Who’s really reading social media?

by James Duthie on April 6, 2008

Social media is a pretty basic process. Up until now I thought I had it all figured out – people submit content to their favourite community (such as Digg, Sphinn or StumbleUpon), other people read it and then vote for the stories they like. The articles that generate the most votes get the greatest exposure. Simple huh…? Sure… except it seems we’ve been taking one thing for granted… the fact that people actually read the stories…


The Case Study

A recent post of mine was submitted to Mixx by Kristen Munse (thanks Kristen!). Kristen publishes the Social Media Mom blog, which covers social media news and issues. It’s a great blog for those of you who haven’t read Kristen’s work. Kristen is a popular member of a number of social media communities including Sphinn, Mixx & StumbleUpon. As a result of her participation, she has built up a sizable network of friends, followers and colleagues. Naturally, these friends help to support any submissions she makes.

The article Kristen submitted managed to accrue a few votes without setting the world on fire. At the moment it’s accumulated 19 votes:

mixx.jpg

The problem

It seems obvious that with 19 votes for the article, at least 19 Mixx members must have visited my site (if not more). However, this was not the case. In fact, when checking my analytics for the week I found that just 8 visitors had come from Mixx… which means that over 50% of the people who voted on the article did not come to my site to read it… So my question is – if they didn’t read the article, what exactly have the other 9 people voted for…?

mixx_analytics.jpg

Is blind support acceptable social media behaviour?

Jeff Quipp wrote a great article this week about the importance of forming friendship groups within social media circles. He stressed the importance of developing acquaintances with fellow members in order to garner votes, build visibility and develop authority within the chosen community. All good advice. But… does that extend to blind support…?

I doubt it. And I doubt that Jeff would advocate it. Indeed, I think we have an ethical dilemma if we think it is acceptable for people to vote on articles they haven’t read. Aren’t we supposed to be voting for the content itself? Voting an article up based on the submitter as opposed to the content goes against the very purpose of social media (uncovering and supporting great content). If we advocate blind support, are we not simply turning social media into a high profile popularity contest…?

SEO standards have been the hot topic of the week, but perhaps we should also be considering social media standards:

  1. When is it appropriate and ethical to vote for an article?
  2. Should voting buttons be inactive before a user has clicked on a link to the relevant article?
  3. Should some form of ratio be visible that identifies the percentage of activity that is restricted to a user’s friendship circle?
  4. Should we consider removing the submitter completely so that the content remains the primary focus?

The defense

At this point I should point out that blind social media support is not a behaviour that is unique to Mixx. I have seen similar trends occur with articles submitted to Sphinn. And I expect in both cases that users would construct a similar defense – that they voted based on the reputation and authority of the submitter. The question is – are we prepared to accept this? Is this an abuse of the ideals of social media? I’d be interested to hear others’ opinions.

Speak now… or forever hold your peace…

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Kristen April 6, 2008 at 4:23 pm

That is a very interesting post and I totally agree that there is a lot more voting going on than reading. I like your suggestion on #2 “Should voting buttons be inactive before a user has clicked on a link to the relevant article?” That is a unique idea and I wonder if a site will try and implement it in the future.

James Duthie April 6, 2008 at 11:57 pm

Thanks for chiming in Kristen. For me, the issue has the potential to damage the credibility of social media. I’m not sure it could be classified as a black hat tactic, but it could be loosely perceived that way. After all, is it not the manipulation of an online service for the purpose of generating traffic and exposure?

David Temple April 7, 2008 at 2:56 am

I’m sure a lot of this has to due with time constraints and people just assuming that if someone they know or know of has submitted an article, well then it must be good. I personally read anything I vote for and that’s why I probably vote a lot less than others. I don’t know if the “system” suffers from readerless votes as most the stuff submitted by a well known user is most likely vote worthy.

philip April 7, 2008 at 5:31 am

It’s seems like all social media sites are wrestling with this problem at the moment in addition to multiple submissions of the same content from multiple sites.
The clanish mentality over quality of content ultimately drives away new members and dilutes quality.
Many social media users feel they provide the inside scoop not printed by mainstream media. The more outlandish the subject title the better. I am no lawyer but I think this will be the catylist for more regulation of the web, a world where some blogger can write an atricle bisted on no factual information with an inflamitory title.

James Duthie April 7, 2008 at 11:34 am

@ David – I agree that time constraints are probably the driving force behind most blind votes. But personally, I think that if you haven’t got time to read an article you should just refrain from voting.

@ Philip – The clan mentality can indeed turn new members off. I know I was perturbed at the start. But it’s really about building authority with the community, which does take time and patience.

Tanya Ferrell April 7, 2008 at 4:59 pm

I don’t think this is a huge issue per se. Blind voting is a part of life. It only makes sense that it translates to social media. When it comes to relatively unimportant things, people usually don’t take the time to analyze and make their own decision. Ex: In high school, the popular girl became class president, not because she was the best candidate, but because her friends voted for her and their friends voted for her.

