Where is the social Internet?

In an interesting post today, Alexis Madrigal reminds everyone that the Internet was social well before MySpace, Friendster, Facebook and Twitter. He pointed out that for him, the Internet was always social with chat rooms, forums and, of course, email. He is hardly alone. That was certainly my experience. The communication elements of the Internet were far more important than the ‘content’ provision elements. Over 10 years ago, Andrew Odlyzko wrote that that email was and still, in many ways, is the true killer app of the Internet. His point was stronger than Madrigal: this isn’t a rewriting of the Internet’s history, if you consider human history, social connectivity was always there and drove much innovation.

The more critical issue that Madrigal emphasises is “measurement.” Social media sites have prominence in the narrative because their impact is easier to measure. He points out that when looking at links to The Atlantic, referrals from social media can be tracked easily. The rest fall into ‘other.’ However, it is possible to measure the extent of ‘other’ by looking at direct links to posts that would otherwise be hard to find without coming through the home page of a particular site. It turns out that ‘other’ is quite big (maybe 60 or 70%) of referred traffic; something Madrigal refers to as ‘dark social.’ He concludes, like Odlyzko a decade ago, that email is the killer social app.

This is, of course, no surprise to users. Although I have to point out that I can imagine all sorts of ways that ‘dark social’ is overstated here. Links from Google with ‘tracking blocking’ plugins installed, revisits to sites from browsers that have historical memory come to mind. Not to mention the fact that there is a big difference between bilateral communication and broadcast communication. If you are wanting to tell your social marketing people where to pay attention, there is still value in broadcast rather than bilateral sharing in terms of the rate of return to effort.

Thus, it all comes back down to performance measurement. Providers to content want to understand what is generating readership in the competition for attention. Social networks have provided a readily available means of tracking impact and so tend to be the focus of marketing strategy. I saw this in HBR’s plans for my own book. But I also saw there messages that will go out to their ‘opt in’ email lists. They weren’t forgetting that.

What was harder to think about was how to leverage bilateral email. For the sharing coupon on the book, a colleague lamented to me that he wanted to share it but wanted to just click to send an email right from the Kindle book. Instead he has to write down the code and compose another email. He’s right. It would be better to make emailing links better (as they do on posts). On that score, I remember that as I designed this site, I seriously considered dropping the share by email link at the bottom of posts like this one. Up until today, it was the last option of that list. In light of Madrigal’s piece I have moved it to the top.

But there is an issue associated with sharing by email. It has become less expected. Social networks have moved email up to a different role. In a recent book, Scarcely Relevant, Australian comedian (actually I should say, ‘funny man’), Tony Martin summarised this neatly:

My friends, both on the Internet and in the real world, seem surprised that I have decided to drop anchor at twitter.com. Originally, someone had suggested that it might be a good way to ‘promote the website’ (which even my own relatives a) hadn’t heard of, and b) couldn’t spell) but, once the necessary forms had been filled out and the word ‘unfollow’ explained, I seen realised that here was a fantastic time-saving device; no longer would I have to bombard everyone with endless e-mails urging them to ‘Click here, select “Cat That Can Play the Piano” and thank me later’. Now I could simply whack it up on Twitter and let them do the legwork (after first pestering them all to sign up themselves, saying, ‘No, it’s not just something Josh Thomas would be into, it’s fun and really easy to use! Hello? Are you still there?’).

The point being that email and social network sharing are substitutes. Moreover, it is now not appropriate to send all manner of links via email to friends. They expect it to be on Facebook where they can browse or ignore you at their leisure instead of trying to work out whether what you are sending is urgent, important or not. Indeed, nowadays I face a dilemma with links that might appeal to those not on Facebook. Should I bother putting it in an email to them? Most of the time, I no longer do that. That is probably a good state of affairs as it has raised the threshold to them (who clearly don’t like referred content as they are not one of the 1/7th of the planet on Facebook) and we have all reached a happier equilibrium.

Anyhow, the message that marketing is different on the Internet is also an old one. In a recent post on, of all places, LinkedIn, Tim O’Reilly recounts that history.

Even in ephemeral social media like Twitter, I’m known principally for how often I retweet. I’m constantly looking for value from others that I can amplify.  I have millions of followers on Twitter and Google+ not just because of what I say but because of the people I pay attention to.

In short, the secret of promotion in the age of social media isn’t to promote yourself.  It’s to promote others.  Success comes when your success depends on the success of your customers, your suppliers, your end-users, and when you spend more of your time thinking about them than about yourself.  You can even promote your competitors. In the early 90s, we distributed to booksellers a bibliography of all the best books on Unix – our competitors’ as well as our own. Our theory was that if we helped booksellers to buy the best books, the sales of the entire category would grow.

One of those retweets of O’Reilly just last night took my to a 2002 speech by Bruce Sterling. It is a polemic about open source software but contains this gem that I only wish I had discovered before writing my book.

You know, information doesn’t get to be free. But that’s got very little to do with the bits, or the atoms, or the bandwidth, or the speed of the copying, or any of these things that techies lick their chops over. Information stays expensive because of the social processes in which information is embedded.

Couldn’t agree more.

Where is the social Internet? It isn’t. It’s society.

2 Replies to “Where is the social Internet?”

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