When Did Social Media Become Social Engineering?

March 26, 2011 by
Filed under: Linden Lab and Second Life 

A post on the new Second Life Community Forums triggered a thought chain earlier, and after letting it stew for a few hours, I decided it was time to pose the above question. The question is somewhat rhetorical, but also in the same light very troubling. There is a very evident “shift” in the underlying motives of today’s Social Media … and from what I see, that shift is most troubling.

The Beginnings of Social Media

In the early days of the Internet, one of the common applications of the “totally interconnected universe” was providing a method for connecting people to each other. Early applications got handed the moniker of “Chatware” because they allowed people to easily chat with each other, but as time and technology progressed the purpose and the capability changed. Today, the most popular of these applications have been dubbed “Social Media”, supposedly because they encourage people in disparate locations to socialize with each other.

I say “supposedly” not because they don’t allow easy socialization … which they clearly do. However they have an underlying intent that is only now beginning to rear its ugly head. I can’t honestly say if the inventors of today’s “Niche Leaders” intended them to be used as they are now, but initial intent and current intent are never quite the same.

Popularity – The Golden Ring

Lets start with everybody’s favorite punching bag or almighty icon of the future .. Facebook. In the beginning it appears it was started because a few people had this neat idea on how to get real people to connect via the Internet. Prior to Facebook, even the most popular social gathering places provided an anonymous handle as part of the sign-up process. But with Facebook, one of the foundation planks that differentiated it from all the others was a stated intention to only permit “Real People” to join. Of course, there’s always some give in any rule, and before long Facebook found itself allowing pseudonyms and stage names as members too, but for most people this was not a big deal.

And yet, this new slant on person-to-person interaction using real life identities wasn’t the overall goal. While the founder may chant (and some would say rant) that anonymity is dead and the future is one based on total disclosure, this isn’t really what motivated him to pursue Facebook in the first place. What really drove him forward was the good sense that he had a tiger by the tail, and with a little wise marketing and some well-placed PR, he could probably ride that tiger right to the top. Good for him, he was right.

Success Breeds Excess

Once Facebook climbed its way to the top of the heap, it very quickly found out two important things about its business. The first was that it had to keep running in order to stay ahead. The Internet, and especially the “Top Dog” applications that springboard from it, is a very volatile environment. If anyone stands still for very long, some half-crazed college kid with way too much time on their hands will sneak up your tailpipes and shove you off the top of the hill. When you’re also a half-crazed college kid, that’s a shame but no big deal. But when you’ve taken millions of dollars in investor money and have the Public Spotlight shining into every crevice of your life and business .. that just won’t do. So you have to adopt an aggressive battle plan to keep your baby moving forward and staying fresh or you’re on the quick road to the bottom again. (And the investors really do not like that type of “progress”.)

The second thing Facebook realized was … they were sitting on a massive goldmine of the newest “currency” in the Digital Age … personal information. All those millions of members had voluntarily handed over some amazingly intimate and private details about their lives. More than that, their activities on the Facebook site could be used to derive behavior patterns that would be of use (and cash value) to the thousands of marketers scraping the Internet for any advantage in the constant battle to beat out their competition.

We See You!

Now some will argue for Facebook’s right to use that information while others will argue against. However for my purposes here the rightness or wrongness is not the core issue. What is important is how that incentive was morphed into something bigger and, in some seriously worrisome respects, more insidious behaviors. Once the Marketers realized they could put their fingers on solid details and metrics about the Facebook membership, and once they realized how they could utilize that information to better shape their marketing efforts, they also began to push that concept into another realm that is just one step beyond Demographics Analysis … namely Consumer Motivation.

With the new data in their hands, and a desire to improve their sales and profits, they “closed the loop” and began measuring not only what the target audience was currently doing, but measuring the effectiveness on a person-by-person basis to determine if their targeted marketing was having the desired influence. This isn’t really anything new though as marketing and advertising firms have been using Focus Groups and customer surveys for years to get some idea how their efforts were paying off. It’s in all honesty the logical thing to do. But what really makes it questionable is how they’ve begun using individual patterns to shape the responses and behaviors of one person.

We Have Ways To Make You Think!

But hold on, I’m not “there” yet. Keep reading because I’m just getting to the good parts. Back at the top I mentioned the new Second Life Forums. Purportedly part of a standard social media function, namely Forum Platforms, the Lithium software looks on the surface to be a run-of-the-mill implementation of that time honored and very common function. They’ve tossed in a few other features too, like Blogs, a Knowledge Base and a section called Answers … but overall it looks to be pretty much the norm.

