Archive for the ‘ Public Opinion and New Media ’ Category

Tweets have more historial value than you might think

If every communications platform got judged by the standard we imposed on Twitter, they’d all be rendered trivial.

Newsprint would just be a forum for gossip and sleazy scandal. Projectors would just be the vehicle for brain-dead dialogue and needless explosions. Telephones would just be a conduit for endless teenage chatter on the superficial.

All those mediums get used for such trivial purposes. A lot. It doesn’t make the medium itself trivial. Instead we recognize all the groundbreaking journalism, innovative films and meaningful conversations that are facilitated as a result.

Twitter too often doesn’t get that appreciation. Because it’s used so often to broadcast meaningless minutia, the general public renders it silly before they stop to see all the benefits of good tweets.

And there’s plenty of good. Twitter is it the most effective way to share links and information with colleagues. It is unrivaled in delivering instant reactions to breaking news. It establishes a direct connection between public figures and their fans that bypasses all the old filters. Even the worst cases of narcissism it inspires can have value as pure entertainment.

Given Twitter’s often under-appreciated status in the public sphere, it’s nice to see our government recognizing its potential. The National Archives announced last month that it will start saving each and every tweet sent from a public account (those with privacy settings won’t be gathered) and preserved for posterity. It’s the type of thing that has inspired instant snickering. Even my iMedia class, which has produced some outstanding research presentations on the value of social media marketing, reacted to the news with many a smirk.

But block out the mundane quality of boring tweets and take the macro view for a moment. When in history have we ever had a larger collection of public views, opinions, thoughts and feelings all recorded? Sociologists and historians no longer have to extrapolate from anecdotal evidence on how certain publics reacted to critical events. There’s a wealth of primary source data that is easily searchable. It doesn’t represent all of society, to be sure, but for certain demographics it provides the kind of in-depth look into our culture and collective pulse to a degree expensive surveys only hoped to reach. That group even includes prominent political figures. What scholar wouldn’t want to preserve their reactions to critical events in the country’s history?

Don’t discount Twitter’s potential for political change either. The protests in Iran last year organized through Twitter are the most prominent example, but you don’t have to go across the world to see an impact. Now that tweets show up in real-time  search engine results, they have the potential to instantly shape what information (or misinformation) is spread. A research paper on how this may have been a crucial factor in Scott Brown’s upset victory in this year’s Massachusetts Senate race was presented at last week’s WWW2010 Conference in Raleigh. Of all the papers from researchers across the globe featured at the that conference, it was the one Word Wide Web Founder Tim Berners-Lee immediately cited when asked what study most interested him.

Of course this post  comes to you from an unabashed Twitter fan since 2008 who now has two accounts, one for my professional interests and one for personal interests. Am I overselling the medium? Are there ways that Twitter falls far short of other mass communications platforms?

Unmasking our privacy, one tweet at a time

Illustration licensed through Creative Commons for transformative use. Find the original at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/carrotcreative/ / CC BY 2.0

It was a brutal loss, the kind that sends UNC basketball fans into an emotional tailspin. Georgia Tech walloped the Tar Heels two weeks ago, adding insult to a season already full of physical and emotional injury.

There was no shortage of reactions. Commentators howled. Fans scowled. And the coaching staff seemed on the verge of exasperation.

The next day, two of the players found time to laugh at the misfortune.

It’s not a response you could have heard at a press conference or read in a newspaper article. The laughs came from the boisterous Twitter account of freshman guard Dexter Strickland, who posted a goofy pic of how he and teammate John Henson attempt to attend class incognito on days after losses.

Such a lighthearted tone fits right in with Strickland’s twitter stream, no matter how rough the season gets. He’s joked about the embarrassment of being stared at by the bus stop after a loss, or in hearing ESPN commentators criticize the team. That’s when he’s not tweeting about class, his pet snake, boring hotel rooms or accidentally walking out of the grocery store without paying for bottled water.

Strickland is no anomaly. His account is merely the most lively example of an entire team (notably Henson, Will Graves, Ed Davis, and Larry Drew) that has embraced Twitter as the method of choice to broadcast the daily details that never make it into on-the-record interviews. Following them this season has softened my perspective on Tar Heel basketball. As a UNC grad I still get emotional watching games, but the losses have been much easier to take after hearing unfiltered accounts from the players on the court.

