My favorite scene in The Social Network is when Mark Zuckerberg’s character has an epiphany that Facebook’s screen should have a field to designate a user’s status, as in relationship status or availability.
Wait, I didn’t give something away did I? You’ve seen the movie, right? No? Go see it. I’ll wait.
Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO, is depicted as a computer savant lacking in social graces immediately in the first scene. But at this point we are not sure if his rudeness and sarcasm reflect his youth or something else. As the movie progresses we discover a character who is what some professionals would describe as “on the spectrum,” not autistic, not asperger’s syndrome, perhaps, but clearly not the gregarious party animal that he becomes surrounded by either.
That Zuckerberg would need this epiphany might just be creative screen writing to advance the plot. But its effect is to depict Facebook as the elaborate creation by a gifted young man on the spectrum, of a social filter that can potentially help him navigate through the social life at Harvard and beyond. Thus the importance of the epiphany — people socialize for nookie, among other things. Who would have thunk it?
Social media is a filter that most people don’t need but happily use to increase their number of manageable contacts in what is becoming a social arms race. That’s an important message for the rest of us who, in our outgoing and youthful exuberance, use social media to spam the details of our oh-so-important personal lives.
Social networking is a listening tool but you might miss that message from the movie and actual use but not if you study Zuckerberg’s character. There’s enough other information in the movie to question the character’s ethics and temperament — I guess strange things happen to you when billions of dollars suddenly occupy an important part of your life. My impression is that the guy is misunderstood.
But the film also gives some perspective on social media’s adoption by business. To date most of the attention received by social media has been for its ability to reach out to so many people quickly and inexpensively. It is the same appeal that email marketing had but also direct mail and broadcasting before that. The implicit assumption is that you simply need to get your message to lots of people and that a few will self-select and respond.
It’s an idea that has always worked but the movie depicts an underside worth noting, namely that a jerk with a Facebook account can play the game but not necessarily win. Ok, maybe a billion dollars will help even the playing field for a jerk but that’s not the reality for the vast majority.
A company that uses social media to spam, and doesn’t have a billion dollars to make itself look attractive, might suffer a different fate. It gets back to listening, the Zuckerberg character builds Facebook more or less to help filter reality and that makes it a powerful listening tool for all of us if we choose.
The thing that’s different about social media in business is the impact of analytics. In your personal life your brain does a kind of personal analysis of everything that comes in. Some things you trash others you keep but in business it’s not so simple. In business you need analytics to help sift through everything that comes in so that you can arrive at statistically meaningful information.
But it all starts with listening and asking the kinds of questions that show you are interested while encouraging people to open up. Facebook makes some things easy because it has a field to capture a specific data item like status.
The current rage for social media is a normal part of a product lifecycle. It’s the stage when people apply a new solution to every conceivable problem to see what happens. Sometimes, the results are utter nonsense. Eventually, though, things will settle down and social networking will seem as boring as a telephone and that is when it will make its greatest contribution.