17 June 2009

The Perils Of Nomenclature

My wife is a social science researcher, and a damn good one. As I've listened to her talk about her work from time to time, I've learned a little bit about quantitative versus qualitative research. She is a stickler for rigorous methodology - she takes the time to learn things like "structural equation modeling" and "growth curve modeling" and she pays close attention to the methodology sections of the gazillions of journal articles that cross her desk, and she makes it a priority in her own work. However, it's unfair to describe my wife as a "number cruncher." I've learned from her that qualitative research - the kind of research that can't always be summed up in a formula output - is also incredibly valuable.

So it's interesting to watch social scientists build the research base for the "nascent" field of online social media, and to watch companies develop tools and systems that try to peg a value to online communication. It's really a relentless and sometimes reckless exercise in nomenclature, and it almost completely ignores qualitative research.

The smart folks at Forrester wrote a book called Groundswell (and there's a blog with the same name) that had a lot of interesting and valuable information about social media, especially as it pertains to marketing. The one thing that most people repeat about it, however, is the authors' attempts to classify people in to six categories of "audience engagement," with category names such as "spectators" and "critics." I'm pretty sure the authors stress that a person can be in one category for one topic (or product) and another category for something else, but that's a level of nuance that seems to be lost on too many of my flackitudinous brethren and sistren. (Yes, I know I'm making words up here. Just roll with it.)

Then of course I've seen countless posts from smart people trying to "define" and classify social media from their own commercial perspectives - is it marketing or public relations? Is there a "right" way or a "wrong" way to use certain tools? I've seen heated arguments that really boil down to nothing more than nomenclature - if you don't do a certain thing, you don't fit my definition, and therefore you're not... something. And these are reasonably smart people doing this. Maybe I just don't get it.

I've also seen a blog called shouting loudly from another group of smart people and one particular post caught my eye - "A Few Things Political Scientists Need To Stop Getting Wrong About The Blogosphere." In it, one smart academic type essentially disagrees with another smart academic type about a calculation of authority. Go read it yourself. The post author, David Karpf, has even gone so far as to create a "Blogosphere Authority Index" for political blogs that strikes me as somewhat similar to the Todd Andrlik's "Power 150" algorithm for marketing blogs.

These are some of the tools that PR flacks use to determine what a "top" blog is. But they're using only quantitative tools, and questionable ones at that. I could jack up my blog's "technorati authority" simply by creating a bunch of single-post blogs that link to it. I could get into a flame war with a reader and write 500 comments on one post, but it would only be two people virtually shouting at each other. Just about every measure used in calculations like these can be (and often are) manipulated.

There are people on Karpf's BAI that I'd consider enormously influential in politics, and then there are people on that same list with virtually no real influence at all. It doesn't matter how many posts they write or how many comments or links they get. If you REALLY know the political blogosphere, you know that bloggers get inbound links all the time from other bloggers MOCKING them. The political blogosphere is a nasty place, with plenty of arguments via comments and trackback links - but while these online arguments will inflate a blog's technical measures of "authority," they certainly don't equate to political influence. Verbosity is not a true indicator of political influence, at least in my opinon.

Sometimes I look at the Power 150 - apparently so awesome that AdAge decided to buy it - and I scratch my head. Again, there are some people on that list with enormous credibility and influence, and then there are people high on that list who are almost universally recognized as being unable to strategize their way out of a paper bag. Putting a hashtag at the end of your tweet doesn't make you smart if the tweet says "still stuck in this damn paper bag." And I don't care how often you use the word "Facebook" in public - being a panelist or a keynote speaker at big conferences usually just means your firm ponied up a lot of money.

You want to know influence? Don't just look at the blog, look at the blogger. Does he or she work in the industry they write about? How educated are they? Do they discuss their projects and the concepts they're grappling with? Do they publish in other platforms? Are they raising money for candidates or making more money than their competitors? And is what they're writing actually smart, or is it just a bunch of metaphors describing the trendy new social media platform? Are they appearing at conferences that AREN'T just social media marketing gigs? I'm not convinced you can combine this all into a number, though I'm sure someone will try. I think it's better to write a profile of someone than assign a technorati rank to them.

It's never been that hard to determine who's smart and who's not.

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