the 1960s and the work of Elizabeth Eisenstein that we were able to identify this and there still isn’t a really significant body of work or study that addresses it: probably because the subject is just too broad, and academia likes to run down specialist or politically motivated rabbit holes. For example, the (in my opinion, slightly deluded) neo-conservative historian Niall Ferguson has cited that one of what he calls the ‘killer apps’ of western civilisation is the Protestant work ethic (albeit he now proposes that this work ethic has become separated from Protestantism). This is based on the fairly obvious observation that the Protestant countries of northern Europe have prospered to a much greater extent in the last 500 years that the Catholic or Orthodox southern European counties. This division does indeed have it roots in religion, but not in claptrap about work ethics. Protestantism was a religion of the Gutenberg revolution. It embraced the transformative technology of printing, because it recognised the power of the mass distribution of information to disrupt the established, Catholic or Orthodox, order.

One of Martin Luther’s most significant acts was the German translation and printing of the Bible. You could also say that when he nailed his protest to the church door he was creating the world’s first ad (although these days we would more correctly define it as an ‘outdoor activation experience’). The Catholic Church, on the other hand, reacted by creating an environment that was hostile to printing, convening the Diet of Worms and establishing the Index of Banned books. The centres of printing – the Silicon Valleys of their day – therefore established themselves in Protestant northern Europe, creating a comparative advantage that persists to this day.  Anyway, Niall is a (slightly deluded) professor and I am just a bloke with an opinion, so you had better trust the professor, right?

Which brings us to another important point: why trust experts? Experts are just another representation of institutionalised trust. Their influence stems from the institutions within which they live, which is why Professor Niall Fergusson gets to air his views on BBC documentaries. Professor is just a badge which says “you can trust this bloke, (even if you think he is slightly deluded) because his views come with the endorsement of an institution which has established for itself a reputation for having important things to say.”

If you want more information on how the separation of information from restrictive means of distribution and the consequent shift of trust from institutions to processes is impacting the world of knowledge and academia, I recommend reading David Weinberger’s book ‘Too Big to Know’.

Journalists are the same. An individual journalist is a representation of institutionalised trust. Their influence stems from the organisation that employs them much more than it does from their own journalistic abilities, albeit most journalists would be reluctant to concede this point. But of course we are seeing how news is becoming more about process (journalism) than it is about institutions (journalists). It is why citizen journalists do not exist, but citizen journalism does. No-one can deny that citizens are now playing an important role in the production or creation of news, but this doesn’t mean that these people are citizen journalists. The only people I know who call themselves citizen journalists are unemployed traditional journalists with a blog. The people the media likes to call citizen journalists are simply ordinary people in a place a traditional journalist would like to be, with an ability to record and distribute what it is they are seeing, doing or thinking.

News is changing from being a finished product, presented to us in neat one minute packages or pages, to being a raw material. This is a fact which most news organisations have failed to come to terms with, but will need to adapt to if they are to maintain any sort of relevance in the post-Gutenberg world, because there is a role for institutionalised mediation of news as a raw material, albeit you can’t deliver it with a business model tied to the exclusive usage of restrictive, expensive distribution channels.

Ryan Giggs and The Probability Curve of News

How do we therefore establish trust in a world where news has become a process and there are no institutions upon whose interpretation we can rely? The answer is provided by the Manchester United footballer Ryan Giggs and something which I call ‘The Probability Curve of News’.

In the UK back in 2011 there was a bit of a dust-up between the traditional media, the judiciary and what said traditional media and judiciary like to generically label Twitter (these institutions like to see Twitter also as an institution because this either gives them permission to kick-it or a belief they can regulate it). The dust-up concerned the love-live of the English Premier League footballer Ryan Giggs. Giggs had taken out what became known as a super-injunction to prevent the media reporting on various allegations of extra-marital affairs. This was a ‘super’ injunction as distinct from normal injunction, because it also prevented the media from even mentioning the existence of the injunction itself, let alone the existence of allegations of infidelity. This turned out to be a rather counter-productive exercise from Giggs’ perspective, because all it did was create a huge level of speculation about who the un-nameable footballer in the un-disclosable story actually was. Social media (i.e. people) got onto the case immediately with Twitter, not surprisingly, being the tool of preference to spread rumours.

At some point, a Twitter account was created called @injunctionSuper. This account did what the traditional media was unable to do and expressly named Giggs and also some other well-known individuals who had recently employed super-injunctions to prevent details about their lives entering the public / media sphere. The individual or organisation behind this Twitter account has never been identified. It might have been a journalist (or news organisation) unable to contain their frustration and hoping that by putting the name out there it would render the super-injunction unenforceable and thus free the media to report. Perhaps it was someone who wished to expose the absurdity of the super-injunction system or the incompetence of the judiciary when it comes to understanding the 21st century. If it was the former it didn’t really work, but if it was the later, it certainly did.

