I've Seen The Revolution and It's Not Working

Jul 07, 2009

Three years ago, I would have told you that the future lay in personalized news and ever-more sophisticated Web searches. Tell the New York Times that you are interested in breast cancer and it will flag every article published on the subject; list it as a Google Alert and you will soon read more than the average practising oncologist (or you may be an unusually diligent oncologist).

We, in the agency world, were quite comfortable with this because news services still need content and they have to fund themselves through advertising. Google discovers and aggregates content, but it still takes its users to content provided by news services or to Web sites, adding its own targeted advertising along the way.

Content needs PR agencies, Web sites need ad agencies, and advertising obviously needs a funky pool table, a swish office, and an expense account. So, search and aggregation is still a big part of the future.

What we all underestimated, however, was the human instinct to be part of the herd and to follow the crowd.

Searching Google is a very individual pursuit: its algorithms try to take into account how many people look at each site and who links to each page, but the decision on what you click and what you believe is yours alone.

That is not, though, the way most people previously did things. We relied on what our neighbors thought, what the minister said, what Walter Cronkite judged important, or what the local newspaper thought fit to print. Twenty-first century people, on the other hand, worry that the minister is just interested in their tax-free donations. They don't know their neighbors. Only the older ones watch nice, young Katy Couric or read the local newspaper, if there is still one. Most modern people follow the pack through Facebook, Friendster, LinkedIn Connections, or Twitter Followers.

Social animals online

It all started in 2002 with music fans and college students who wanted to find ways of staying in touch with an extended network of friends and of sharing content with one another. Six years later, Facebook has moved from a few hundred Harvard students to having almost 200 million active users—70 percent outside the US; My Space has 76 million in the US alone; and the original social networking site, Friendster, has over 90 million members—about 80 million of them in Asia.

Music fans (and high school dropouts) are more likely to be on My Space; teenagers are more likely to be on Bebo; while college students are still likely to be on Facebook, but the profiles are changing fast.

For the big sites, the fastest-growing demographic is over 35. Those are, of course, your target patients or their children.

Over 18 billion minutes a day are spent on Facebook—10 or 20 of them by my 78-year old mother, who has just got ten key tips on her forthcoming hip replacement from her Facebook friends and will, I imagine, chronicle her physiotherapy—stretch by stretch—on Twitter.

There are not that many other 78-year-olds on Twitter, but the median age of its users is already 31 and climbing rapidly. Those users are attracted by its simplicity: they post messages ('tweets") under 140 characters long. If they are compelling tweeters, they attract followers who opt to receive their messages. Most tweets are stunningly banal; some are news-breaking ("holy f***ing s*** I was just in a plane crash," is how the story of the Continental crash in Denver broke); and some are really important to us ("new insulin device amazing—no one noticed me using it").

Strategic Socializing
Because most tweets are sent from mobile phones, they are often followed by grainy images of the moment in question (the plane crash survivor had one up within minutes of scrambling free of the wreckage).

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