A colleague drew my attention to Alice Marwick’s work on social media influence, and, while I was searching on the topic, I came across the video of a really interesting talk that she delivered at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. In this talk, Alice reports on a 3-year study of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and Internet celebrities.
In the video, Alice states that the currency on web 2.0 is ‘social status’, which she defines as the amount of attention and visibility that someone commands online. She further notes that all leading social media platforms have some way of signalling a user’s social status. So, for instance, Twitter displays the number of followers very visibly, Foursquare has a leader board and Yelp awards an elite badge.
Around minute 11, Alice makes two really interesting observations. The first one is that the reward system favours some patterns of socialisation over others. For instance, the foursquare example mentioned around minute 11.32 rewards users that go out regularly, with many different people, to different places, in an urban environment. So, users that are loyal to a particular establishment or socialise at home are less likely to acquire social status in this application.
[UPDATE / CORRECTION: Reader Arjan Tupan corrected me on how you acquire points on Foursquare. As you can see in the comments to this post, he explains that: “Foursquare also awards bonus points for checking in at the same location 3 times in a week, or for checking in with the same friend 3 times in a week, and every time in that week after that. And then there is the mayor bonus, plus a bonus for hanging out with the mayor. So, sitting at home with your partner can get you both many points on Foursquare, as long as your home is a venue, you both check in and one of you is the mayor.”]
The second interesting observation is that the way in which social status is measured and signalled in each of these communities has a prescriptive effect on users. That is, it shapes how users behave in that community and interact with each other. For instance, awarding rewards for answering questions encourages users to do exactly that.
In summary, the design of a social status signalling system has two key consequences:
- It motivates some users to participate, but pushes others out;
- It encourages some behaviours while silencing others.
These findings mean that academics studying online influence or designing experimental studies need to consider very carefully whether the users participating in a particular community are the ones relevant for the study. They also need to take into account how the observations may be biased; in particular, whether the behaviours present / absent result from a perverse consequence of the signalling system.
In turn, marketing managers trying to identify or engage with social media influencers need to assess whether the social status signals are attracting the desired type of influencer, i.e. the one that resonates with their target customers. And they need to ensure that the influencer’s motivation is aligned with the marketing goals – for instance, a foursquare user scoring high on the leader board may have a high kudos among the foursquare community, but may not be a particularly loyal customer, or indeed a high spending one. There is so much more to online influence than a number or a badge!
You can learn more about this research project in Alice Marwick’s book, ‘Status Update – Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age’. I can’t wait to read it! In the meantime, watch the talk below and let me know what you think: