Monthly Archives: March 2015

Social Media & Organizations: A Collection of Thoughts from My University Days

On the threat of paid followers, bots, and astroturfing:

Just how harmful are techniques like astroturfing and paying for followers to our social media ecosphere? What should be done about these issues?

Welcome to the Internet, where nothing is as it seems.

As much as this has more or less always been the case, we continue to be faced with ever-evolving ways through which organizations try to push their message online – some in more deceptive ways than others. One might argue that some methods are quite harmless – sure, paid followers are disingenuous, but a quick scroll through any given list of followers will often easily reveal who’s real and who’s fake – however, it becomes a bigger problem when organizations infiltrate and completely overwhelm social media sites in the aim of getting their message across.

Meet the biggest problem we face today: astroturfing. As The Guardian‘s George Monbiot describes it, “An astroturf campaign is one that mimics spontaneous grassroots mobilizations but which has in reality been organized.” It’s also an issue that isn’t going away anytime soon.

Let’s start with the business angle. I would argue that one could extend Monbiot’s definition to include more commercial practices such as product reviews. Through bots or paid helpers, companies might flood their review section with positive reviews, or even more maliciously, sabotage a competitor’s review section. Suddenly, user reviews on Yelp and TripAdvisor don’t seem as innocent and helpful as they once did.

As frustrating as dishonest reviews may be, they are a much smaller problem compared to astroturfing’s other aims. Consider the lobbying efforts of the oil industries, or alcohol, firearms, and tobacco. Imagine it’s in a company’s financial interest to stir doubt about climate change, or the danger of alcohol addiction, or the link between firearms and homicides. Certainly, the prospect of influencing attitudes through online forums would be enticing. It’s more than just a hypothetical situation, too: a study at Concordia University suggests that astroturfing has already affected public perception of climate change.

Consider an even greater scale. Imagine astroturfing being used in the context of escalating tension between two countries. One country wants to invade another country, but it needs a reason to do so – otherwise, the general population will oppose it. Cue astroturfing. With enough well-planted fear-mongering posts in online forums, a political party could sway public opinion into supporting war measures.

This may sound sensational, but it’s entirely possible – and in all likelihood, it’s already happening. It’s hard to come up with an answer for what should be done about it. Some might be tempted to force all users to reveal their true identity online, but anonymous use is an integral part of Internet freedom. A better solution might be enforcing strict repercussions on any organization caught astroturfing, but this requires a very concrete definition of astroturfing. It also requires a governing board large enough (and morally sound enough) to operate above the fray – even when that might include government organizations. At the very least, awareness of the problem is a good first step. Like I mentioned, it isn’t going away anytime soon.

On the need for a different way of looking at social media engagement:

Are there better ways of looking at social media engagement? What would a different set of metrics for measuring success look like? For that matter, what does success look like?

I came across a thought-provoking article by Avinash Kaushik that proposes a different approach to measuring the success of social media. Kaushik’s main argument is that organizations “are doing TV on Twitter […] we do the same uninformed shouting and pimping on social media that we do on TV. We know little about who is on the other end of the TV set and the medium places limits to what we can do. So to make our marketing more efficient we shout more loudly, more frequently!”

I suspect this is true of many organizations on social media. In striving to reach the greatest possible audience, we subscribe to the belief that the more content we share, and the greater number of followers we amass, the better. Kaushik argues – and I have to agree – that this isn’t necessarily true (or even true at all). Instead, he writes, “What matters is everything that happens after you post / tweet / participate! Did you grab attention? Did you deliver delight? Did you cause people to want to share? Did you initiate a discussion? Did you cause people to take an action?” In essence, Kaushik is repeating what others have argued as well: social media is social; it’s about interaction on a one-to-one level, not one-to-many.

The problem many organizations (and individuals) fall into is being distracted by the gamification of social media, where friends, followers, likes, retweets, favourites, and the followers-to-following ratio dictate success. Of course, the numbers matter to a degree: followers increase the size of your network, retweets spread your message beyond your network, and likes/favourites give you an idea of what your audience enjoys. What matters most, though, is interaction: comments, replies, and relationship-building with others in your network. After all, it takes the click of a mouse to like a post or follow a profile. Commenting takes time and effort. For organizations looking for a different rubric of success, acknowledging that distinction would be a good place to start.

