This Blog recently reported that Google has bought Metaweb for its open-source database, Freebase, with 12 million web “entities”, from science to celebrities. 

Now it is time to question where this will lead, or more specifically, where the semantic web will allow us to lead each other.

The thing about Freebase is that it tags items so that computers can understand what they are about, and then relate them to each other by meaning.  Freebase enables the whole web to behave a bit like GetGlue which allows users to rate things or discover new popular choices by finding out what their friends enjoy.

One shudders to think what semantic tags will do to the existing  imbalance between popularity and reliability of information on the internet.  Research already shows that we tend to follow each other like lemmings racing towards a cliff.

Adding to concern about the influence on popularity on credibility was an article in New Scientist (24 July, 2010) which demonstrated again what is sometimes called the “band-wagon effect” or even the ghost of “group-think”. 

The article asserts that sociologists have been searching for laws governing human interactions and social networks for decades, but now the world’s 500-million users of social media are providing researchers with a living laboratory. 

Duncan Watts of Yahoo Research and Matthew Salganik, now at Princeton University used a web-based experiment to demonstrate that when it comes to music preference, we behave like sheep (or lemmings).

To examine what made some songs more popular than others, they created a project they called Music Lab.  It used a website where more than 14,000 people could rate 48 relatively unknown songs.  They compared the opinions of experts with those of amateurs and measured downloads to assess a tunes popularity. 

They also cloaked the information some of the respondents received    to show that the number of people choosing a song influenced others into selecting the same one.  That is, human influence had a major effect on making some songs more successful. 

“So, like it or not, it seems that many of us follow the herd,” (New Scientist, 24 July 2010: p. 32).

This doesn’t only apply to something as familiar as popular music.  Even choices that require knowledge and expertise can be driven by mob-behaviour. 

For instance, by using Facebook researchers, Jukka-Pekka Onnela and Felix Reed-Tochas of the University of Oxford, have been able to show that when a new application becomes available on the Web, users adopt it independently of their friends’ opinions.  However, when the popularity of an app crosses a certain threshold, its popularity draws in other people and its adoption can expand suddenly and massively.

Suddenly the cliff ahead of the Lemmings can be a lot higher.


It's always the way - you think you know what you are going to say, then your brain does a 360 and leaves the mouth behind.  Below are all the comments I intended to make during our discussions this afternoon, including the ones I left out, which of course, were the most relevant ones!

We only have to look at the events in Iran over the last weeks to understand the impact and implications of social media. Not only were people able to connect and communicate with the wider world, they were able to organise, help, support and in many cases, defend each other, using the connecting tools we take for granted.  

Twitter hashtags acted as a rallying and meeting point, the tweets themselves an alert mechanism. Facebook added Farsi, Google Maps overlayed the position of embassies taking casualties off the streets. Those outside Iran had, in many cases, a way to communicate with their loved ones when other avenues were closed to them.  As servers were blocked and services withdrawn, instant messages and tweets begged for proxy servers - and got them.

As we sit here, this situation continues and the potential application of all these tools is being pushed to the limits. The technology is remarkable, but more remarkable still is the imagination of  people using them and their ability to devise ways in which they can be used far outside the original intent.  Sometimes this is because we are faced with desperate times and must react, or, as is the case for many, because we have the luxury of time to explore how they can be used.

For those who still regard the social media environment with some skepticism - and there are many that do - or deem it to be a waste of time, then taking a look at the actions resulting from the use of social media tools in Iran might act as a prompt towards change.

Our own position means we have the luxury of time to explore how they can be used. A few years ago, I had the privilege of speaking at the PRINZ conference. I introduced Second Life and other emergent tools, YouTube was in its infancy and Twitter was just a gleam in the developers’ eye. My belief at that time - and my message to the practitioners at the conference - was ‘don’t get left behind’. Be aware of the social, political and economic disruption and change Web 2.0 technologies will create. Understand the technologies and how they are integrated into our daily lives. Make sure you can, on behalf of your organisations and clients, navigate through the myriad of possibilities that now exist.

Some time later, later my message has changed. Instead of ‘don’t get left behind’, I would urge all practitioners to make sure “you stay well ahead”. The semantic web is not far away; the mobile web is with us; new tools are added daily - Flock brings together all our networks, friends and actions and we take them with us by phone. Google Wave, just previewed, has the potential to shake things up in the same way that Twitter has done. There will be a dozen new platforms launched before we have finished our day and around a million status updates posted around the world.

So how are we, as communicators and practitioners going to navigate through all this for those we serve? What will our role be when mobile web turns into moulded web and we access the semantic web via contact lens or implanted chip? This is not so far away. Intel and Nokia have just signed a deal that will lead to products that transform our intersection with the web and each other.  It is more than ten years since the first chip was implanted into  human - a researcher of course - and the technology that makes us scanable and able to interact with ambient intelligence is functional. And as for the things we will lose - heck, I stopped worrying about newspapers years ago. Newsprint is only a commercial boundary that holds the news itself. As people we still want news and we still require journalists - just the boundaries change.  I am much more interested in what we will do as we gradually lose text based communication and move back to oral and visual communications - which is eclipsing all other forms of online content.

Enormous challenges lie ahead which is why we need some serious thinking to be done now, and why spaces like this that will facilitate serious thinking are extremely important.

Often in the social media environment, we fail to think before we engage, update, post or contribute - which leads to more than a few organisational and personal relationship problems.

And in the same way that social media challenges us to present ourselves transparently, frequently and openly to many different communities, so this centre can challenge the historic gap between academics and practitioners in the public relations field.

The social media environment will drive academics, who will have to get faster and smarter at research, perhaps changing the model of peer review (which was  built to serve older systems in older times) to one more suited to the collaborative nature of social media.

Equally, practitioners must be prepared to ‘donate’ their experiences to the researchers so that a closer look at some of the implications can be taken. In practice, we learn as we go, reflecting on our learning later  - a reverse process to academia.

To start the ball rolling, I have posted an approach to public relations measurement and evaluation in the social media environment  and would invite review, comment and contributions from both practitioners and academics. It is based on theory and practical experience and models of operation that I have developed in my own accelerated learning environment over many years.

I am sure - and hopeful - there will be more thinking and discussion as a result of this alternative approach to the peer review process.

In the meantime, there is much to explore; a long journey ahead before we truly grasp all the implications for society and certainly many challenges - personal and professional - for everyone to deal with. But one thing is certain. The application of these disruptive technologies means that things will never the same again. Even if the electricity goes off, the servers won’t work or you lose your phone, the way we approach our interactions and organisational relationships has shifted.

I’ll finish by returning to Iran. There were two updates this week that have stayed with me. One was Mousavi’s Facebook update :

“Today you are the media, it is your duty to report and keep the hope alive”.

The second, and the more poignant was this tweet, sent last Wednesday:

@IranRiggedElect: There are slogans written on all bank notes. People want their voices to spread in the country since media is not covering #iranelection

I truly believe that when voices need to be heard, people find a way: new channels are born - and it is our job to ensure they know how. Thank you for your time.

Posted by: Catherine Arrow