I don’t think this really constitutes as an ethical dilemma, because it’s doubtful many people use social networking sites as their only or main source of news. There are no standards. There shouldn’t be. Social media sites are supposed to be fun. Voting is fun.

And you really can’t diss the voting all that much. If you hadn’t gotten 19 votes, you probably wouldn’t have been as high up on the page and you wouldn’t have gotten those 8 visitors.

It’s impossible to damage the credibility of social media. Social media has never been credible. It’s a lot of things…interesting, unique, fun, etc. But it’s never been credible. And it’s definitely nowhere near black hat. It’s SOCIAL. You know, a popularity contest? That’s how all social media works. It’s not what you know, but who you know.

Man, my comments are always way too long.

Wayne Smallman April 7, 2008 at 5:25 pm

Hi James! This is a topic I discussed recently, but approached from a slightly different angle, and a certain degree of caution.

The thing is, people will just vote blindly, more so on Digg. Those with the influence will rouse a small army of people to vote blindly.

I think there’s 4 reasons for this:

1. They trust whoever it is who suggested the content.
2. The vote is a favour to a friend, or a returned favour.
3. They’re bookmarking the page for later.
4. Their vote is just part of a mass social media “circle jerk”, as a friend of mine might say.

Then there are those like all of us commenting here who actually read your article…

Kyle James April 8, 2008 at 2:03 am

I’ve also noticed this a lot and I think Wayne is spot on in his observations. I’ll be honest I don’t go to social bookmarking sites to look for stories to pump up. I do subscribe to the Sphinn Hot Topics feed and look through those for stories that sound interesting and I only Sphinn the ones I actually read and enjoy. Also I’m in a few Mixx networks and do the same for the emails that I receive only voting for the stories that I actually read and enjoy.

To me voting for something is like leaving a comment. Personally a comment of great post is meaningless and doesn’t add to the conversation so instead of doing that I vote for something. This is the way, in my mind, that it should be done. Besides voting is a flattering way of leaving a comment because you liked it enough to share it with others.

Problem is, as you noticed and I’ve seen the same on some of my posts, is that people vote but don’t actually convert. The only thing we can do is not join the problem, but continue to do things the right way. In the long run it’s people like Kristen, as you mentioned, that build followers because people know she only submits articles that she likes and can be trusted. I hope I’m making a correct assessment?

James Duthie April 8, 2008 at 3:20 am

@ Tanya – Thanks for your detailed thoughts :) I guess opinions towards social media are driven by objectives. If you’re just there for fun then perhaps blind votes are ok. But from a personal perspective my fav community is Sphinn, which is the domain of professional online marketers. This is a social media outlet with credibility and serious news and conversations. So I’ve got a different take on things.

And just for the record – I’m not dissing social media. I generate most of my traffic from it, so would never bite the hand that feeds me… :) Just trying to generate discussion and debate.

@ Wayne & Kyle – seems like we’re all on the same page. Perhaps that’s because we’re all Sphinn members… I suspect the more serious social media users have different perspectives. But there does still seem to be plenty of blind voting going on at Sphinn… so I don’t think we’re in the overwhelming majority. But perhaps that’s because figures such as Maki, Shana, Jeff, Marty & other Sphinn gurus have such authority in the field that the community has developed blind trust in their work.

Ronny Rabe April 8, 2008 at 9:02 am

I don’t mean to be too in your face, but I’m not sure I agree with this. Anyhow, thanks for sharing and I think I’ll come to this blog more often.

James Duthie April 8, 2008 at 10:48 am

Hey Ronny. That’s ok – everyone’s entitled to their own opinion. Would be interested to hear your thoughts on the topic.

Tad Chef April 8, 2008 at 4:55 pm

With Mixx it’s a special case. People who read SEO blogs are on Mixx, Sphinn, StumbleUpon, Digg etc. so maynof them already read the story. Some will even be your regular blog readers.

Compare it to Digg: You get 50 votes and 50 diggs but 15 people have buried you, now guess who did not visit your SEO site…

James Duthie April 9, 2008 at 11:17 am

Hey Tad, Dave Harry made a similar point in the Sphinn thread and it was something I hadn’t considered. I think it partially explains the problem, but I still believe there is a significant amount of blind voting going on.

Malte Landwehr April 10, 2008 at 5:39 am

It is not necessarily friendship that caused those votes. Some people just vote random stories in order to look like hyper-active users.

James Duthie April 10, 2008 at 9:23 pm

That’s an interesting point Malte. I certainly hadn’t considered that, but I’m not sure what benefit that really provides the user…

Robin April 15, 2008 at 1:52 am

Yeah, I think that Tad has identified a big part of it. Certainly it’s often the case that I’ll see the same story up on Sphinn, Mixx etc. I don’t blind vote for anything, but it’ll look that way at times because I’ve linked through earlier in the day from a different social media site. Sure there’ll be some blind voting too (particularly on the larger sites like Digg), but for more specialist subjects I think the likelihood is more that the article has been read from another source.

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