What are social networks for?

 Tai-chi11
Pic c/o chinesemedicinenews.com

Been a bit quiet recently – partly because real world (family) concerns seem to have taken over a bit.

But also partly because have been feeling a bit bored by many of the discussions I trip over online.

In particular, there's still a lot of silly stuff around social networks and social influence.

So let's try to get at least this thing really straight:

Social networks are not channels for advertisers or for the adverts/memes you, your clients or any of your so-called "influentials" create, social networks are for all of the people who participate in the network. 

Being a social creature means you spend your life in social networks; being part of a social network gives each individual a number of benefits – shared protection, shared resources and most importantly shared learning. Our ability to learn from each other (the appropriately-named Social Learning) is one of our all-too-mutual species' most characteristic capabilties and the engine by which stuff gets pulled through populations (from technologies to health habits)

(BTW it's almost never the stickiness of your brilliant creation that causes the spread and even less often "social teaching" that most influence-models suggest)

Social networks are not best understood as channels down which folk send things; social networks are webs from which members pull down learning (from each other).

Now how does that change what you're trying to do?


31 Comments

  1. kevin mclean
    April 7, 2010

    great post, as always!
    best wishes to you and the family

  2. medieval clothing
    April 9, 2010

    Social networks is mainly for better communication. You can communicate with who ever you want to. Social networks are also great for promoting ads.:)

  3. Mark Earls
    April 9, 2010

    Sorry Mr/Mrs Clothing – did you actually read any of the post?

  4. Di Tunney
    April 9, 2010

    Agree completely. Marketers have just got to lose this ‘Old Skool’ mindset of ‘doing it to the customer’ and start engaging with them in a meaningful way. Yes of course brand communications have to inform and entertain but the more important skills that need to be learned now are listening and responding, joining in with customer conversations, collaborating and co-creating. Marketers need to start thinking in a much more inclusive way and talking a more relevant language when venturing into social media and to start ‘focusing on what the customer is focusing on’ not on the customer! I think that those who have ‘missed the point’ would do well to start by getting themselves personal Facebook and Twitter accounts and learning the rules of the game.

  5. Joel Johnson
    April 12, 2010

    I couldn’t agree more Mark. Its not a channel that can be programmed. But it is a system that can be infected, precisely because we do use social networks to learn from each other. Surely there’s good and bad behaviors that can be learned–I’m thinking about negative behaviors like suicide pacts and anarexia, and good behaviors like giving (SXSW CheckinforCharity) or the work of Bloomfire. Its more important I think that our clients should behave well in social networks simply because the way the world is going, they really don’t have a choice. Now, I’ve been on the ad side of the house for a long time, and is push-this, push-that, but I’m now on the PR side of the house, and its frankly, much softer. Its pull mostly. Brands in social networks should be listening, and pulling–but most importantly, they need to display good brand behavior. I want to believe that good behavior (shared behavior) is more prevalent than bad.

  6. Sleepy
    April 18, 2010

    Not sure what social networks are for… but seems Twitter networks are for ego-maniacs:
    http://www.fulltimecasual.com/twitter/fun-with-twitter-spambots

  7. Anita Lobo
    April 19, 2010

    Re – social networks are webs from which members pull down learning (from each other).
    Is a sports fan analogy accurate. All fans are equal, but some know way more than others and enjoy sharing their passion. Both kinds are essential for a fan base to grow.
    Cheers
    Anita

  8. Mark Earls
    April 20, 2010

    Anita – think that sports fans can be but be careful not to equate/conflate information and passion. Passion is a behaviourally demonstrated emotion and that plays a much bigger role than knowledge….information can be currency but *social* currency – it’s the social that counts…

  9. Mark Earls
    April 20, 2010

    Cool. Why not follow bots? Have you seen Dave Bausola’s brilliant digividual bots? Or what he and Marcus Brown were doing with bots?

  10. Julie
    April 27, 2010

    Thank you Mark for the thought provoking post!
    Your comment that ‘…social networks are for all of the people who participate in the network.” seems very logical to me but I don’t come from a product marketing background. I work for a sustainability agency and a lot of our work is about providing people with information that hopefully they use (and share!) to live more sustainably.
    Is it too much of a stretch to think of social networks as the means by which trusted knowledge and skills are transferred and therefore the networks are inherently the means by which our message is relayed?

  11. Nursing top
    May 25, 2010

    Nice post! hmm is that a yoga post?
    i want to try that post!

  12. Nursing tops
    May 26, 2010

    There can be many kinds of ties between the nodes. Research in a number of academic fields has shown that social networks operate on many levels, from families up to the level of nations, and play a critical role in determining the way problems are solved, organizations are run, and the degree to which individuals succeed in achieving their goals.

