The one article last year that caused the most discussion and got the most media coverage of any article I have written since I started this blog was The Inverse Facebook Experiment which documented my experiment on the sociological impact Facebook has had on society and our inter-personal relationships. This experiment started as a personal project to look at the bonds between friends and how Facebook has become an acceptable social surrogate to real relationships and conversations. From there is evolved into something bigger and started to look at how that translated into my professional work leading global brands in the digital, branding and social media spaces. So since that original article caused so much discussion, comments and emails I wanted to revisit it a year later to see how things have changed, how they have stayed the same and to discuss a few things I wish I said in the original piece.
In the year since I did the experiment I continue to find Facebook to be a fascinating phenomenon that continues to change the very nature of the social interactions in our society unlike any other media or medium has before. As I started to write this look back at that experiment I think the best place to start is to discuss something I left out of the original piece that I wish I had talked about and was something I got a lot of comments on. When I decided to do this experiment and de-friend people on Facebook I was very aware that I was responsible for half of each of those friendships and that in 95% of the instances I was just as apathetic as about the relationships as they were. I was just as happy being an information voyeur who let bits of information and grainy cell phone photos create pseudo connections to those people I once interacted with in person. So I will start by saying that I was very aware as I went into the experiment that I was choosing to do the experiment over taking the time to fix those relationships.
It wasn’t an easy decision and it was something I have thought a lot about in the past year to try to figure out why I made that decision to abandon those relationships. In the end as nerdy as it sounds, I think was born out something that sounds like a plot line from the Matrix. Once I was aware of the pseudo relationships that were happening I couldn’t go back into it and see things the same way again. It was then that I really recognized that there are times when there is a lot of friction between my personal and professional lives. I normally thought that there were clearer lines between those two worlds where the normal flow was that I used the reactions and insights from my personal life as a base line of my professional thinking. This reversed the flow and made me realize that if you really love what you do then the world’s do blur together and there are times when one world may intrude farther than it should into the other world.
From there as I look back at my first conclusion coming out of the experiment which was: “Any digital community only has real value if the connections created to that community are real and have real value to the people participating in it. If those connections are so thin that they are at best passive participation that go unnoticed when they are broken then no matter how many people are part of that community it is meaningless. It will never have an effect, it will never communicate anything and it will only exist to serve the community creator and not the community itself.” For me that insight manifested itself into the reality where we saw every brand out there trying to collect as many Facebook followers as they could with no plan as to how to engage and activate the community they were building. Once they collected all those followers they had to try to justify spending all that money with not much to show for it so they tried to assign a monetary value to those followers which I have seen range from $.15 to $125 with wildly varying logic to justify those values. The bottom line is that no one had a plan for how to activate those communities and turn those followers into spending consumers that added to the company bottom line. As a result you now see the industry shifting away from this empty collection mentality as more attention has turned to the social media space and more pressure has been brought to bear to have those communities to produce tangible results. Advertising Age even closed out 2010 by running a story called ‘It’s Time to Stop Collecting Facebook Fans‘ which detailed techniques on how marketers should engage those communities they had built up and even cited the work the team and I at Starwood have done in the social media space saying we “only 20,000 fans – but boy are they engaged”.
It’s always nice to get a mention like that in the trade press even though their number about our communities were way too low but it felt like it validated the reason why I did the experiment from a professional perspective. The insights I got from the experiment let me see how thin bonds can be in virtual communities. I hope that this trend continues where we all stop becoming so enamored with the technology and get back to doing what branding and advertising should do which is to create connections between consumers and brands to produce sales. The personal side of the experiment is something that I continue to struggle with because real people and real relationships were involved. I think that my ultimate conclusion and biggest fear from all of this is that we are willingly trading away real conversations and interpersonal relationships in favor of a digital, easy digest, snapshot style of humanity.