Posted on November 18, 2009. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , |

“Prejudice, intolerance, bigotry. . .are all baked into our networks” – Danah Boyd, Social Media Researcher

The quote above comes from a talk entitled “Streams of Content, Limited Attention: The Flow of Information through Social Media” in which Danah posits that because we can join affinity groups and associate people like us online, that its harder for us to find diversity in social networks.  Further, she contends that people believing particular sites are “for people like me” is a bad thing.  Sociologically she may be spot on, and slightly dubious psychologically, she’d be fired as a marketer.

Brand managers know the best way to get consumers to buy is to associate a product with their core being, to make the product almost intrinsic to their identity, lifestyle, etc.  During my career in advertising, I spent a few years working on consumer brand equity research to help companies find out what drove purchase patterns.   Guess what attribute drove purchase the most:  Yep, it was “for someone like me.”  The more people think a brand, product, social networking site is for them, the more they consume it.  The beauty of social networking is that consumers can find someone like them online no matter where they are physically, which essentially makes every social network appropriate for everyone.  Automatic marketing win!

And our natural ability to look for people like us is a built-in segmentation study .  Now instead of marketers spending millions to find out which consumers to target and which to ignore, we can partner with a social media site and design a joint segmentation/advertising test.  I’m not sure marketers understand this, that social networks have tons of rich data that we’re used to partnering with marketing research firms to provide.  Consumers aren’t necessarily stopping in shopping malls to fill out our surveys, but they might give their info to a social network to which they’ve already devoted several hours that day.  Facebook Connect anyone?  Score two for the brand managers!

As an armchair psychologist, occasional activist and overall smart chick, I’m going to say that the homophily Boyd sees as an online negative is actually a positive.  She assumes that people organize themselves in social networks along racial or cultural lines and that’s certainly true.  But because of the fluidity of online identity, you can reinvent yourself apart from race or gender and “socialize” with any affinity group.  People who like to wear suspenders.  People who read Twilight in Japanese.  People who like to blog about what you do in social networks.  Finding networked affinity groups actually elides race, culture and gender because you’re finding commonality with people on another level.  It’s a human tendency to do that, like when you tell someone where you went to college and they tell you, “My cousin Joe Smith went there.  Do you know him?”  Think of how great a tool a social site would be for the gay kid in school, the only minority family in Lily-White, USA, someone with mental illness who finds a support group online?

These days people in the know just refer to the internet as the “Web”;  we need to remember that it’s still “World Wide.”

You can find the notes for Danah Boyd’s talk here.

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