Lecture: The Secrets of Content Consumption in the Virtual World


This is the text of a lecture I gave at the invite of Dr. Erwin Warkentin of Memorial University of Newfoundland, my alma mater on March 10th, 2011. It is reproduced mostly verbatim. The slides and numbers that I displayed are not here though (excuse the grammar etc. I didn’t bother to fix much).

A couple of years back, two friends of mine from Memorial University and I started thinking about the idea of what value we bring to what people call ‘Social Media’. The idea came from a deep philosophical discussion between Niall Brown and I on a passage in Das Kapital where Marx talks about the idea that everything we create has value and is in effect a tradeable good. I’m sure that Marx had no idea years later it would lead to Empire Avenue. It took a third friend, Dr. Michael Mannion, to bring some semblance of the idea to fruition. We decided to create a virtual stock market where your online actions were the tradeable commodity. Woah. How science-fictiony. But it really comes down to the idea of “Social Capital”. When we discovered that Bond Street was taken, we settled on Empire Avenue and we went forth.

Through many trials and tribulations we launched to the friends and family a year ago, to the world 6 months ago and we move on forward. Our goals are not small, and regardless of success or failure the three of us are driven to challenge established networks and to establish Empire Avenue as a household name. We are also not shy of our Newfoundland roots.

Last week we launched the Empire Avenue on Facebook which will bring Empire Avenue’s addictive network building and fun to the Facebook platform.

At Empire Avenue, we ask you to connect each of your primary social networks. We examine the data and then we throw it back at you as scores against which people buy shares, connect with you and otherwise have fun with what you write and produce on Empire Avenue or on Twitter or Facebook.

In creating Empire Avenue, what had for the most part been somewhat of a lark, we were propelled headlong into the worlds of Social Media and Social Gaming. We are on the forefront of Gaming something that is real. We are on the forefront of discovering a method to value your online Social Capital. We talk about building “value-based relationships”

So what is this talk about?

I’m going to have a look at Social Networks and Social Media, but always bring it back to some of the numbers and interesting things that we have discovered in doing Empire Avenue. I doubt you will walk away from this and say, wow, I understand Social Media or Networks, instead I hope we will have a great discussion on Social Media, its uses and perhaps with a bit of philosophical discussion thrown in there, we’ll all walk away from a truly inclusive Social Lecture, one that benefits the subject at hand. If I had to describe this talk in 140 characters:

“How social media is changing our world, our own personal brand and how the value of your network is an asset to cultivate.”

Another one could be “I tweet therefore I am”

Ultimately just like Empire Avenue itself, this talk brings together so many fields that I will immediately tell you that I am no expert in any of them and my conclusions are based on our data, our inferences and our analysis. Even the rest of Empire Avenue may not agree with my conclusions!

But first let me ask you as an audience with a raise of your hands, how many of you are on Facebook? How many of you are on Twitter? How many on LinkedIn? How many are on Empire Avenue? Great, how many of you have no clue as to why you are on Facebook, hate it, but have a strange fascination and can’t help but being on it and can’t quite bring yourself to quit?

Today we produce an incredible amount of content. In the past 24 hours, it is not inconceivable of me to say that we have written equivalent of the Encyclopaedia of Britannica several times over if we combined all the messages passed along through Twitter and Facebook alone. Unfortunately, you are probably sitting there thinking that the consistency of one’s breakfast isn’t exactly something to get academically excited about. However, you ignore Social Media at your own risk. Ask Hosni Mubarak and Charlie Sheen.

Social Media is different from regular media in several senses, but I stress at every talk I do that human beings are fundamentally opposed to change. We don’t change our human behaviour, we simply move them to new platforms.

Twitter for example, is the equivalent of turn of the century newspaper boy yelling out headlines from the evening papers. Hopefully you will hear and spread it to the next person.

Facebook is the equivalent of bingo parlour. A giant bingo parlour on steroids, but we’re there addictively playing bejeweled or solitaire and gossiping about our friends and passing photos around. I’m still not sure what value LinkedIn is to me, but then I’m on there along with 90 million other people.

