THE BLOG

Am I God, or Is It Me on Facebook?

05/20/2013 03:34 pm ET | Updated Jul 20, 2013

"How many of you have 500 friends or more? 750 or more? More than 1,000? Okay -- if you have more than 2,000, keep your hands up. Now, how many of them will pick you up at the airport?"

Nervous laughter follows -- with many knowing nods of the head... point made.

The above is one of my standard keynote routines when I discuss social networks and their power.

Truth is, we have come a long way in understanding the reality and the hype around the meaning of numbers of friends, amount of "likes," legions of followers and such across the various social networks/channels/services -- whatever -- but not nearly far enough, and much of the angst marketers and even users have around numbers is grounded in market-driven digibabble and not in actual insight and understanding.

As I have written many times -- look no further than Facebook's public offering to understand that mere "thumbs ups" do not necessarily translate into dollars. And it's no wonder that honest marketers struggle with ROI as the social companies themselves struggle with monetizing and more and more are adding subscription fees or other premium service payments to augment meager advertising returns.

Let's be clear: social is powerful -- always has been, always will be, and its amplification by digital means is exponentially powerful, when understood.

Having said that, I read a fascinating study by Fenne Deters and Matthias Mehl, from the Universität Berlin, Berlin, Germany and the University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA, published late last year in Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Let me share the abstract:

Online social networking is a pervasive but empirically understudied phenomenon. Strong public opinions on its consequences exist but are backed up by little empirical evidence and almost no causally conclusive, experimental research. The current study tested the psychological effects of posting status updates on Facebook using an experimental design. For one week, participants in the experimental condition were asked to post more than they usually do, whereas participants in the control condition received no instructions. Participants added a lab "Research Profile" as a Facebook friend, allowing for the objective documentation of protocol compliance, participants' status updates, and friends' responses. Results revealed:

  • That the experimentally induced increase in status updating activity reduced loneliness
  • That the decrease in loneliness was due to participants' feeling more connected to their friends on a daily basis
  • That the effect of loneliness was independent of direct social feedback (i.e., responses) by friends

Bottom line: we look for our 15 mgs of fame, if you will (thank you Bob Greenberg), and like the Andy Warhol 15-minute analog model, it is completely divorced from anything but our own egocentric lives.

Ergo, it's no wonder that it's tough to monetize when no one listens but yourself....

The weekend FT Magazine had an interesting take on this study -- with, I think, a good and healthy caveat -- but with a fairly strong view that we need to really understand what the real dynamics are, including the value of offline response to online postings (Digital Exponential):

"Perhaps Facebook updates make us feel connected even though nobody out there is listening. That suggests a curious view of social networking: it may have little to do with true socialising. We may simply feel satisfied with the illusion that someone is paying attention."

The implication for brands is as clear as the implications for you and I -- who listens? How do they listen? And where is the real action recorded... if any?

I call to your attention a wonderful scene in a British black-comedy movie from 1972 called The Ruling Class and starring Peter O'Toole, who plays a paranoid schizophrenic British nobleman who thinks he is Jesus... listen:

Lady Claire Gurney: How do you know you're God?

Jack Arnold Alexander Tancred Gurney, 14th Earl of Gurney: Simple. When I pray to Him, I find I am talking to myself.

And there you have it -- how much of what we do is talking to ourselves (me included...) and even so, does it make a difference?

My sense is that the answer is with us as people, as marketers, as real friends -- understanding what is and isn't -- separating the digibabble from the powerful possibilities that are ours to have -- knowing and accepting the limitations while actively building on the infinite opportunities before us....

What do you think?