Sunday, 13 February 2011

Revolutionary Feedback Loops, Traffic, and Social Engagements

End of the Road for Traffic in Birmingham

“1,400 people across the world have joined the International Community Film Forum Group on Facebook”

In this blog I suggest that the obsession with site traffic is toxic and misguided. Against the bloggers who ‘go for quantity’ I’m trying to understand how we might provide for a system based more on the quality of the voices and the depth of the interaction.

I’ve been noticing that for new converts to digital/internet, or those in the early stages of experimentation, there emerges an obsession with hits and visits; with friends added, and follower counts achieved. Apparently these are the criteria for success. “Stats” become the direct and transparent – the only - measure of impact.

In the fleeting, virtual world, quantitative analysis is triumphant, because it means we don’t have to think about what’s really going on. Click on the stats or the follower count and we know where we are. No wonder that people are writing books with titles such as You are  not a Gadget.

But let’s agree that the desire to be noticed is not just the vanity of amateurs finding a platform and hoping for a big break opportunity. I’m not just thinking about self-promoting individuals who are as boring and tedious in the virtual world as they are in the real. Nothing changes.

Many non ego-driven individuals work selflessly with voluntary, charitable and non-profit groups to secure lasting benefits for their community. It’s not surprising that the result of putting a lot of effort into a project, or tentatively sharing your group’s lifework, leads to a desire to be noticed; with a need to measure your success.

But it’s sad that so often there is disappointment that no one is watching your video on YouTube; that only five people have read your blog (and you already know four of them). Was Web 2.0 really worth all the effort?

How do you cope with the neglect and disappointment? What happened to the instant online fame and virtual media stardom? The success stories of a great video solution to all your fund raising efforts? An end to volunteer apathy?

Many individuals and groups retreat early – at this stage; reflecting that the virtual world and the real are equally frustrating and that the people are unwilling and ungenerous. Nothing changes.

There is perhaps a sense – a reluctant admission – that the traditionalists, sceptics and cynics were right; that the digital opportunities in social media have indeed been thoroughly over hyped.

The first mistake is a retro-active idealisation of traditional media. Remember that newsletters, leaflets, staff handbooks and end-of-year reports etc were also largely unread and often ineffective.

The second mistake is to expect results in the short term. Culture change takes months, not days. My experience of working with community groups suggests that after the excitement of the initial launch, a ‘second wave’ of engagement starts to happen after about six months, not six days. Reaching the second wave takes effort too.

Accordingly, the third mistake is to assume that a social medium tirelessly runs itself. No! Social media, like relationships, require the investment of human time and people effort. Social media relationships evolve and develop; they need to be nurtured as ‘real’ relationships do; they are not simple automated machines exchanging data. That also means working from an emotional angle too, one informed by, and informing, one’s intelligence.

The fourth mistake is simply to present - to put something on display; to show off the product or service to be celebrated. You are looking at the answer. Is a bit dull. While tips, answers, and solutions are initially appealing, it’s more engaging to think in terms of adaptation rather than application. We have to switch our mindsets from finding answers to learning to ask better questions. Asking questions leads to collaboration and co-creation rather than the passive following of slavish converts. One route leads to creativity, the other to the dead weight of custom and convention. The best Roads are not always those with the most Traffic

The fifth mistake is to forget that we are dealing with social media. “i” means interactive, not “ ME ! ”

Which brings me to think about feedback loops and the spectre of revolution that is stalking parts of the world.  Sceptics have foolishly wanted to build barriers between the virtual and the ‘real’ world; rather than seeing them as related, interconnected, and feeding into one another. Surely events beget tweets as much as tweets beget events. Virtual and real interact just as much as individuals and groups do. To demolish one at the expense of the other seems to me a distortion of the fluid, shifting, and indeed unstable feedback loop.

But feedback needs to be handled with care. Care takes time, and it’s not quantifiable.
(Isn’t there a philosophy of life built around the notion of a care for being and Being?)

In one sense a feedback loop causes the painful noise that blows up the system.

In another sense, an unpleasant feedback loop asks us to re-calibrate the machinery, to re-think the technology, and attend to the quality of the voices. The loudest voices with the biggest and closest microphones may benefit from adjustments to their volume levels and their assumed proximity to the centre of the power struggle.

It’s our old friends Speaking and Listening. It’s about a space between the inputs and the outputs, and an equilibrium between them. It means dialogue

The feedback loop did not turn out to be quite the model or metaphor I was seeking. In one sense it’s the revolution out of control; blowing the system.

In another sense, it is precisely the reflective action (praxis) that might enable lasting change. That might also mean a less violent process of change and more than ephemeral gains. Maybe effective feedback is a qualitative loop rather than just a game of numbers.

What do you think? Is it technological or ideological? What is ‘It’ ?

1 comment:

  1. Ian, social media is a long-term endeavour and the question you posed is best answered by someone more knowledgeable than me. From my perspective, propaganda has left the population at large (in the West) sleepwalking into a milieu where media (in general) evokes entertainment purely as opiate, easily packaged answers to weighty questions, and the ability for the lucky few to gain their fame for a short time -always through the prism of a corporate controlled model. To the masses it is nothing more. The substantive political and grassroots action that social engagement can represent via social media is lost since people don't perceive that what they do makes a difference for important issues. Before we get too excited, the happenings in Egypt are still in terms of the afternoon break during the first day of a Test match --there is a long way to go. No doubt, it would not have been possible without social media as a technology but the future narrative is yet to be written and I remain amongst the skeptics. Without losing the tenor of your question, I would always err on the side of quality: far better to engage with the few in a meaningful manner than to the many though derivative drivel and noise. To answer your question, my vote would be for ideological; I don’t want to believe in the Marxist thought of an “ideological illusion” but seeing the dearth of substantive dialogue relating to matters of import where I live makes me think that there is a lot of weight to that argument.


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