The difference from their offline counterparts is that with Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn you are not reaching 100 people at a time, you are reaching millions and you participate in an accelerated Network Effect. More, the message is not controlled by a single organization but instead by you; by us. While that lends itself to umpteen messages on bowel movements, it also lends itself to an amazing ability to look at networks, society and impact across the world at an instant.

Someone from here sent me a couple of questions related to my talk before I showed up and they were very insightful. Why are we creating and consuming so much content? I would personally describe human beings as insatiably curious and insatiably social. We want to know what’s happening with everyone else. We want to know what’s happening in other countries, towns, families and so on.

How many of you would classify yourself as “Lurkers”. In essence we like to gossip. Furthermore, Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene describes most species as being in the camp of Altruism. Altruistic passage of information is the equivalent of sitting at the Pub and saying “So did you hear about Ellen, she’s you know, started a new job and Bob has bought this awesome snowblower”.

Given the ability for you to share a piece of information, we humans are almost trained from birth to pass along that message. Our action of whether to pass along a message is really the part that drives social media. If all of us broadcast their thoughts, no one listened and no one shared, Facebook would be a set of profile pages that I might go along and read once in a while but otherwise would be quite boring.

In fact, what I just described is the static web that we started off with 18 years ago. What drives Social Media is commenting and sharing. It’s because we have an opinion, we have a comment and given the opportunity, for no cost other than to be social or altruistic, we share and repost. Essentially, and this would please the university me: the mindset is often, “hey, if I’m going to procrastinate, then let’s see how many of you I can drag along with me”.

How many times after you share something or see something of yours shared do you go back and see who has commented? I remember as a staffer on the Muse (Memorial University’s Student Newspaper) we used to keep saying: “if we weren’t pissing someone off then we weren’t doing our job as student journalists.“ Even in traditional journalism, you work to elicit a reaction. I’m sure CBC journalists have fun checking the comments out to their articles once posted on line.

So at Empire Avenue we look at your network and match it against two things: Your Audience and the Engagement. For us, a social conversation starts with you creating a piece of content. It gets broadcast to your audience. Its success within your audience is when you see engagement. We’re basically looking at the feedback loop to content.

When we first started this journey, we thought that all this equated to online Influence, in fact there are people and services that are making money talking about reaching out to Influencers and using scores such as what we provide to identify those who are likely to get a message passed to another person, i.e. Influence. Fundamentally it seems like a great hypothesis, until you look at it a little more closely. Let’s say you have 6000 Twitter followers. You post a tweet today on Charlie Sheen… what is the liklihood of that tweet getting passed around? The answer is that it depends very much on a number of factors. The Content of your Tweet, The Context of the network you are passing it along to (I’ll get into this) and the true Audience that witnesses that piece of content. I personally do not believe our scores measure influence but instead network value, i.e. how engaged a network is with you. If your network is more or less engaged with you, you will get more “retweets” and more sharing. Whether that leads to a measurable action from your content is something else entirely. Marketers, businesses and individuals should not use these scores as gospel on how influential someone is, but merely as a starting point. We haven’t quite cracked the algorithmic analysis puzzle for understanding, measuring and replicating viral memes. Not yet. (though yes we have some ideas).

The true power of using Social Media is in understanding the Context of the network you are in. If a Folklorist got up and spoke to an audience of Mathematicians, the context of the audience would be completely against the content of the talk. Similarly we participate in social networks all the time and they are all of different contexts. Mixing contexts is not necessarily advisable.

So what do I mean by social network contexts?

Facebook is about your friends. People you know generally well, probably on a personal relationship, your family and so on. LinkedIn, generally speaking you are more aligned towards business relationships. You connect based on potential business relationships. Twitter, well, anything goes on Twitter. I would imagine people follow based on much looser criteria. At Empire Avenue, your scores are matched against everyone else in the world. Generally, we see smaller network groupings in Facebook than Twitter. In Empire Avenue, the context is based on value. You need to have virtual currency to create a relationship based on buying shares which is limiting, but puts a premium on “value”. That value is a judgment for you, can be content, can be gaming, can be friendship.