But don’t let the shiny body panels fool you. As evident from the Lithium sales material, the true focus and intent of their software is not the least about providing “Social Interaction”. Instead it is intended specifically for “Social Manipulation”. The tools provided on the back side of the platform allow the owner to evaluate and condense the multiple forms of input being poured into the software, yielding overall measures of how the community is behaving, what they are thinking and how they are responding to various forms of stimulus. In short, Lithium uses some of the very same techniques being employed by the big marketers to analyze the users of Facebook with the intention of properly shaping and guiding the community in ways and directions the owner chooses.

Participant or Resource?

There are lots of other Forum Platform software packages out there, a lot of them free even, that provide the basics of Forum services. They provide good controls to keep the participants in line and behaving properly, good end-user tools to better facilitate use of the service, and tons of knobs and widgets that let the owner customize the appearance to suit their needs. They are well vetted, well known and very popular with lots and lots of websites. But the one thing they expressly do NOT do is scrape the participant contributions and behavior patterns to qualify or influence the societal mind-space. They keep their hands off the end-users, leaving that level of control up to the owner and their moderators to define and keep within expressed bounds.

However Lithium is entirely different in its intent. It has been built from the ground up to turn Participants into Resources. It lacks the basics of most Forum software, or when it does provide them, it provides them in thin or poorly implemented ways. But what it is intended to do, package and deliver a completely docile and easily manipulated user base … it does pretty well. Except for one tiny little problem that I don’t believe Linden Lab or any other Lithium owner has bothered to consider …

Garbage In, Garbage Out

Amazingly unanticipated by the owners of Lithium is one simple fact about their user base … People are not dumb. Sure, we all fall prey to the subtle techniques that are applied to us, but we don’t stay fooled forever. Shortly after Lithium debuted as the new Community Tools platform, a lot of people departed. There were various reasons given … heavy-handed moderation, inability to post about various “common topics”, and a whole raft of others. But I’m now given to believing the underlying and perhaps totally subconscious reason was … those were the people that innately knew the intent of the Lithium-based forums was wrong.

Some of those early departees have returned, myself included. Those that stayed and bulled their way through the initial bumps have changed their habits too. But what they have NOT done is stay the same. What they have not done is provide valid and actual metrics for the Lithium analysis software to get its teeth into. Instead they have taken to “buffering” or “tweaking” their contributions to reflect an overall subconscious ethos of proper behavior and civility. The result is that the numbers, the trends, the behavioral analysis coming out of Lithium reflects not the reality of the Second Life Forum population, but an odd synthesis of what Linden Lab wants it to be and what the user base perceives to be “acceptable behavior.”

Help! Our Social Has Been Engineered!

I don’t pretend to understand why Linden Lab felt it necessary to employ a package like Lithium to help them understand their customers. If they felt we weren’t being transparent enough or communicative enough for them to get a proper and honest read on our desires then perhaps they weren’t reading the Forums, JIRAs, outside Blogs and other resources spewing forth from their customers daily. But what I do know is that they have altered the input they were attempting to measure, and as a result skewed the results into something that will not ever truly represent the honest opinions that exist in their customer’s minds.

Instead, they have succeeded in engineering a false society, with inaccurate behavior patterns and bogus contributions. What scares me even more is that they might very well intend to adjust the direction of Second Life based on this useless information. And that would be a shame really, because they’re already quite good at misreading us and making decisions that fly in direct opposition to what we truly want. This new platform will just make it that much easier for them to get tons and tons of data supporting the wrong decisions.

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3 Comments on When Did Social Media Become Social Engineering?

  1. Argus Collingwood on Sat, 26th Mar 2011 12:54 PM
  2. Good topic! I do wonder about them being able to gather any metrics based on numbers, though. A ton of data is not being generated to my eye. The Forums are withering IMO, we’ll have to wait and see if there even is data at the end of Lexie’s Review After One Month statement and if the numbers are down, I doubt they will publish/share the figures.

  3. Ossian on Sat, 26th Mar 2011 2:39 PM
  4. Yes, they gave us Lithium to calm us down, to smooth over all the things they don’t want to hear or see.

    Aside from the aggressive moderation, there is a shushing effect… I don’t know how it’s delivered, but I certainly feel it… the same sort of thing when you enter a library or church where you realize immediately that you’re supposed to keep your voice down.

  5. Jason Rakowski on Sat, 26th Mar 2011 3:40 PM
  6. I found your site on Google and read a few of your other entires. Nice Stuff. I’m looking forward to reading more from you.