On the usefulness of social media:

Does every organization and business actually need a social media presence? Are there characteristics of organizations that do/do not critically need to be on Facebook, etc?

I can’t say with any certainty whether there are any organizations that would not benefit from some type of social media presence. After all, the options in our current social media climate are nearly limitless, each catered towards a particular niche (or not so niche) interest. I also think most organizations would agree that they have benefitted in at least some small way from having a social media presence.

I think the truer statement would be that not all organizations need to be on every social media outlet. For instance, it doesn’t make much sense for a retirement home to set up a Vine or Tumblr account, nor would it make much sense for a bank or investment firm to have a SoundCloud account — the demographics simply don’t match up. Instead, it’s important for organizations to consider what their targeted consumers or supporters are looking for and deliver it to them. This also includes considering where their targeted consumers are having their conversations, and then making sure to establish a presence in that space.

Of course, this is all assuming organizations are in a space where their target market is using online social media. In less-developed parts of the world, or even simply in smaller communities, the need for a social media presence may be non-existent. For instance, the lone general store in a small rural village likely doesn’t need a social media presence. Its target market is already well-aware of its existence, and the customers likely already know the store owners by name. Similarly, a fishing family living in a remote village on the coast of Thailand would have no use for an online social media presence. Their customers aren’t looking online to buy their fish.

The closest large-scale company I can think of that has managed to succeed (largely) without an online social media presence is Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. The company’s web page has barely changed since it was established in the 1990s. There are no “verified” Berkshire Hathaway Twitter accounts. Buffett has a personal account, but only five Tweets. Similarly, there is no official Berkshire Hathaway Facebook page (unless counting Home Services). The explanation for this, I would theorize, is that a multinational conglomerate such as Berkshire Hathaway, which owns so many different well-established brands, might prefer to stay under the radar and let its brands get all the attention. I would say Berkshire Hathaway is the exception rather than the rule, however.

On social media and its use by individuals and organizations:

How similar are the objectives of an individual’s and an organization’s use of social media? What might be some notable areas of congruence or divergence? Are some social media sites particularly effective for individuals but not for organizations — and vice versa?

In general, I believe individuals and organizations use social media with similar objectives in mind. Both want to present the best version of themselves to the world. Individuals want to appear to have social status, be attractive, and look as if they are always having a good time. Organizations want to appear as though they have social status too, and they wish to present the idea that by associating with them, individuals will always have a good time. In these ways, the two sides are very alike.

Where individuals and organizations diverge is in their motivations for presenting the best version of themselves to the world. Whereas individuals are ‘selling’ themselves as a brand with a particular lifestyle, organizations are typically selling their brand – and associated lifestyle – to consumers through merchandise. In other words, the lifestyle is made to appear achievable if consumers purchase an organization’s particular products.

There is one other major divergence that comes to mind: individuals often turn to social media as a cure for boredom. I doubt the same can be said for organizations. Whereas an individual might Tweet or post on Facebook that they’re hungry, tired, or can’t sleep, this same use of social media would never apply to organizations. Instead, there is always a motivation behind social media use for organizations; it is never used because an organization is simply bored.

As for whether some social media sites are more effective for individuals than organizations or vice versa, I would theorize that Facebook is more effective for individuals, whereas Twitter is more effective for organizations. I believe this has to do with one’s motivation for using different social media sites. As a general rule, most people turn to Facebook in order to check out what their friends have been up to. Organizations also suffer on Facebook from the site’s News Feed algorithm, which drastically reduces the reach of any given post (unless paid for by promotion). Twitter, on the other hand, is driven much more by people seeking information on what’s happening around the world. In this case, news outlets (and likely other organizations as well) thrive on Twitter, much more so than individuals sharing casual observations and updates on their lives.

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Endings and Beginnings

Yesterday, I had the final class of my undergraduate career. Today’s my last full day in Cardiff. Tomorrow, I’m off to Paris and the rest of Europe.

It all seems very surreal. How do you process everything that’s happened over the past three months, or even beyond that, the past four years? Where did the time go? What comes next? These are difficult questions to answer on the best of days.

As humans, we tend to have a fascination with beginnings and endings, starting points and finish lines. Everything in between is a blur. It’s funny — and tragic — how that works. You risk missing out on appreciating everything in between.