But understanding this context is important. According to Business Insider these are what people spend most time clicking on inside Facebook. In advertising terms, putting an advert on entertainment on Facebook is more likely to generate hits than one about health care. The reason is simple, the context with which most people use Facebook is very specific. It is entertainment, it is friendship, it is passing along fun. Why would I be there to read about my knee replacement possibilities?

Exploiting that context is ultimately the most important thing about effective social media usage. The secret is to match the content of your message to the context of the network and most importantly, the context by which your audience sees you. This is ultimately incredibly important in understanding how to use Facebook or any of these services. If Memorial University were to advertise some function on Facebook then it should aim it towards the Entertainment/Tabloids portion of the demographic. If I started talking about jellyfish, other than commenting on my insanity, I doubt I’ll get much response. Understanding what my own personal audience is there for and how they will react to my message in the medium that it is given is crucial. There’s nothing new here really, it’s just that the urge to share without thinking is far greater than before when publishing a news article took far more effort and time.

Have you heard this talk before? It’s called targeted Television Channels and TV shows. Yes. Again human beings do not change.

You could also say in the case of social media the technology of the platform itself defines the message. The message on Twitter is 140 characters. By that definition itself, Twitter creates an urgency and a need to consume that message in a certain way. You might respond to it, you might retweet it or you might ignore it. The sheer volume of messages on that medium means that you might not even see it. The value of a single Tweet is far less than the value of a Facebook Post. The rich multimedia nature of Facebook with it’s increasing relevance of the word “like” and the action of comment means that you will react to content differently there as well. The very act of being bought as the medium for a connection on Empire Avenue drives a completely different user behaviour!

So coincidentally my studies here for my Masters revolved around grass roots revolution in South Africa. Today you are seeing these so called revolutions focusing on Twitter, Facebook. It’s not that Twitter says to people “Come join Twitter; we can topple governments” — though what a great tagline that would be. Examine the context and the reasons for a revolution. My personal academic leanings always stood behind the Marxist or economic theories behind history. In this context, a revolution occurs due to economic circumstances that lead a people to revolt. Now there’s a good reason why agrarian revolutions hardly ever work. You need to have good avenues for communications in order to get the message out to enough people. In the old days, that was by having the revolution in, or next to, big population centers that facilitated communication by word of mouth. Radio, Television and Mobile Phones certainly expanded upon the idea of communicating revolutionary ideas but the cost of phoning everyone in a country is, well, prohibitive, and Radio and Television are controlled by a single, usually state run, company or other organization. What Twitter, Facebook, Google and others have helped to do is create platforms and tools which allow for the dissemination of information in such a manner across multiple devices and for free that the man on the street has the knowledge in which to conduct that revolution.

It is interesting to note that because Empire Avenue pulls in data from all these sources we have been used by groups of people to read the data from Twitter and Facebook when Twitter and Facebook have been banned.

That is the power of social media and the networks that they have created. In true guerilla fashion, cut off the head and the limbs still survive. In effect the only true recourse for a government is to cut off total communications.

Now, revolutions don’t need to happen through Social Media in far off places like Egypt. About a month ago I had just arrived in Edmonton from San Francsisco from a long flight looked at my messages and there was a tweet from a user of ours by the name of JOSH that said, “Hey look at my share price, I think I broke Empire Avenue”. Now, these are not the kind of messages you want to receive at 1am especially in a start-up like ours. Panicked, I looked at his share price, which was fairly high to begin with, and sure enough he had climbed over 20 points. Obviously I freaked.

In reality nothing was wrong. You see, I had been out of the country. While I was gone in British Columbia an outdoors company had culled hundreds of huskies and it had come out in the press. JOSH had been asked to manage the Facebook Fan Page for the group that was leading the charge on whipping up a Social Media revolution in BC and the rest of Canada to get the company Boycotted. They were successful and as I arrived in Edmonton, they had whipped up a frenzy of 60,000+ people onto the fan page. JOSH’s value on Empire Avenue, well, rightfully skyrocketed.