Despite its ‘outing’ on Twitter, the media did not feel sufficiently emboldened to publish the name and remained in a state of journalistic purgatory: only able to stalk around the margins of the story, but not able to indulge in the traditional frenzy usually reserved for the exposure of imperfections in the lives of the rich and famous. However, no such restrictions were felt by social media (i.e. people) and the story was re-tweeted and then commented upon at great length: a fact which only increased the frustration of the traditional media and ruffled the feathers of the judiciary who believed their authority was being called into question. In reality, of course, it wasn’t their authority that was being questioned, merely their competence.

This situation presented a unique opportunity. Here we had a story that the tabloid media in particular were desperate to devote acres of sensationalistic newsprint too, but the only space that the story was able to run within was the social media space. We thus were able to compare how social media, in isolation, deals with a story and compare it with the treatment of the traditional media, given that there is an established ‘outrage’ format the tabloid media adopt in such cases.

I therefore decided to take a look at what was going on within the social media space. What I found was quite revealing. For starters, it is obvious that you can’t treat social media or Twitter as an institution i.e. a place where you can go to get a single representation of a set of facts that purport to be some form of truth. What you have to do is consider it in the round and get a sense of the range of facts and opinions that are circulating.  As you do this, a pattern starts to emerge which allows you to see which views or opinions sit at the margins and are either deliberately designed to be extreme or which may like to present themselves as mainstream, but which none-the-less enjoy very little support or endorsement; and those views around which there is a greater level of consensus or support. It is something I call the Probability Curve of News  i.e. a way of working out what may, or may not be true, not based on determining the accuracy of any individual fact or piece of information, but an ability to place all pieces of information on a probability curve. This curve will represent the distribution of individual opinions of facts within a large data set that necessarily contains within it a wide variance of such facts or opinions. In fact, the wider the variance and also the larger the data set, the more useful the approach becomes. Greater accuracy becomes a function of scale and also variance, the total opposite of an institutional approach which is reductive: ‘editing-out’ the information that is regarded as marginal, inaccurate or unreliable in order to distil a single expression of the truth, which can then conveniently fit into 500 words of copy or a 30 second segment.

Now those of you familiar with the concept of the new approach to knowledge processing which we are calling Big Data may well hear a few bells ringing at this point. Big Data is all about using patterns, probability and correlation to process large data sets that have wide variance and also ‘messiness’ within them. It is all about ‘listening to data’ and ‘letting the data speak’ rather than relying on the voice to come from a subsequent ‘expert’ interpretation of that data. Now that we have scaled-up the gathering and also editorialising of news, we have opened the door to the algorithm and a Big Data approach.  To an extent this process in a nascent form has been around for some time, in the shape of Google news, although this takes existing institutionalised content as its data set rather than raw, messy, ‘tweety’ data coming direct from the front line. I think Big Data and algorithms will be the shift that gives real application to this concept of the Probability Curve of News.

So returning to Ryan Giggs, what did the data actually say to me as I attempted to listen to it. Clearly I didn’t have an algorithm to help, but one conclusion was fairly obvious: lack of shock and outrage. People were simply not that bothered by the idea that (yet another) Premiership footballer had allegedly been unfaithful to his wife, even if it was a man whose reputation to that point, had been saintly. What was mostly happening was that people were creating and sharing jokes about the issue, many of which had their origins in Giggs’ attempts to keep the story secret, the frustrations of the traditional media and impotence of the judiciary. Or to put it another way, The Public, was positioning this story on a rather different part of the curve to that which the tabloid press wished to position it. The tabloids’ definition of the median point, around which the greatest probability of opinion should be gathered, was all about shock and outrage, whereas the public showed that shock and outrage was a much more marginal position to take.

This lead me to the conclusion that this whole story had nothing to do with the right to privacy versus the public’s right to know, as it was characterised by the traditional media and legal establishment at the time. Rather, it was all about the erosion of institutionalised privileges: the tabloid media’s presumed right to sensationalise (and the worrying ability of social media to deflate its ability to titillate) and the legal establishment’s presumed right to exist.

The oxygen of probability

The issue of the shift of trust from institutions to processes was something I discussed recently over lunch in Moscow at the Russian Interactive Advertising Bureau’s annual conference. Around the table was Randall Rothberg, the IAB’s Global President; digital creative guru Dave Birss and Dietmar Dahmen, who defies a single description but the closest might be ‘digital visionary’. We got on to the slightly difficult issue that a probability approach to truth or trust could lead you down the slippery slope towards a form of moral relativism. Randall in particular was keen to point out the dangers of not having recourse to forms of absolute judgement (or trust), especially when it came to issues like extreme political views and religious fundamentalism. This is probably not surprising given that Randall is a former newspaper editor. But what I think we all realised is that fundamentalism only becomes dangerous when it is allowed to present itself as mainstream. A process which prevents fundamentalism from shedding its extremist clothes without necessarily seeking to deny its truth can actually be as effective, maybe more-so, that an approach which attempts to impose an absolute judgement on the truth of its case. Applying a probability-based process to the assessment of truth will, by definition, never allow fundamentalism to penetrate the mainstream. It will always keep it marginalised.