As one chapter ends and another begins, I’ll take the sage advice of my best friend:

Stick to the present. The rest will work itself out.

Things I’ve seen:

Afan Forest.

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Worm's Head, Gower.

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Stonehenge.

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What I’m listening to:

Nujabes – “Aruarian Dance”

What I’m watching:

http://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are

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Appreciating the Journey

The countdown is on: one week until I’m off to Paris. It’s a mixture of excitement and nostalgia right now. These past three months have flown by, and I couldn’t possibly be more eager to head off for more adventure, but I’ll miss this place and the friends I’ve made. I’m also saying goodbye to my laptop this weekend, so this will likely be the last text-heavy update for quite awhile. Touchscreen phones don’t tend to lend themselves well to lengthy prose. Still, I’ll try and share a few observations here and there.

I finished my documentary on the Cardiff Devils. Seeing the creation process through from start to finish was a great experience — from spending plenty of time behind the camera to learning how to do different bits of animation. I’ve also been able to finally see more of Wales. My parents and I went to Caerphilly Castle, the Gower Peninsula, and Brecon Beacons. In the span of three days, we saw golden beaches surrounded by steep cliffs, cascading waterfalls in moss-covered forests, and goats grazing on snow-capped mountains. Crazy.

A couple observations from the past few weeks:

1. A good hostel can make a world of difference.

If I had to choose, I’d say my three favourite cities so far have been Edinburgh, Copenhagen, and London. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that these cities also had the best hostels. As a solo traveller, any type of facility that actively encourages backpackers meeting one another is a welcome experience. Clean beds and showers are a nice touch, too.

2. On appreciating the journey…

I came across this post on Facebook recently, and I enjoyed it a lot:

True happiness? I’ve always been a big goal setter. Thinking things will be better and I’ll be truly happy when all the hard work pays off. When I get that TV hosting chance, the opportunity to write for such and such magazine, appear in a commercial or when I sign some endorsement deal I’ve been dreaming about forever. Well all that happened and I still wasn’t content or happy…

I realized being happy wouldn’t magically happen tomorrow, not if, or when something monumental happened. I was finally content when I looked around at what I already had and truly appreciated the blessings that were right in front of me. I realized that for many years I’d put my life on hold waiting for something instead of appreciating the moment because all we really have is today.

I still have big personal goals but enjoyment now comes from the daily grind, seeing others succeed, building people up, giving, helping a friend or seeing my kids smile. Happiness isn’t just about attaining something, it’s about appreciating the journey. (via)

I’m a goal-oriented person, and I’ve been pretty good at attaining the goals I’ve set out for myself, but it can be so easy to get caught up in the pursuit of an end goal, and in the process, forget what motivated you in the first place. I wished away a good deal of my university career thinking this way. To an extent, I probably wished away parts of my time in Wales too. Thankfully, I’m able to appreciate those moments through reflection, but it’s a worthy exercise to enjoy things in the moment — something I’m constantly practising. There’s plenty to cherish and be thankful for right in front of you.

My three favourite photographs from the past week or so (and the stories behind them):

1. Nyhavn, Copenhagen.

Fact: it is scientifically impossible to take a bad picture of Nyhavn. This is the view I came to Copenhagen for, and it definitely did not disappoint. I made several trips to Nyhavn during my stay in Copenhagen, but this photo was taken on my last visit, right before heading off to the airport. I was planning on going straight from my hostel to the metro station and to the airport, but after stepping outside and seeing the sunrise, I knew I had to see this view one last time. I’m glad I did. Also of interest: It was on this street that fairytale author Hans Christian Andersen lived in the 1800s (his window would have looked out onto this exact view).

Sunrise in Nyhavn.

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2. Frederiksberg Have, Copenhagen.

I got lost trying to find this place. One of the coolest things about this park is that it backs on to Copenhagen Zoo. You can see the elephants from the park. It’s also a very old park: it dates back to the late 1600s-early 1700s.

Frederiksberg Have, Copenhagen.

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3. Morning in Copenhagen.

I woke up to this sunshine on my last day in Copenhagen. In the picture, I’m standing in Amagertorv, one of the city’s oldest squares. In the mid-1400s, it was called the Fishmonger’s Market. It’s right smack in the middle of Strøget, Copenhagen’s pedestrian street. The tower on the right is Nikolaj Kunsthal.

