the frequency a kenny chung blog

January 19th, 2012
according to

Note: This article is not about verifying identities in social media; that’s way too boring. This post is about the sense of validation that motivates people to use social media more and more.

The need to be validated is what drives modern society. It falls within the top two sections of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs (New Year’s Resolution: Stop relating every marketing concept to Maslow?). And this need translates over very nicely to social media and its users. The first word is the key one: social. Social networks are about interacting, but networking is also about creating new connections that did not previously exist. And therein lies the promise of social media for the everyday users- the ability to receive validation from another person, whether it’s the cute girl from Chemistry class Liking your status on Facebook, a customer service rep responding to your complaints on Yelp, a movie star responding to your Tweet/answering a question, striking up a casual conversation with the CEO of a tech startup you’re interested in working for. Whatever the case may be, the (potential) feedback loop is what drives many users to engage. I’m going to use this post to highlight a few social networks that are doing this right.

Why do people use Quora?

Quora markets itself as being THE place where anybody is able to receive expert answers to any question. In this sense, Quora mainly relies on the quality of responses to drive engagement. But sometimes this even lends itself to some surprises. Take the example below: in this thread, someone asked a general question about how JJ Abrams started his movie-making career… and JJ Abrams himself popped by to personally answer the question!

JJ Abrams answering questions on Quora
JJ Abrams was definitely the expert on the subject matter (click to enlarge)

Amazing that he would take the time out of his day to answer an anonymous person’s question just because he knew he would be the best source for an answer. It also shows that he cares for his fans and is willing to reward them for their fandom and devotion. Really awesome. No one can argue that that isn’t the single best answer for that question. (Full disclosure: I love Fringe!)

Why do people use Reddit?

In the same vein, Reddit has become the “it” social sharing site. It has completely eclipsed Digg, StumbleUpon, and all the others. It has done so by fostering a community where any and all questions can be asked and answered, with no apparent limits to genuine curiosity. And the community has grown so large (and full of educated students and professionals) that there’s almost always someone qualified to answer your questions, no matter how obscure (consider this thread about hair dryers.) The AskReddit threads are similar to Quora, but with a typically lower signal to noise ratio.

And occasionally on Reddit (actually at least a few times a month at this point), someone famous creates an account solely to answer Redditors’ questions. In recent memory, there’s been Louis CK, Jeopardy Champion Ken Jennings, Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen T. Colbert, and countless others. During these days, a lucky few have their questions answered by someone they likely revere, or at least respect, for their body of work and also for allowing random Internet users to ask them almost anything. It’s a bi-directional relationship- the users that help build the community are rewarded with recognition from people who would otherwise likely never be able to interact with them. Now that’s powerful stuff.

Reddit AMA 2 Girls 1 Cup
Admittedly, sometimes not the most powerful stuff

Why do people use Twitter?

Twitter is arguably the most frictionless social media service there is. Anybody can create an account and there are no barriers to Tweeting something at anybody else, celebrities and other famous individuals included. I myself have had some fleeting conversations with music artists I adore, industry thought leaders, Google Webspam Team Overlord Matt Cutts, among others (#HumbleBrag). And that’s the kind of validation people are searching for when they first hear about Twitter, decide that it’s not too stupid, and then sign up and write their first Tweet directed at someone they don’t personally know. Twitter is the social media platform of aspiration.

You can even get a response to the most inane of requests, like having a RoboCop statue erected by the mayor of Detroit.

JJ Abrams answering questions on Quora

What does this all mean to brands and individuals active in the online or social media space? In short, technology has enabled more of us to communicate with each other and with strangers who had once only been available through very specific channels. Now that it’s socially acceptable to ask questions/make comments and expect answers/responses, doing so has become a routine part of our online lives. Whether you’re a musician on Facebook, a blogger with an active comments section, a customer service rep on Twitter, or whatever else, it will only work to your benefit to provide users with the best answers (barring any huge PR gaffes). You need some give and some take to complete the feedback loop.

Locusts are the farmers’ plague. They swarm together and once they create groups, they multiple quickly. Left to their own devices, they can decimate entire crop fields. Their impact has been so severe that pesticides are designed specifically for locust population control.

But studies as recent as 2009 have shown that when locusts swarm together, serotonin (the neurotransmitter responsible for mood regulation) is released in relatively great quantities. If human biochemistry (and emotional constructs) apply, then one could even infer that locusts become happy when they are in large groups (by that same token, they could also just be very, very angry…).

