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If a tweet falls in the forest . . .

Gary Schwartz

Gary Schwartz is president/CEO of Impact Mobile

By Gary Schwartz

On a plane run from Cleveland last month, I circled a line in Nate Silver’s book, “The Signal and The Noise,” where he says, "Our brains, wired to detect patterns, are always looking for a signal, when instead we should appreciate how noisy the data is.”
 
It seems as if our collective life on the Web is a pursuit of signals, simplifications and insights, and every day we find it more challenging to navigate the noise.
 
Just when you thought you have mastered your applications and browser tabs, add offline interactive signals to this digital cacophony.  

After John Chambers, CEO of Cisco Systems, at CES “announced" the arrival of the Internet of Everything (IOE) we now need to add LG dishwashers, 94Fifty basketballs and TweetPee diapers to the conversation.
 
How can we distill the data, sensors and messaging, and find meaningful patterns? Granted, we have come a long way from CNN iReports to ScribbleLive. What are the new tools to help us better find the social signal?
 
You — yes, you — are Time's Person of the Year 
News was a safe, curated business until 2005. With the London bombings in July that year, user-generated content (UGC) started to become an accepted part of field reporting. 
 
During the underground attack, the BBC received more than 1,000 pictures, 20 amateur video clips and 4,000 text messages. Alexander Chadwick, a commuter caught in the smoke and chaos of the explosions, captured grainy camera-phone images and transmitted them over a 3G network to the covers of newspapers globally. 
 
The consumer was attracted to the authenticity of mobile content and it heralded what media blogger Jeff Jarvis called the new ecosystem of networked journalism.
 
The following year across the pond, the concept was rolled out as a new media format: Fox News launched uReport and CNN ran the successful all-hands-on-deck iReport. Viewers' photo, comments, videos not only augmented content, but personalized the story.

That same year, YouTube and Wikipedia were fast becoming preferred content destinations and “we” (the digital citizens that edited, produced and uploaded gigabyte after gigabyte) were selected as the Time magazine's 2006 “Person" of the Year. 

We collectively and socially were changing media. "Web 2.0 is a massive social experiment," wrote Time magazine in its editorial, "and like any experiment worth trying, it could fail.” 
 
Well, there was little sign of failing – the world post-2006 became noisier. Social icons littered every page of the Web asking to be +1ed, Pinned, Liked and ReTweeted and, in four years, Mark Zuckerberg would be on the same Time magazine cover as the Person of the Year. 

In 2010, half of all Americans had a Facebook account and 70 percent of the base lived outside the U.S. Time Magazine called 2010 the "Facebook age.”
 
While Facebook continued to dominate social media, with regional competitors such as Qzone in China approaching user parity at one billion, its main competitor it turned out was consumer behavior. 
Facebook users were becoming more mobile and had moved from full-course content to on-the-go snacking. 

Twitter’s 160 characters broke through the noise. Instagram’s image blogging, Snapchat time-stamped image blogging and Whisper anonymous image blogging all accelerated the art of the social haiku – simple information, thoughts and emotions that can be published to a targeted audience at a red light, waiting for an elevator. Simplification became as crucial to social success of a new application as the smart ideas.
 
Beyond forensics
The mass of social content also needed a simple dashboard. 

A surprising number of applications have entered the market to drive discovery, help thread narrative, and aggregate content from various social sources. 
 
 Discovery tools include smart algorithms such as Trap.it, which helps users search for content articles from the Web, to Scoop.it which spiders various of sources based on keywords. 


 Storytelling tools that help you cherry-pick and curate social sound bites from various sources include PaperLi that uses a retro newspaper metaphor to paste topical content together and Rebel Mouse and Storify that present a social scrapbook. 

 
The challenge with these tools are that they are forensic. 

While our individual social feeds are in the moment, most of the content aggregators are helping brands and media companies assemble safe, relevant content from the past. How do you move beyond this static content network?
 
Applications such as ScribbleLive, Thinkwire and HootSuite are tools for real-time aggregation and management. They have developed ways for brands and media companies to easily syndicate content. 

This moves the social team beyond static articles to real-time publishing and feedback. It was the UGC dream offered by 2010 social media now packaged for businesses as an all-in-one dashboard. 
 
Aggregate or be aggregated
Most brands do not have rich content to draw in an audience. 

In the words of Thunderclap, a social amplification platform: "When a tweet falls in a forest . . .” or how can we broadcast a signal when there is no audience? 

Brands that need to go beyond the corporate microblog have little choice but to rely on services such as Twitter Amplify that partners them with rich media such as NBA, ESPN and Fox to be socially sexy.
 
Most brands still run one-off campaigns and rely on hashtag crowdsourcing. 

Hashtags allow a brand to create groups of interest but like chatrooms they tend to be noisy and lose their message. 

These hashtag bubbles are socially unreliable from a content curation perspective and have become diluted by hashtags entering mainstream media in copy at bus shelters, billboards and television. 

The hashtag had become a themed flashmob and, while being a valuable utility, may have #QuestionableValue for a brand.
 
Facebook understood more than any other portal the value to tying media together in a cohesive manner. Social, it discovered, has one indelible narrative structure and that is a “timeline.”  

When Mr. Zuckerberg announced Timeline on Dec. 15, 2011, he promised a new way of telling stories: your graduation or the day you bought your first car. 

But, more importantly, the Timeline would allow the consumer to tell the most epic story of all: "their life story.”
 
From cradle to grave, we now could post a story about ourselves. It has the standard narrative qualities: a beginning, middle and, unfortunately for the timeline owner, an end. Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, SnapChat and other platform all have some rudimentary narrative.
 
However, in many ways, these platforms are more languages than stories. 

If a 160-character tweet is a new language – and we all spent an unnaturally long time composing the ideal, succinct turn of phrase for our loyal followers – then where is the platform to allow us to form stories and narrative that go beyond the timeline and that go beyond scrapbook and record keeping?
 
The next wave of social platforms needs to curate and, at the same time, create UGC in an intelligent manner for micro-social content – a solution that manages multiple sources, multiple users with a global audience in real-time that also allows for slow, thoughtful time.
 
How can we combine the rich content of TEDTalk with the sound bites crowd sourced authenticity of Twitter? How do you draw out a succinct signal from the deafening noise?

Gary Schwartz is president/CEO of Impact Mobile, Toronto. Reach him at

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