This reminded me of famous position adopted by former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. In the 1980s she prevented the media from broadcasting the voices of the representatives of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the armed independence movement, the IRA. She said she was doing this to deny terrorists “the oxygen of publicity”. This was a logical response in the world of restrictive, institutionalised, media, albeit not a particularly effective response as it turned out because the media simply hired actors to present Sinn Fein’s words as voice-overs. A more logical response today would be to expose terrorism to “the oxygen of probability.”

Taking a slightly less extreme case, right-wing political ‘shock-jock’, Rush Limbaugh, might like to position himself as an average guy with common-sense views that come from the heartland of mainstream USA. However, expose Rush to the oxygen of probability and one would see that, despite the popularity of his shows, this shouldn’t deceive us into thinking that his views are anywhere near as popular.

Rather than have a debate about absolutism versus relativism, perhaps we should be more concerned about the fact that in many areas of endeavour, stuff that happens at the margins is extremely important and valuable, but perhaps the answer here lies in understanding and respecting the difference between something that is marginal and something that is marginalised. However, this chapter is already getting to be too long and this is a subject which deserves another whole book.

We are seeing forms of process-based trust spring-up everywhere, mostly in the shape of various forms of digital community. It all goes back to the fact I mentioned in chapter three, that one of the transformative effects of social media is that it is actually a process that allows us to trust strangers with mild personality disorders, more than we trust our own friends. Logitech’s customer service community is an example, Trip Advisor is an example, Wikipedia is an example, peer-to-peer lender Zoopla is an example. We haven’t yet reached a position where we have a created a community which does to news, what Trip Advisor does to hotels, although one suspects that if or when such communities start to evolve, Twitter or something Twitter-like will provide the fuel. Twitter is, after all, essentially an opinion engine.

The enshrining of trust in community-based process may also have profound long-term effects on the ability of brands to access consumers within the world of social media i.e. the world of the individual. I have long had a suspicion that the connected community is going to become the new individual. In the past brands could only access individuals as part of an audience. Social media, as we have seen, has provided the opportunity and indeed requirement to deal with individuals individually or as part of small groups. However, as time progresses I can see that individuals will refuse to accept contact from brands except within the context of relevant communities because they will recognise the power that stems from connection within a community of trust (Groupon could be seen as an early and rather flawed pass at something like this). Why negotiate individually with a large brand or organisation if you can get a community to do that for you? You could say that this is what Trip Advisor is already starting to do, albeit it is only leveraging recommendation rather than purchasing power.

It is possible that we will see the unionisation of the consumer base, in much the same was as we saw the unionisation of the workforce in the early part of the 20th century. Except that this won’t be an institutionalised process, as was workforce unionisation, it will be driven by an ecosystem of process-based trust communities. At this point the emasculation of brands will become complete. Their role will simply be to listen and respond. Their ability to speak to consumers directly will be severely limited, either filtered through the gatekeeper of a relevant community or upon terms that are strictly dictated entirely by the individual consumer. This is when the concept of a brand as we know it will cease to exist, because it doesn’t matter how spectacular the brand show has become, consumers will no longer want to show-up.

However, I think all of us involved in marketing can breathe relatively easily because this point is still some way off.

Digital influencers are not important

There is one last point to make here and this concerns the role of digital influence versus digital influencers. Within social media, digital influence is not the same thing as digital importance. Here is what I mean. Which of these two people might be the most important to your business: a person your influencer strategy has identified as having a high potential ability to spread the message about your brand through digital networks, or a person with very little pre-determined influence but who happens to be the first to spot and tweet about a problem with your product or service? Or, say, a person who has asked a question for which your business provides an answer: someone who, through their digital behaviour, has identified themselves as a potential customer?  For me it is obvious: while the former is a person with high potential influence the latter is someone with high actual importance albeit low pre-determined digital influence. Critically, the former is defined by who they are (something than remains fixed over time and therefore permits targeting), whereas the latter is defined by what they are doing at any one moment in time (behaviours and context).

Consider this. Dave Carroll, the musician who made the famous video song about United Airways breaking his guitar was not a digital influencer. No strategy designed to identify the high digital influencers within United’s customer base would have picked him up. However, he became hugely influential, or more accurately hugely important, to United because of what happened to him (context) and what he then did (behaviours) and also what United did or failed to do (behaviours again).