I compare locusts to social media users because of similar core behaviors. Both can amass in great numbers to share a common sentiment, but both can also create irreparable damage if uncontrolled. As I mentioned in last month’s blog post about the role of psychology is social media branding, knowing the opinions of others greatly affects our own behaviors. Groupthink plays a large role in why people downvote threads in Reddit, how the RickRoll became a meme, and how brands are made or broken in the social media space.

Consider the recent viral hit of the fake BP Global PR Twitter account. Obviously, there are tons of people who are more than angry about the oil spill and how BP has handled it. But give people a platform to complain about it, make it funny, and soon you’ll have thousands of people nodding in agreement. BP never stood a chance.

Swarm of Locusts in Mexico (credit Jose Acosta)
Swarm of Locusts in Mexico (Credit: Jose Acosta/AP)

So how can you leverage swarms to improve your social media presence? The short answer is you can’t always. The Internet has opened the floodgates of uncensored, unfiltered opinion, and rarely does any one entity have control of the message anymore (see also: the Streisand effect).

Now, onto the long answer. Should companies treat social media users like locusts? In some regards, yes. Companies and individuals have to take preemptive steps, instead of being reactive to negative criticism. Don’t ignore complaints (because there are a ton of websites dedicated to reviewing customer service). Acknowledge problems and propose solutions. Don’t overpromise and underdeliver. Be as transparent as possible, because we live in the Information Age, where anybody can confirm or deny any claim with a few simple clicks.

Branding is no longer limited to the commercials you see or word of mouth from real-life friends. Companies need to think with this mindset or else they’ll fall victim to and be decimated by a swarm of social media locusts.

Every first year Psychology student has learned about the phenomenon of confirmation bias. In a nutshell, it means that people tend to selectively interpret information in order to reaffirm their preexisting beliefs. For instance, let’s say you believe that microwave popcorn tastes better than movie theater popcorn. Then there’s a good chance that the next time you microwave the perfect bag, you’ll forget all the other times when not all the kernels popped or when it came out a bit burnt. You’ll only retain the memories of when the popping went right and ignore the consistency of the theater’s popping machines.

What does this have to do with branding and social media? Consider Twitter’s trending topics. Millions of Tweeters determine the trends of the day, week, or even month. At the most basic level, these trending topics tell us where the conversation is. In an ideal system, the topics would also be what people value the most or hold the most important. In a way, trending topics are an open system of self-reinforced agenda setting. Agenda setting is a mass communication theory that posits that the media can control what the public believes to be newsworthy simply by reporting about it. Repetition combined with freshness will make people believe that a story or issue is important (this ties in really neatly with the psychological concept of the availability heuristic).

Now think about how this can help or hurt a brand. Let’s use the Tiger Woods Nike Commercial that I last blogged about as an example. If Person A (let’s call him Brandon) just saw the commercial on TV without any context or explanation, where would he find information? A lot of people would go to news sites or social networks. So Brandon types in “Tiger Woods Nike” into the Twitter search box, which returns tons of opinions in real-time (more or less). In turn, Brandon, who hadn’t previously formed an opinion about the commercial, will see that different people find the commercial brilliant, confusing, or downright creepy. It’s possible that these Tweets will help Brandon make up his mind and feelings about the commercial.

But what if the person already had an opinion on a topic but still wanted to see what other people thought? Let’s consider Person B, named Judy. She watched American Idol last night and found her favorite singer Lee to be the best performer. So later on, she clicks onto a TV show review blog and reads blog posts or comments either saying that Lee was awesome or that Lee was terrible. Because Judy already formed an opinion on the matter, she’ll likely disagree with the divergent blog post or comments. Rather than consider both sides of the argument, Judy will knowingly nod her head when she reads thoughts that she agrees with and vehemently shake her head when she wonders how others can have a differing opinion.

For established brands selling products or services, returning customers and loyalists are much more valuable than new one-time purchasers. If Apple had to choose, I’d venture that the marketing team would rather have the person who buys every new generation iPod as a customer than the person who makes the iPad his or her only on-brand purchase (Apple has actually done an amazing job grooming more consumers to fit into the former category).