Morning in Copenhagen.

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I don’t know what form my next update will take, but I’ll be back with more sometime in the next couple weeks. Stay tuned.

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Letting Go of the Plan

My Euro-trip is becoming more real by the day. I booked my bus ticket to Paris today, and in 16 days, my time in Wales will have come to an end. Thankfully, I’ve still got plenty to look forward to in the next two-ish weeks. My parents arrive in two days, and I’ve got plenty planned for the pair of weekends we’ll be spending together (item #1: eating a decent meal).

What else is new? I just got back from Copenhagen this past weekend (pictures to come in my next post). It’s a beautiful city. I’ve also been doing more television and radio reporting for Exposure News here in Cardiff (check out my piece on one of Cardiff’s historic landmarks here — as you’ll see, my Welsh beard is coming in quite nicely). In the days to come, I’ll get to try my hand at radio and television presenting once again too.

A few observations from the past couple weeks:

1. “Don’t be afraid to let go of the plan.”

These words were offered to me by a fellow traveller and good friend of my brother’s, and I think there’s a lot of wisdom in them. Some of the most rewarding experiences come from moments of spontaneity. In the case of travelling, this has kept me from worrying whenever I get lost. Usually, it works out that whenever I take a wrong turn, I end up somewhere else I was trying to go anyway.

Case in point: I was looking for Frederiksberg Have in Copenhagen, but one of the challenges with streets in Denmark (or any European country, it seems) is that the street names change every few blocks, which makes it very difficult to follow directions. I ended up getting sidetracked on my way there and wound up in Ørstedsparken, one of the few places I hadn’t been yet on my trip and was looking to visit. Had I not gotten lost, I probably wouldn’t have even made it there.

In a broader sense, travelling has given me an opportunity to let go of the plan and really think about where my passion lies in journalism. It’s not always easy to be so reflective when you’re in the midst of the daily news rush, so I’ve appreciated the chance to think deeply about what I enjoy about the field and what I believe I can contribute to the world. I haven’t reached any definitive conclusions, but I know I’m heading in the right direction.

2. On the little quirks of British life…

When I was in Dublin, I had a conversation with my Canadian friend about sidewalk etiquette on British Isles: do you stick to the left side, just like the cars on the road? Back in Canada, we agreed that the unspoken rule was to walk on the right side. Ultimately, we couldn’t figure it out. I still haven’t. It got me thinking about other differences I’ve noticed in my time here, though.

Being a journalist, a songwriter, and the son of a translator, I have a natural fascination with words and their applications. For one thing, I was surprised to see “Gherkins” on the grocery store shelves, rather than pickles. Eggplants are called “Aubergines.” Of all the language distinctions, though, my favourite widely-heard British words and phrases are “lorry” and “taking the piss.” Lorry is a great word for truck (I think the two words encapsulate the difference between Brits and Americans quite nicely). To take the piss out of somebody is to tease or mock them. For all of the Brits’ supposed politeness, though, it strikes me as funny that the general term for bathroom here is simply “toilet” — no beating around the bush with restroom or washroom!

Enough bathroom talk, though… (Okay, one last bit: there’s a place in London called Tooting Station. Seriously. You can’t make this stuff up.)

Right, then. Back on track. Moving on…

My three favourite photographs of the past week or so (and the stories behind them):

1. Buckingham Palace.

The sheer opulence of the whole estate is incredible. I first came here when I was waiting for a connecting bus back to Cardiff from Amsterdam, and since it was early enough in the morning, I beat the crowd of tourists. When I came back a few weeks later, the place was packed.

Buckingham Palace, London.

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2. Abbey Road.

Apparently I didn’t get enough of a Beatles fix in Liverpool. I couldn’t resist poorly re-creating the Abbey Road cover too. Fun fact: Abbey Road Studios has a live webcam stream of people crossing the road, and there’s even a Hall of Fame archive of people’s attempts at capturing the essence of John, Paul, George, and Ringo — usually while stopping traffic.

Abbey Road.

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3. Big Ben.

This might be my favourite building in the world. I just counted the number of pictures I took of Big Ben during my trips to London. It turns out I’ve taken a whopping 36. (I swear each one is better than the last.)

Big Ben.

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That’s it for now. I’ll probably give one last update in the next week or two before parting ways with my laptop for a couple months. Until next time!

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