Within traditional media, influence and importance were the same thing whereas with social media they have become separated. This is a practical observation, but it conforms to the theory: that theory being the fact that Gutenberg created an enduring marriage between content and channels, information and distribution. Channels had fixed and measurable levels of influence: attach your message to a channel (or influencer) and the message could then ride on the influence the channel brought with it. The name of the game was therefore all about marrying your message with the most influential channels (or to the most influential people). However social media is all about the separation of information from the means of distribution: the breaking of the Gutenberg relationship. Thus the importance of information is not defined by the channels it sits within (even if this channel is a person), but more by the context from which it comes. The use of pseudonyms we looked at in chapter three is an example of this. People deliberately disguise their true identity as a way of making the point that you don’t need to know who they are in order to trust them: all you need to know about is the context in which they operate.

Even when it comes to people who are considered digital influencers, it is questionable just how influential they are likely to be, especially if you definition of influence is founded on the requirement to influence a large number of people, i.e. an audience.

In the traditional media space, if you marry your message to a channel, that channel will be guaranteed to carry the message to the audience. No such guarantee exists in social media. If a brand identifies you as an influencer and sends you information or even provides you with an incentive or a reward, why should you bother to pass the information on? You are being rewarded for your influence, not for using that influence. The only behaviour that is being incentivised is that of further building your influence score to get more freebies. Rewarding influencers does not incentivise the use of influence, it only incentivises boosting your influence score, often by gaming the system.

In addition, even if an influencer decides to use their influence, it is debatable just how much actual impact this will have. In May 2012, the Alitmeter Group’s Brian Solis produced a report called The Rise of Digital Influence. Within this, Brian cites four case studies to support his case. One of these looks at how Peerindex linked-up with UK-based Executive Perks to “identify influential individuals within social networks and invite them into a new lifestyle programme. The programme was designed to provide VIP treatment and preferential rates for luxury merchants and resorts. The audience required consumer qualification to preserve its exclusive brand and appeal… following a very limited wave of 60 invitations, the programme reached over 200,000 people via re-tweets and responses”.

This seems pretty impressive: 60 initial contacts resulting in 200,000 responses. But then I thought, how much of this was down to the fact that the initial 60 were ‘digital influencers’ versus the fact that this was just a well-designed loyalty programme that exploited the fact that customer qualification (i.e. that you can only participate via a presumed process of exclusive invitation) is a highly effective response multiplier in this sort of situation? Quite possibly the same effect could have been produced by selecting 60 of their existing customer base at random. If 60 people each invite only two other people this process needs to be repeated 12 times to reach nearly 250,000 people. However, if those same initial 60 reached 10 times as many (i.e. 20 people) and these (now random, ordinary un-influential people) then invite two others it still requires this process to be repeated around seven times to get to in excess of 250,000 people. I.e. starting with the influencers makes things happen a bit quicker, but not that much quicker and the success of the process still largely relies on motivating the un-influential to pass the recommendation on. Thus, success stems from having a motivating proposition, not from targeting an influential group.

Our experience in the viral effect of social networks also supports this conclusion. Things only become viral when un-influential people become involved in passing them on. The influencers may a have a role in getting the process started, but most often viral effects spring-up from the most unlikely, or un-influential sources. It is the nature of what a piece of viral content represents (behaviours and context again) that is the dominant force in driving distribution, not the particular influence of the people who distribute it.

Noel Gallagher of rock band Oasis put it thus when talking about the importance of the music critics and other assorted ‘influencers’: “forget the critics, you only start to make serious money when the squares start buying your records.”

Thus I think we can float the idea that digital influencers may be influential, but probably not that influential. They may be able to push things along a bit more than your average person, but not enough to create a sustained and extensive distribution effect. After-all, once someone has handed the baton on to a ‘normal’ person with a sub-20 Klout score we are back into the realms of the un-influential (the ‘squares’) again. This further knocks the assumption that the importance of a digital influencer lies in their ability to act as a distributer or multiplier. There may be some exceptions here, but these are likely to concern people we might call super-influencers i.e. celebrities. But there is nothing new or especially digital here: seeking celebrity endorsement is a long-established traditional communications tactic.

So where does this leave digital influence and digital influencers. I think it leaves us in a similar place to citizen journalism and citizen journalists. As mentioned earlier in this chapter, citizen journalism definitely exists as an influential process, but citizen journalists as influential individuals don’t exist. Likewise, digital influence certainly exists, but digital influencers are over-rated. This isn’t to say there are not small groups of ‘digitally important’ people you should not be identifying and targeting but these are the Superfans and the Gang of Ten we discussed back in chapter three.

So there it is. The digitally important people are not the same as the digitally influential people. And even the digitally influential are not actually that influential. So we can all relax about Klout scores and instead get on with the much more profitable business of focusing on the important people, these being the people that represent your consumers or customers, not those who (supposedly) influence them.

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