Yahoo’s announcement last week that it plans to test Stanley Milgram’s influential ‘6 degrees of separation’ theory on Facebook shows that it has very little idea about the implications of social media for human interaction over the last few years.
The experiment- in which anyone with a Facebook can participate- requires users to transmit targeted data to circles of friends, which is then monitored. Eventually, enough data should be collected that a more reliable verdict than Milgram’s frequently criticised original can be reached- we’ll know exactly how many contacts separate us from anyone else in the world.
It’s easy to see why the two companies have launched the initiative (assuming that everybody reading this blog is too cynical to believe it’s purely in the interest of furthering the social sciences). It speaks nicely to the ideal social networking brand image. It speaks of connectivity not only as a means to an end but an end in itself- a fascinating and progressive human phenomenon.
What’s more, it paints facebook as benefitting the human race for reasons higher than making it easy to know about people’s holidays without ever meeting them. As researchers rightly point out, an even vaguely reliable re-run of the experiment would have been impossible even 15 years ago. Too bad, then, that it’s totally misguided.
I’m not talking about the many procedural flaws implicit in running a global social experiment that requires internet access to participate in. This isn’t a science blog, and besides, Milgram’s original was hardly a bastion of good practice and that didn’t stop it taking root in the popular consciousness. Instead, that facebook view the developments in social networking over the last decade as having no more interesting implications or avenues for experiment than the simple realisation that ‘people know each other’ is pretty damning.
Over the past couple of years, social networking has become about context, not simple connectivity. The market and brand research that facebook is likely to use the collected data for would be better conducted into the increasingly textured way people interact with brands and with each other thanks to online software.
My new client the young entrepreneur du jour Callum Negus-Fancey, runs an extremely successful 16+ dance events company and a major online marketing outfit, taking advantage of a highly net-savvy advocacy strategy to promote his brands. His parties are successful because they take advantage of facebook, twitter and foursquare to source and equip trusted brand advocates to spread the word among their peers.
It’s a good idea executed well, but it also shows that the way people interact with one another is changing. Now that social networks can be defined and viewed on a screen, connectivity becomes more about defining the nature of connections in relation to the individual self, rather than assessing their further reaching implications. Now that most information is accessible to most people, the value of a person’s knowledge lies more in their research ability and the level of trust you hold in them than in any inherent quality.
Advocacy works in promoting brands to younger people because they like to actively control whose information and communication they trust and respect and whose they don’t. When google+ launches, any success it has will be due to its ‘circles’ technology, which allows users to separate contacts into totally separate groups and interface with them accordingly.
Connectivity has become about how and why we know, not who or how many or where. Brands need to focus on building and sourcing the right relationships with potential consumers, not maximising the number they reach. The results of the experiment are irrelevant- what does it matter if I’m 6 steps away from Mark Zuckerberg when my more valuable contacts could between them source and deliver to me all the information he could, then arrange to go for a pint with me after?