No-one disputes that the social media have dramatically changed the way we communicate about issues and crises. But have the social media had a comparable impact on influencing the nature and direction of those same issues and crises?
We know intuitively that most blogs have next-to-no readers, and millions of blogs are inactive. And we also know that a massive proportion of all blog entries simply repeat other people’s opinions and content – the so-called echo chamber effect. Now research from Yahoo has produced some remarkable statistical insight into the microblogging service Twitter.
• Almost 50% of all tweets are generated by just 20,000 users – about 0.01% of the Twittersphere
• Traditional media outlets are by far the most active users on Twitter, yet only about 15% of tweets received by ordinary people are received directly from the media.
Moreover the research reconfirms that most Twitter users are not closely following the “weighty issues” of the day. In fact the ten most-followed users on are not the powerful media, corporations, governments and NGOs which are highly active on Twitter, but individual people, mainly celebrities such as Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Britney Spears and Taylor Swift – plus, of course, Barack Obama.
Politicians who respond to every slight blip in the latest opinion polls are widely condemned. But what about corporations attempting to manage issues and respond to potential crises?
The poster-child for social media over-reaction may be The Gap clothing chain, which announced in late 2010 a change to its long-time logo. Facing a firestorm of on-line protest around the world from bloggers and others, the company promptly said it would ‘crowd source’ a new logo, then within days jettisoned that plan and reverted to the original logo. Many commentators argued at the time the company had simply surrendered to a small but noisy group of cyber-bullies, and research showed most Gap customers were not even aware of the proposed change.
The raw numbers about the Internet are truly staggering, with perhaps two billion Internet users, maybe 675 million people on Facebook, up to 200 million Twitter accounts, and about 160 million blogs worldwide. However, as Jeff Cole, Director of the Center for the Digital Future, once quipped: “The audience for most blogs is tiny . . . We think most bloggers have achieved the anonymity they richly deserve.”
Clearly some bloggers are closely followed and influential. Yet it is equally obvious that what’s important is not how many people read a blog, but who they are and how many others they influence. The new Yahoo research about Twitter is a reminder that those who truly exert influence may be far fewer than conventional wisdom might suggest. And for corporate and organizational managers trying to manage complex public issues, it might also be a reminder to take the next brief blast of social media criticism with a generous pinch of salt.