  13. Fragonzal
    May 28, 2010

    They’re for whatever you feel you need them to be. Just my opinion.
    – Fragonzal

  14. Cecilia Rossiter
    May 29, 2010

    You guys are great! Consider that you inspire me and each other. So we get to live at a level that functions above circumstances, as long as circumstances are not prohibitive of communicating or socializing. When more fully being ourselves, we get to have thoughts we’ve never had before. We get to be surprised and challenged. (Anything we’ve heard before is not creative, nor is repeating the same-old even close to fulfilling in comparison to our own, self-authorized creativity.) The way you are, alone and together, being a heard herd, is profound leadership. Thanks!
    BTW, we are calling our herd a ‘tribe’. Zappos.com loves John King’s book (on your own ideas): you may download and listen to ‘TRibal Leadership’ for free. Our emphasis is culture in business rather than marketing.
    I would love to be herd! Thanks so much for sharing. I found you through admiring Hugh’s work so much. He sent out a Twitter a few hours ago. Seriously, we are at CultureSync.org or .net. I’m confused about which one is the lead one, but I’m not confused about how much we all in the Tribal THink Tank admire, applaud and love what you and your herd are up to. Count is in.
    With love, Cecilia Rossiter. Punion@gmail.com
    Speaking for myself and my herd!

  15. John King
    May 29, 2010

    This is great – Thanks to Cecilia for pointing me to your site – and more importantly – to your very sane way of thinking about social networks.
    Long may you live and prosper –
    John King

  16. fiber
    June 2, 2010

    Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed browsing your blog posts. In any case I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!
    http://www.fiberglass-supplier.com/fiberglass-yarn.html
    Fiberglass Yarn

  17. Shirley Moulton
    June 9, 2010

    Hi there…saw a nice write up about your talk at the Creative Social event in Paris on http://www.hudsonhouston.com/2010/06/french-lessons/ it’s a Saatchi NYC site.
    I was thinking about social networks only yesterday…here are my thoughts:
    Twitter: A one way self-absorbed conversation ..I talk to you but I am not really listening to what you have to say! I don’t have time to read all those posts. I am too busy trying to get my posts out for the day. But I do want to know if you are listening to me…so I frequently check ‘mentions’.
    Facebook: Want to provide interesting information and become known as a ‘thought leader’ and have as many friends as possible..80% of whom you don’t know! Only accept the feed of a few special ‘friends’ and ‘hide’ the rest. Look at photos only of close relatives or if you are curious about someone!
    Linkedin – A bit more serious and less obnoxious communications space…a place where you can make a meaningful connection if you so choose.
    Shirley
    @academioflife

  18. John
    June 18, 2010

    They’re for socialising.

  19. Gabriella O'Rourke
    June 23, 2010

    Great post Mark, and I couldn’t agree more. I stumbled across your site via Hugh McCleod @ GapingVoid. Despite the fact that I am marketing professional by trade, I am first and foremost a social creature by design. I enjoy live networks, and communicating with real people about real things that interest and excite me. I self select streams that align with my interests and values and provoke me to expand my mind. For me – social media is a way of extending the conversation with many more people I haven’t had the fortune to meet yet. Its the Global Village where we can pop along and borrow a cup of sugar as long as somewhere along the line the debt is repaid (you have to feed back into the network and not just consume). Unfortunately, even some of the better known celebrity bloggers and twitterites have begun to twist the medium to being much more self serving than authentic communication.

  20. Mark Earls
    June 23, 2010

    Absolutely agree, Gabriella. I’m much the same. Thanks for popping by.

  21. Stephen Tiano
    July 4, 2010

    Reads a little too carved in stone for me, even tho’ I theoretically agree. But the important part is that it someone takes a stand against blind marketing of marketing.

  22. Gsbigger
    August 4, 2010

    Mark – the answer to your question (and coincidentally all our questions) begin with finding the right question – to illicit the BEST answers. That recursive comment should prompt one to ask “What’s the best question.?” (- err,umm..THAT one of course!). Likewise the answer to your question begs the same recursive approach to provide us the necessary insight – that will dynamically adjust to our changing needs. That question might sound like “What is the best way to manage how we change our minds, individually – so we can change the way we all manage change – cooperatively?” Given the right questions – used as the framework for our ongoing investigation – it could be entirely possible to converge toward consensus – on which to launch initiatives – from which to learn and adjust – and upon which to improve (cycle repeats). That somehow brings us back to your original question: “What are our social networks (really) for…?” – if not to serve the mutual interests of those societies that cooperatively participate in those conversations?
    I’m talking to myself here http://unettednations.wordpress.com/ – Maybe there are others who dare to question – everything – for our mutual benefit. Maybe if we cooperate (online) we can actually: improve-virtually-everything-virtualy-everywhere.
    Perhaps that’s your question…if so it will take all our perspectives – to answer it.

