The Social Graph Is Neither

By: jerry | 11/10/2011

Pinboard creator, Maciej Ceglowski, has written a blog post, The Social Graph Is Neither, that perfectly articulates what I've been feeling about social. Two thing in particular. First, the problems of creating, maintaining and compartmentalizing relationships online, especially in an era that has seen such a rapid development of "must participate" experiences such as Facebook, Google Plus, LinkedIn, etc. And second, the frustration I've felt as a user experience designer and digital marketer with the ways in which we interact (and exploit) users of these sites.

I'm busy. Or perhaps, lazy. Or both. (There's a future blog post coming on this topic if I can find the time to get off my butt and write it.)

As a busy/lazy person, the care and feeding required for all of these social networks is tiresome. And, it's complicated. Privacy settings are either non-existent (Twitter) or complicated and inadequate (Facebook). Something as simple as being "friends" with someone on Facebook and not having that information be available to my other friends is impossible. Which forces me to choose in a way that isn't required IRL (in real life). Say my best friend gets married and I become friends with his spouse. Then suppose they get divorced but I remain friends with both of them. I could easily find myself in a situation where publicly being friends with both of them could jeopardize my relationship with both of them. IRL, a little "don't ask, don't tell" with each of them and I can preserve at least a semblance of the relationship I had with each of them before the divorce. On Facebook, that's simply not possible. (You can easily expand this to a multitude of other situations with even more dire consequences. Worst of all, even the privacy settings that are available are complicated and time consuming to learn and implement, especially when multiplied across many different networks. I'm a user experience professional, computer programmer and a generally internet sophisticated guy. Imagine how much more difficult it might be for my grandmother. Or yours.

Which brings me to the second point Maciej so eloquently addresses in his post — the underlying use of these networks to sell stuff. I'll start with a caveat. Until recently I led the interactive group for an advertising agency. Our job was to market things and ideas through a variety of methods, and I was particularly interested in digital or online marketing. For one client we explored how you might connect all of the touchpoints they had with their customers — websites, events, point of purchase, etc — with social networks to form a complete picture of each customer. There is immense opportunity and power in that kind of data and our clients were unabashed in their desire to use that information to sell you more of their products or ideas. 

For many people, this kind of data mining for marketing purposes represents a kind of evil empire exploitation of innocent consumers. A moral/ethical quagmire that is the hallmark of twenty-first century capitalism. Others are concerned with the proliferation of vapid and tedious marketing ploys cluttering the purity of their interpersonal relationships online.  Personally, I believe that there is an small but interesting place where these two ideas intersect with a third concept I call usefulness. 

For many marketers this third concept is relevance — the idea that by providing advertising or marketing that is interesting or relevant to a particular consumer, based on their profile or relationships or whatever, we solve the first two problems. No longer will I think you are exploiting me with useless drivel, but rather welcome your message with open arms because it is a topic/brand/etc. that I am interested in. Bravo, dear marketer for engaging me on a personal level. There is some merit to this idea and it is certainly fundamental to a successful engagement between consumer and marketer, but for me, it falls short. I may explicitly (opt-in) or implicitly (like, +1, keyword) express my interest in your brand or subject area, but that doesn't mean that your ad, contest, tweet, post, etc is more then marginally better then a completely unsolicited and random ad, contest, tweet or post.

The idea of usefulness takes relevance to a new level by asking marketers to deliver their message through something I will find useful. In some cases useful is a tool and in others it can be entertainment, but in all cases the only criteria is whether the consumer looks at your message and says, "Yes, I'm better and happier for having received this thing today." A lofty goal you say? Yes. Difficult to measure you say? Certainly. Varies from person to person or even moment to moment? Quite possibly. No one ever said it would be easy. 

What do you think? Have you seen any good examples of this recently? Or particularly bad examples?


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