You can topple governments, but given an avenue where people can share their thoughts, have it be rebroadcasted and reach a receptive network, you can truly change the world.

But all this comes at a price.

Twitter and Facebook are meme-related networks. We soar along the paths of a new Internet Meme, who will it be today? The worst American Idol, the toppling of a Government, a person with the golden Radio Voice, the sound bite of an overpaid basketball player who should know better, the fascination with a drug/alcohol addled man living with two women. These are memes. They capture our attention, they make us smile, cry, angry, happy, disgusted. We pass it along. The sad truth is that it’s just as quickly forgotten.

I want to bring it back to the huge amount of data that we are producing. If we say that the Library of Congress has the 20 Terabytes of data that people have estimated, I can tell you that each day 90 million tweets are sent on Twitter alone. That is the equivalent of 9 GB of data, admittedly just using Twitter at 140 characters it would take you 800,000 years or so to reach the same amount of data at current levels.

However, to put it in manageable sizes, I think we are all familiar with the Bible. The Bible has about 4MB of data. So the equivalent content of 2,000 bibles are being written and posted in a single day. Imagine reading the Bible 2,000 times in a single day every day?

That’s counting a service that puts out 140 character tweets out there. I’m not counting Blogs, Newspapers, Facebook with longer posts, YouTube, Flickr, LinkedIn, Empire Avenue. The amount of data is staggering. The amount of data you must wade through is staggering. The secret to content CREATION and having it CONSUMED on the Internet therefore is about being consistent, understanding the context, creating great content, have a little bit of luck if you are the broadcaster and realize that you will only have 15 seconds of fame because that’s our current internet attention span.

So in the mid of last year we had an interesting occurrence which highlighted all of what I have talked about. It’s happened to us several times since then so none of us get really excited anymore, but this one was special in that we had yet to launch publicly and we ended up getting to know the people involved quite well.

The group of us had met in Edmonton and we were about to go our separate ways when someone realized that we were getting an inordinate amount of signups from Chile. The inordinate amount of signups ended up being an avalanche from Chile. At least for the size we were back then, that was huge for us. We couldn’t understand it.

A woman by the name of Carolina Millan had heard about Empire Avenue from a cousin in Edmonton. She had blogged about it in Chile and tweeted and facebooked it. Her audience which was primarily interested in games and social media in a culture where 50% of the population was on Facebook, this was received, well, with enthusiasm! Our system was in invite only and that exclusivity itself drove people to join in droves. This was the power of Carolina’s network. If you looked at her scores, as a marketer I might have said, she might have potential for our message, but never the attention she actually received. She soared on Empire Avenue as she joined as all the Chileans bought into her.

It also highlighted another factor of content consumption in the virtual and perhaps the real world. As much as we like to be altruistic and to share things, we also want to see behind the closed door, the thing behind the invites, the thing that we cannot easily get. Ultimately my advice to entrepreneurs and to anyone seeking to drive content adoption or consumer internet services, is to launch into closed networks and to launch with exclusivity built in. I said earlier that human beings are insatiably social but also insatiably curious. If you can exploit the second part in your content consumption strategy you will be successful.

If you don’t believe me, ask Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook succeeded due to the fascination of Facebook as a closed network. The irony shouldn’t escape you.

I said in an interview that the reason the Arts Degrees and Liberal Arts educations fascinate me is because Empire Avenue is so incredibly cross-disciplinary. In my talk you’ve probably seen hints of Computer Science, Communications Studies, History, Economics, Mathematics, English, Drama, Psychology, Biology and Philosophy. Our team in fact is as diverse as the subjects I just quoted and it makes for such incredibly fun conversations! I promised Erwin that I would somehow incorporate a bit of Folklore into this as well so…

… Specific folklorish stories from the last year of Social Media (you had to have been there 😉

Ladies and Gentlemen, thanks for having me here, thanks for letting me talk on and on, I hope it was fun and insightful and got you thinking about what we communicate on the Internet.

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