Facebook, myspace, bebo and other social media portals are just growing and growing in the conciousness of the population. An extension of blogging and before that instant messaging and Usenet. Why do they succeed and the older forms not?
There are some who believe that social media is driven by a desire to control. Which is based on the thinking of Max Weber, the 19th century sociologist. Basically, the idea is that participants are attempting to put over their view and get acceptance and therefore rise up in the social ranking. Some say that this gives both the illusion and, in some instances that actualitie of control over people and, most significantly, organisations.
I am not so sure. I don't believe people are that shallow.
The psychologists will tell us that we are not a single stable self, but a repertoire of selves who react and respond differently under different circumstances.
I like to try to explain it in terms of a space. This space has four dimensions. One is time. And so at a specific time we are a particular self. Governed by our environment, our ability to interact and use the the value systems that are relevant to the 'self' at that moment.
Value system include knowledge available and which are relevant to the current self including emotional and social elements. Thus our value systems are of the self at a moment in time, environment and interactive capability.
What we understand about our value systems is that they include our personal view of the world we see. Such a view will be different to everyone else (see Richard Gregory). I see a field and woods as a country person, they are not threatening. To many friends in town, they are threatening places. I walk across the field, they will look for a path. We see the same thing and interpret it differently. Our value systems are not the same.
However, when we talk about our values systems we seek common values with people. It is what makes us social animals. We are pretty good at it and can pass on these values to other people (who in tern will interpret them) and will then pass them to others.
Value convergence, the process that brings people together (and bridges generational divides) include values that are the social norms in societies (social media groups and 'friends') see (Kelly, 1955 ). The evaluative criteria represented by values derive from conceptions of morality, aesthetics, and achievement. That is, a mode, means, or end of action can be regarded as good or bad for moral, aesthetic, or cognitive reasons and often for a combination of those reasons (Kluckhohn 1951; Parsons and Shils 1951).
The nature of interaction and group formation which develops when values are strongly held and expressed is also a consideration in the extent to which people cluster round values. In experiments, people are found to prefer to seek convergent values (PDF). In relationships there is bound to be a compromise, a subordination of some values and the strength of a relationship is determined by the level of compromise involved. A lot of compromise will weaken the relationship. Interdependence values can conflict with independence values in this process (Keller, & Eckensberger, 1998) but there are the normative social influences that are important for social groups to prosper.
These are the same drivers we use online. We are as a person with values and able to interact in an environment that includes a PC and subscription to facebook. There is a lot going on here. Sometimes we will want to rant and or seek to gain power. But that is not all. We also want to... seek to... work hard at finding common values with other people to satisfy a deep urge to be inside, within a group.
Social media is is a phenomena because it provides a host of different ways to show off and also see the values of others to create social cohesion and a group with values we have in common.
It is not just control, it is the means by which we satisfy a deep need that is literally built into our DNA.
The key for social media is the means by which users can express values with photos, comments, and the images that reflect the values they think are interesting at a moment in time. Social media confounds the richness reach trade off. These portals offer many ways to add and express values with rich verbal, textual and semiotic richness.
That is why social media is so addictive and why 6% of the online community can spend 10 hours a week in, for example, Facebook.
This richness extends the Cluetrain Manifesto. There is, for example an emotional involvement beyond the conversation, and as Maslow puts it something beyond esteem and closer to self actualisation..
In the early days of online chat and even today with Instant messengers we seek to have a conversation. Sometimes these can be a one way affair. But when there is engagement, that is, when there are common values to explore a conversation emerges. Social media portals have gone beyond the conversation.
In the conversation, we seek to exchange and explore the values that we find acceptable and interesting among others. After a while, we discover that this interaction creates new ideas and concepts if you like – new values.
For those of us that blog and follow bloggers, we see this happening all the time. We see people commenting and the repost and exchange offering broader, wider, more fun, concepts. Sometimes this is in the form of recommendation to do something, sometimes it includes a call to action.
When this is done among a group of people the process is accelerated or made more diverse or, and here is where the marketer has his work cut out, where there is convergence in the values expressed ... “Oh! Thats a good idea”... is a phrase that every marketer should watch with care. What we are seeing are the brand values of a product or service being expressed in terms that are of the consumer and not to the producer.
This is more than a conversation this is the development of new concepts, ideas, even ideologies but in marketing terms this is about the values people express about brands.
Dr Cynthia McVey, lecturer in psychology at Glasgow Caledonian University, says:"There are going to be some things missing from electronic interaction such as the use of body language and expression. But we are seeing ever more richness in social media portals. Not quite body langage yet, but many things that have a form of equivelency – just try shaking or poking a 'friend online to find out what I mean.
Professor Robert Johnson says " Humans clearly have an incredible ability to recognise, remember and store huge amounts of information about individuals - even individuals we have never actually met. This ability is the core of circuits that one might call the social brain." This is another reason for social portals to suceed. It allows us to build pictures of people in our minds. Using MySpace means that out 'social brain' is at work. We like that!
Elaine Hatfield, a professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii reports that emotions whether positive or negative are passed from person to person without even the notice of the receiver. The comments seen in Bebo or Facebook often have emotional tags. These elements really do scratch the psychological itch and just to complete the picture, we also know that the brain is quite capable of adjusting to the new paradigm which may be why some people are puzzled and others thing they just 'don't get it'. Being a 'Facebook native' is mind bending!
If you put all this together, it suggests that PR has to be much more sympathetic and empathetic to the online consumer. Probably more so than face to face. Bling, hype and spin will be a big turn off and probably damages brands. Value systems need to be considered much more.
Inside these portals are user generated social groups (aka market segments) based on the values they, not the organisation, give to brands, products, services, political parties and even ideologies and religions.
So now we know why MySpace works and why, with its extra capability to allow people to show off their values, Facebook is gaining ground.
Facebook with its photos music, text and tweets with a little YouTube and Skype, now needs the textures and smells for the range of richness enhanced personal and group values to grow.