We forget they’re just kids, barely out of high school. Twitter makes that fact abundantly clear, and instantly puts their growing pains on the hardcourt into perspective. It personalizes the players and makes it more enjoyable to root for them even during bad seasons.

It also takes fan voyeurism to a whole new level. Pro athletes have learned to filter their Twitter accounts somewhat, pressured by the leagues and franchises who write their multi-million dollar checks not to post anything offensive. But in the college ranks, even players for a program that has millions of devoted fans garner just a few thousand Twitter followers. It’s just far enough under the radar that their every word won’t be scrutinized.

But I wonder, is it only a matter of time before one errant post is torn apart online?

Twitter is no stranger to sports. I blogged several weeks ago on the BCS’ attempts to use it for PR purposes. Georgia Tech’s coach, following that lopsided win against UNC, even used it to lash back at critics and defend the performance of his team.

But when you’re dealing with youngsters, privacy becomes an issue and a concern. We’ve all said stupid things in college. We probably said stupid things last week. What if they got out into the blogosphere for the world to see? It’s an almost inevitable result once you’re accustomed to immediately broadcasting every thought. The nightmare happened just last month for University of Oregon wide receiver Jamere Holland, whose profanity-laced Facebook status updates cost him his collegiate football career.

The Internet is littered with such horror stories of the private error becoming a unerasable public humiliation. Many of the most horrifying are chronicled in The Future of Reputation, an excellent account by law professor Daniel Solove on the dangers of spreading too much information online. Discussing the book in class this week has served as an interesting counterpoint to the ethos of The Cluetrain Manifesto (another book assigned in my curriculum), which preaches the virtue of letting employees communicate directly to consumers without restrictions or filters.

Ideally we’d all like to hear an unedited account from the companies we buy from, the colleagues we spend time with or the athletes we cheer for. The tweets from UNC’s players have proven a wonderful way to lighten up an otherwise gloomy season. I hope they continue. But there’s a risk that can’t be forgotten with social media. As effectively as it can connect in an instant, it has the power to decimate reputations just as fast. That kind of power demands some degree of caution, or else victory in real life could be forever tarnished by stupidity in cyberspace.

Going green: one shade doesn’t fit all

In the immediate aftermath of the Super Bowl, with everyone in the ad business weighing in on the best and worst of all those $3 million ads, mostly consensus emerged. Google’s low-budget spot (the only one that turned everyone at the crowded Super Bowl party I attended near silent) was pure brilliance. Snicker’s absurdist approach was absolute fun. And Dodge’s screed against marriage misery led a shamefully disturbing trend of misogyny in this year’s ad crop (although for the record my girlfriend found it funny).

But there is no commonly accepted view on how to receive “Green Car,” Audi’s attempt to market a fuel-efficient diesel vehicle. It’s the one that still has me thinking 24 hours later, given the enormous contradictions of selling a vehicle as “environmentally friendly” while simultaneously lampooning the environmental movement. It’s an ad that’s both highly rated for entertainment value and deemed controversial in its delivery. As Time Magazine’s James Poniewozik astutely pointed out, “it’s as if you used the Apple ‘1984’ ad to sell PCs, by making people want to please Big Brother. Maybe this would have been a better ad for Hummer?”

It’s hard to debate the humor inherent for moderates in depicting a future that combines the left-wing nightmare of a police state with the right-wing nightmare of environmental regulations run rampant. Teaser ads from the same campaign warning against “napkin abuse” and  “environmental contraband” are equally as funny. But is mocking environmentalism really an effective way to get people on board with going green? As someone who self identifies as an environmentalist, should I be offended?

Perhaps a few months ago, the spot would have provoked my ire. But a research paper and online presentation I gave for my public opinion and new media course last semester changed the “one shade fits all” views I had on the green movement. The research looked into how environmentalism has evolved in the digital age. What I found was that while the environmental movement was built on the efforts of those who want to preserve the natural world for conservation’s sake, it reached mainstream status only with the support of those who go green as an act of economic self-interest.

That’s the audience Audi undoubtably targeted with its “Green Police” marketing campaign. Credible polls have shown that a majority of Americans will support environmental protection, but only if it doesn’t hurt the economy . In other words, they’ll go green if it also means protecting the green in their wallets.