By extension, when it comes to social media pushes, the brand behind them should be looking to target both the Brandon’s and the Judy’s. Provide a jump-off for the social conversation and let people discuss freely. Companies have to accept that they cannot control the conversation anymore. Agenda setting is now crowdsourced by anybody who wants to get involved. Social media should not be an exercise in damage control, but rather, a chance to gain real-time feedback on whether or not a campaign was well done.

Therefore, if brands reward and reinforce the positive feelings that people like Judy have about them, that’s already more than half the battle. I’m not saying that the potential Brandon’s should be ignored, but brands shouldn’t have tunnel-vision and take the loyalists for granted. Treat them well, and their words will do a lot of the brand building legwork for you.

Everybody here is on a 24 hour news cycle.

The above quote is from President Obama at a recent press conference where a reporter attempted to pressure the Commander-in-chief into speculating about how the United States would respond to violence against Iranian protesters. The president refused to be coaxed into making a statement for the sole use of being a soundbyte.

The press conference (and Obama’s response) both highlight the current collective mindset of the news industry. With the advent of widespread knowledge-sharing technologies such as the Internet and cell phones, news is now more a competition than ever before. News outlets battle to be the first to break a story. People no longer wait for 10 o’clock to find out what’s going on in the world. News websites have live feeds that automatically refresh, bringing people the latest headlines from around the world.

How far we’ve come! Of course, we’re the most knowledgeable generation that ever existed. We’re learning things at a far quicker rate. But competition and incompetency can sometimes be strange bedfellows.

Case 1: WWE + Donald Trump

For instance, consider Vince McMahon’s recent World Wrestling Entertainment debacle. In a storyline (read: fake) twist, McMahon sold a large portion of the company to billionaire rival Donald Trump. The Donald, a good friend of McMahon, made an appearance on WWE’s show Monday Night Raw to announce the ‘purchase.’ Fiction is fiction, right? Not according to major news organizations. USA Today and others reported the storyline as news, which in turn sent WWE stock plummeting 6.7 percent.

How could nobody have done their homework? Professional wrestling is known for living in a kayfabe world, meaning storylines aren’t real! (See also: Vince McMahon dies in a limo explosion) Are we to believe that news journalists are as susceptible to trickery as prepubescent kids? Sadly, yes.

Case 2: Michael Jackson’s Death + Twitter

The world lost a pop icon yesterday when Michael Jackson passed away. In what is probably the biggest story of the year so far, news spread like wildfire. The problem? The real and the fake travel hand-in-hand at lightspeed.

Twitter users were tweeting nonstop with status updates on Jackson. Users spread ‘news’ that he was in a coma, that he was still alive in the hospital, and even that he was dead (before it was even announced!). In fact, I’ve never seen so many people cite TMZ as a reputable source. TMZ?! Seriously? Harvey Levin’s paparazzi-driven gossip site is now where people get news? TMZ broke the ‘news’ that Jackson died before even CNN. That, to me, begs the question: does anybody know if TMZ even verified their information? How does anybody know whether or not they were just taking a shot in the dark? Lucky for them, they got it right. And if they were wrong, so what? It’s just TMZ is what people would say. So TMZ gets the spotlight of being the first to ‘break’ the story and they were only able to do so because they lack journalistic integrity more so than major organizations. Does this make sense to anyone?

And to even further the point, Twitterers were also spreading false rumors that Jeff Goldblum had died in New Zealand. It was based on a website with a fake death article generator that had been used before to dupe the masses. But this time, news outlets picked up on the story. Jeff Goldblum became a Twitter trend to the point where Kevin Spacey tweeted, “Jeff Goldblum is alive and well. I just spoke to his manager. Stop these stupid rumors.”

Who can we trust to bring us news? Strangely enough, this is related to the recent blog I wrote about crowdsourcing. I’m willing to speculate that at least 90 percent of the people who found out about Jackson’s death within the first six hours did so by means of person-to-person contact. That is, being told by a friend, reading about it on Twitter, Facebook statuses, text messages, etc. Isn’t this just a form of crowdsourcing the news? If this is how we spread information now, then realistically, news outlets like CNN only need a Twitter page and/or live feed. Everyone will be able to pool together stories from different sources and eventually they’ll all find out what they need to know. Is this how the news industry is going to work?

And finally, just because I think it’s such an awesome quote, here’s the full version:

I know everybody here is on a 24 hour news cycle. I’m not.

-President Barack Obama

May 11th, 2009
according to

It was bound to happen. I have joined the TwitterSphere:

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