Over the years, social networks have lured us from the confines of our existing realities into a new genre of digital domains that not only captivated us, but fostered the creation of new realities. As George Bernard Shaw observed, "Life is not about finding yourself, life is about creating yourself." Such is true for social networks and the digital persona and resulting experiences we create and cultivate. It was the beginning of the shift in behavior toward an era of digital extroversion, self-defined by varying degrees of sharing, connections, and engagement.
On Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, et al., we were attracted by the promise of reigniting forgotten relationships and enamored by the sparking of new connections. These relationships evolved into our social graphs and ultimately our interest graphs and forever changing how we discover, share, and learn. We are now the architects of our own experiences, forever changing the information super highway and the paths for connecting people, information, and events. In doing so, we literally make the world a much smaller place.
With each new connection we wove, we were compelled to share details about ourselves that we might not have divulged in real life. And the more we exposed who we were, our aspirations, our hopes, and our challenges, the more we rewarded with responses and requests for new connections. The distance between what was, what is, and what will be, was then defined by what we share, who we know, and what we consume. In social media, we are measured by our actions and our words as well as who we know.
Our concerns of privacy or the lack thereof, now requires education. We shed the semblance of privacy in order to unlock a new sense of digital freedom. Indeed, we are the last generation to know privacy as it was and is now something that has to be taught in order to cast digital shadows that unlock opportunities rather than close doors.
The Social Genome
The activity that defines the social web is as diverse as its personalities of its inhabitants. We are driven for many reasons to share and interact online and the motivation for doing so, changes with circumstances, intentions, and experiences. I call this behaviorgraphics.
The social landscape is populated by individual presences, but charted by its connections and how in turn, they move information between them. These conduits represent the opportunities for brands and media to participate in and steer the sharing of useful and mutually beneficial content. Much in the same way that people align through diverse behavior, Forrester research tracks how this behavior factors into the adoption of social technology.
Two and a half years ago, Forrester introduced Social Technographics. To this day, it's widely regarded in its ability to help us understand the need to create targeted content designed for the groups of individuals who each process information differently. As social media moves across the adoption bell curve from the left to the right and also from the edge to the center, we see that individuals within each of the categories shift in usage, both up and down.
This year, we learn something new about the way individuals are embracing, using, and ignoring certain designs and intentions of social networks. Social networks, for the most part, are still on the rise with "Joiners," those who maintain a profile on a social network, growing by 8% since the last Social Technographics report was published.
Contrary to this growth, content-based networks, those that require users to create content, has seen no substantial growth since last year. In the U.S., only 10% of online consumers actually upload videos for example. These "creators" though, represent the elite group who power social content within these networks and it is their content that is consumed and shared within multiple networks. And, the audience for their content is only growing with 68% currently defining the "Spectator" group, 19% in the "Collector" category and 33% commenting their way to "Critics." Most markets around the world saw an increase in "Spectators" and this is likely to continue.
The 3C's, Consumption, Creation, and Curationz
Bucking the trend of growth in the "creator" category, Twitter, for instance, grew by 30 million users in the last few months. Twitter isn't so much driven by pure creation as it is rich with a combination of curation and consumption. And, while the services require its users to "create" content, doing so within 140 character doesn't constitute creation in the same way a blog, YouTube, or Flickr account demand. It's worth noting however, that creators still account for almost 41 million US online adults.
According to Forrester Consumer Insight Analyst Jackie Anderson, "The initial wave of consumers using social technologies in the US has halted. Companies will now need to devise strategies to extend social applications past the early mavens. This means that it's necessary to understand how consumers in a target audience use social media."
I recently conducted a survey with Vocus to understand the qualities that equate to influence and the characteristics that define an influencer. The number one reason we found that consumers follow or Like an individual or brand is the consistent creation of compelling content. I believe that it is the discovery and consumption of compelling content that helps individuals shift from consumption to assume a contributing role of curator...a meaningful step before creator. Curation drives a significant volume of Tweets and it is also curation that balances the art and science of engagement between creation and conversation.
Businesses must join the elite and integrate the creation of compelling content into the social marketing mix. Doing so gives consumers reason to share, expanding the role of curator within the 3C's of Content and earning authority and influence in the process. I highly advise Forrester to introduce the Curator into the next version of its Social Technographics Ladder.
An Audience with an Audience with an Audience
According to Forrester Research, overall adoption of social technologies has effectively reached saturation. 80% of people in the US engage with social media, which is equal to the number of people who text via SMS or equivalent to the ubiquity of those who own DVD players.
While it's new, its value is not to be minimized. Social media users already number in the hundreds of millions, providing the reach of traditional media but also the precision of one-to-one service and attention. Forrester notes that just a handful of "Mass Connectors" will create 256 billion influence impressions in the US this year.
As our social graphs propagate, the information that passes within it also multiplies. Individuals are not only socializing, they are sharing information and creating content. In doing so, updates serve as social objects, becoming catalysts for increased interaction and overall reach. As a result, participants and their social presences are amplified within existing social graphs and now also extend across a rising category of nicheworks or interest graphs - social graphs united around common interests and themes.
We are the architects of our own experiences and we are also the hubs of relevant content, resembling production foremen as we develop workflows and processes for consuming, curating, and creating content.
As sociologist Robin Dunbar once theorized, we are limited to the number of meaningful relationships we can manage as human beings. That number is estimated between 130 - 150. The average number of friends maintained on Facebook today is 130. Coincidence? I don't think so. The numbers are consistent across other social networks. Today, Myspace users connect with an average number of 107 individuals and on Twitter, the number is 77 (today). I believe these numbers are only going to grow.
I call this "Social Graph Theory." There's a reason why Twitter recommends people "like" you and Facebook also suggests "recommended friends." The networks realize that as your networks both grow and contextualize, your presence increases exponentially in value and they can sell against it. Social Graph Theory suggests that the size of our social graph will grow year over year, leaving behind Dunbar's number and establishing a new genre of relationships (strong ties), relations (purposeful ties) and associations (weak or temporary ties).
As you're presented with like-minded individuals and at the same time, as your organic friend friend requests escalate as a result of everyday social networking, the size and shape of social and interest graphs will only expand. You will spend more time adding than subtracting...until you have to. With every new node that defines our social network, we increase value beyond just the host networks. Brands realize that by connecting with the right people, their presence and value proposition can also rise with the tide.
Forrester groups social catalysts in two categories...
Mass Connectors: Those who create a great number of impressions about brands and services in social networks such as Twitter and Facebook
Mass Mavens: Individuals who create and share content about products and services in other social channels such as YouTube, blogs, forums, or ratings and review sites.
Indeed, a minority of social media users, defined as the elite influencers, drive the majority of the conversations across the social Web.
For brands and businesses looking to engage in social media, a unique understanding of the "egosystem" is not open for discussion. The 5th P of the marketing mix is crystal clear. People account for everything here and businesses must recognize the channels for influence as well as identify the influential voices leading conversations and steering decisions. The next step is to develop engagement programs that activate the various roles of the social consumers and empower them with useful and beneficial content and incentives to convert conversations into clicks to action.