  23. HolyCow
    August 21, 2010

    Agree about the floppy thinking around all things social Mark – too many really poor thinkers (if you can annoint them with such a title) writing about things that they know little about. Disheartening in many ways – most of this stuff was said 3 /4 years ago and much better but there we go.
    Anyway I am only looking at this from the perspective of someone in advertising not anthropology (not saying I don’t dip in from time to time) but people will continue to put their messages infront of others in every social situation they can – like they have done for 1000s of years. This will not change anytime soon and – I hope it doesn’t (except for ghastly ‘connection planning’ done by the media industry that basically puts turds on the landscape and every conceivable surface leaving little visual aesthetic left untouched). I digress.
    My experience tells me that advertising folk tend to make stuff up about what people really do with their lives and with brand communication – there is no science – only measurement – much of which is useless in predicting future intent (except perhaps NPS). This leaves us feeling vulnerable and self conscious as we don’t really know how to convince others of the importance of intangible value.
    And so to your point “Social networks are not channels for advertisers or for the adverts/memes you, your clients or any of your so-called “influentials” create, social networks are for all of the people who participate in the network.” Agree – so why are we thinking about how to weave a brand into every conceivable opportunity in the online space? Because we can of course! And those ‘conversations’ (except of course they are not conversations are they really – its all digital with no analogue) are the job of the client not the agency – its called ‘customer service’ when it is respectful and useful.
    Social Media is what it is called because that is what it physically is, but customer engagement is what it delivers when done correctly. I think advertising should still be about creating fantastic free entertainment for folks to enjoy (OK and the occasional public service announcement) and get better at that rather than trying to force human beings into another self serving cul de sac.

  24. TH
    September 28, 2010

    Not sure I totally understand but if my understanding is correct I disagree with the blog post. Of course we learn from others in a network, but that isn’t necessarily an argument against also viewing social networks as a channel. People share and send information through channels, if no one shared we wouldn’t be able to learn. Furthermore, people use social media as a vehicle/resource for showing who they are (or who they want to be) hence, the social network becomes a facilitator or “channel” for expressing identity. Whether, social media is a channel for advertisers? Yes, but only to the extent that they aid people in their personal identity projects. The role of the brand in contemporary consumer culture and therefore also on social networks is that of a “cultural resource” useful to the consumer as an ingredient to produce or reveal the self as one chooses.

  25. TH
    September 28, 2010

    …of course we learn from others in the network, but that isn’t necessarily an argument against also viewing social networks as a channel. People share and send information through channels, if no one shared we wouldn’t be able to learn. Furthermore, people use social media as a vehicle/resource for showing who they are (or who they want to be) hence, the social network becomes a facilitator or “channel” for expressing identity. Whether, social media is a channel for advertisers? Yes, but only to the extent that they aid people in their personal identity projects. The role of the brand in contemporary consumer culture is that of a “cultural resource” useful to the consumer as an ingredient to produce or reveal the self as one chooses (also on social networks).

  26. Mark Earls
    October 10, 2010

    Thanks, TH. Couple of questions:
    What’s a “personal identity project” when it’s at home? And who do you know who pursues such a thing?
    How did you get to “social media” networks or platforms? Not sure I refer to them in the post at all. Indeed, my point is much more shaped by consideration of real world phenomena

  27. Douglas (Watkins)
    October 27, 2010

    I use facebook to communicate with my family, and it works great for that purpose.

  28. xavier
    November 9, 2010

    I agree with you but also with Julie, somewhere down the middle.
    On some cases, information will spread not based on connectivenes or contagiousness, but on the attributed expertise of the source.
    As for learning opportunities you would agree they come from innovation, more often than not brought in by commercial ventures. And that at some point this innovation have to be artifically introduced in certain networks before it naturally starts to disseminate. They key is to add value when doing it.
    Don’t you think?

  29. Mark Earls
    November 17, 2010

    I think that’s in the same territory as what I’m thinking.
    However, I think it’s important to acknowledge that while folk like us on the outside of these networks want to transmit or push our messages through the network, the truth is that messages get pulled through by the people who populate the network.
    It’s what they pull not what we push…

  30. buy flashlight
    January 17, 2011

    Social networks are for communication. 😀

  31. Brad Fallon
    January 21, 2011

    Social network is a good way to channel information as well as a good source of learning because being part of it means you get access to a lot of information which you don’t come across to just plainly reading. It is where people changes ideas in such a way that we get to learn from each other.