This shouldn’t be a hard crowd to win over. As environmentalists we strongly believe that conservation and sustainable consumption is the only way to ensure long-term wealth for all of society. The challenge is communicating that to those wary of environmentalism and fearful of short-term economic loss. Maybe that takes some good-natured ribbing of the movement’s excesses. It definitely means recognizing that not everyone views ‘Green’ as exactly the same shade.

Tweeting against a playoff

Push marketing has survived every new development in media over the past century, the Internet included. Instead of just interrupting your reading, ads started interrupting your listening, then your viewing, and now your web browsing.

But one thing has changed. Now you can push back.

Two-way conversations and relationship-building dialogue were the underlying themes of all three fantastic research presentations I heard recently on web marketing. The details differ, but the overall mantra is the same: talk to your customer base and also also listen to what they have to say.

My fellow classmates sum up this philosophy much better than I can, and I highly recommend the online versions of their presentations. You can find David Hollander’s presentation here, Cathy Freeman’s here and David Parsons’ here.

It all makes the process of talking with consumers seem so engaging, so uplifting, so affirming.

Now try it as the voice behind college football’s loathed Bowl Championship Series, the entity standing in the way of the playoff system so many fans passionately want.

It isn’t pretty, as the BCS’ brand new Twitter account, INSIDEtheBCS, demonstrates. As it touts the benefits of the bowl system and the flaws of a playoff format (they even created a website dedicated to bashing playoffs), the feed is clearly meant to convince some fans that having polls decide who plays for the national championship isn’t such a bad idea.

What’s happening instead is that the BCS’ many enemies have a place online to rally. Try searching insidetheBCS on Twitter and you’ll come across the barrage of negative comments lobbed against an institution most fans feel is standing in the way of fairly crowning a national champion.

But does that make the attempt a failure? Whoever is manning the BCS account has taken the time to respond to many of the negative posts since the feed started a couple of weeks ago. This is exactly what marketers are supposed to do with social media, as criticism comes with the territory.

It’s in addressing the criticism and winning over new converts that social media marketing has its value, and the jury is still out on whether the BCS will win in this regard. Having the BCS actively respond to proponents of a playoff is much more endearing than conference commissioners arrogantly proclaiming on network TV that the current system must stand.

But it’s doubtful the BCS cares at all what its Twitter followers have to say. Despite heavy media and fan pressure to do so, BCS officials have shown zero interest in a new format. Unless they’re taking input into account for possible changes to the bowl system, then this is a social media effort that’s all talk.

If you’re going to stick with the traditional push marketing tactics, there’s not much use for new media. That’s a forum best saved for those eager and willing to act on their audience’s input.

National identities on the web

As kids we identified far-off countries by flags. As teens we picked them out based on geographic shape and location.

But as adults, our identifying image for a country overseas could soon become its homepage. We already instinctively seek official websites for companies, organizations and individuals. Nations surely aren’t far behind.

So what are they showing us?

It’s quite a mixed bag, and the results are interesting enough that they were the basis of some really insightful research by one of my best professors this semester.

They’re also fodder for some much-deserved criticism by web designers. This immensely entertaining blog post got me thinking about the topic, as it lines up government websites from around the world and scrutinizes the flaws of each. There are some really puzzling examples. Why is it always fall in Cypress? Must people be blurry in Greece? Do the French really think red and purple make a good color scheme?

But there’s more to analyze here than just aesthetic design. Approach the sites from a public relations standpoint, and you can see how different nations have very different goals for their web portals. Nations like Poland, Denmark, Israel, and Singapore have appealing sites that seem aimed at attracting new visitors and outside investment.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have sites where informing native residents appears the primary goal. This can be done with style like in Belgium and Australia or with visual clutter like in Mexico or Cameroon. You could even be like the United Kingdom and come up with a color scheme and design that has no visual connection to your actual country.

There’s also something to be said for simplicity. It’s easy to criticize nations like Ireland, Thailand and South Africa for their bare-bones design. But keep in mind that these nations have large rural populations. A simple site may be uninteresting, but at least it properly loads on old browsers or dial-up connections. Argentina even found a way to make simple look stylish.

What’s most important is that the site have a public relations purpose, whether that’s attracting outside attention or informing the taxpayers. Effective design only comes about when the nation is clear on this goal.

Otherwise you can turn up some pretty ghastly results even in relatively wealthy countries. For all their oil money, the governments of Saudi Arabia and Russia still can’t seem to buy a website that doesn’t make them look like third-world nations in cyberspace.

The many different shades of interactivity

DDD_Chart

Too often companies see interactive media in starkly black and white terms. They equate having a Facebook page, Twitter stream and animated website with automatic interactivity.

But there are more colorful shades at work here. The things listed above can exist in a form absent of interactivity; merely one-way communications vehicles that deliver a steady flow of information with little if any user input. They then become no more than digitized versions of print brochures.

But as we all know, such tools can also lead to robust levels of two-way communication. Sometimes they even facilitate a dialogue between producer and consumer, where the audience not only views but actively shapes the product.

How to tell the difference? The diagram posted above is designed with that in mind. It’s the creation of myself and four fellow classmates for an assignment on audience analysis. The five of us identified some key questions in determining whether a site was static, interactive or dialogic.

The latter of these three categories represents the most robust form of communications, where the user not only has navigational choice but also a creative voice in shaping the content. Their feedback isn’t just posted and heard but acted upon. They share ideas with other users and form communities that come to define the site itself.

The concept of the Digital Dialogue Diagram is simple. Answer each question about your own site and put a dot in the corresponding section on the wheel. At the end you have a path from the center to the edge that visibly represents the kind of interactivity on your site. It’s easy to see how the path would change with different answers, since the first choice always represents “static,” the second “interactive” and the third “dialogic.”

This is meant as an evaluation tool for companies and organizations wanting closer analysis on their site. There are different pros and cons for all three types depending on your communication strategy. What’s important is recognizing the differences and where you fall along the spectrum and its many shades of interactivity.

Taking tags to the top

deliciousWhen it comes to new media, I’m often just ahead of the curve (joined Facebook in late 2004, Twitter in early 2008). But when it comes to social bookmarking of the likes facilitated by Delicious, I never grasped the purpose.

My loss.

Having just now discovered Delicious and started putting it to good use, the web has suddenly become a more manageable, easier-to-navigate place. The bottomless pit of information online, hard to wrap by brain around at first, is given order by the self-made categories created through the abundant use of tags.

Let’s back up for those unfamiliar with the program. It’s a web-based tool that like Twitter is deceptively simple. You sign up for a free account and download an application to embed into your web browser. Everytime you visit a site, you click the icon on your browser and enter a few tags (one word descriptions of the content). Then save.

That’s it.

What comes next is where Delicious proves its worth. My classmate Linda Misiura has already given a ringing endorsement more eloquent and enthusiastic than I can muster. So instead I’ll give you a few reasons why bookmarking pays practical dividends.

1. It preserves the best of the web: We all come across hundreds of websites we enjoy over the course of the year, 90 percent of which we’ll never be able to find again. But tag those sites with Delicious, and you can recall them in seconds to enjoy or share.

2. It keeps us from overlooking something useful: Links providing information related to our jobs or hobbies often pile up on busy days. Instead of ignoring them because there’s no time, we can quickly tag them instead. If their subject matter is needed for a task at a later date, we’ll know where to find them.

3. It’s a search alternative to Google: Using Delicious isn’t a solo act. The site is storing the tags of others, and searching those tags is a great way to find new sites on an obscure topic. You can even subscribe to a tag and get regular updates every time it’s applied.

4. It’s a more efficient way to share information: Do you have friends that clog up your Twitter or Facebook feeds with endless steams of links. What if they all used Delicious instead? The program has a social networking component, so you can see what your friends are tagging on the subjects you want to learn about.

5. It expands the way we seek knowledge online: It doesn’t take much tagging before it becomes a habit. At that point, you’re not just reading websites, you’re categorizing them. It’s one thing to consume content, it’s quite another to recognize key themes and unique perspectives within a broader discussion. Tagging is a wonderful exercise to build the mental muscles needed for the job.

Want to learn more? Check out my Delicious page and click on the sites I’ve tagged with “delicious.” Each offers a distinct take on how tags make navigating the web all the more gratifying.