Too Close to the Sun? Facebook’s Obsession with Real-Time Analytics
Almost every “How-To” article for first-time users of social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, rightly advise that beginners first “listen” to the conversations taking place among their target audience.
The idea, of course, is if you want to be a part of a social media conversation, you first have to know where and what the conversation is.
In this sense, getting involved in social media is a nearly pure opportunity, similar to weaving one’s self into a discussion at the local breakfast joint.
But if you think that’s the only thing going on in the world of social media, you’re only seeing the sunrise.
Supporting every social media conversation is a software platform, and within that platform is a complex web of tools that monitor, measure, store and reconstitute billions of individual pieces of data about everyone involved in that conversation or using that platform. The practice of extracting that data and compiling it in such a way as to create usable information is called data analysis.
The advertising industry has been using data analysis for just about as long as newspapers have been around. In the early days, the data was pulled not just from the newspaper (is the story on the front page, page two, community, sports, etc.) but also from the community and the businesses in it (is the community blue collar, white collar, ethnic, etc.? is this zip code surrounded by heavy industry, tech industry, service companies or housing?).
As new media such as radio and television evolved, advertising evolved as well, developing a complex web of analytics involving advertisers, audience profiles, ratings systems, polls, ethnographic studies, subscription rates, viewing and listening habits, and so on. In other words, the data analysis began to consider the typical lives of typical audiences in a way that would enable them to put the most timely and appropriate ads in front of the audiences at the right times.
What’s happened at this juncture, which we may call sometime shortly after the dawn of the social media age, is this:data analysis has become highly focused on a few social media platforms, and highly automated on a few techniques and languages. The net is that almost anybody can download free web analytics software and use it to improve the efficiency of their website. On the other end of the spectrum, very large companies can build huge databases that represent the profiles of millions of internet users.
Even more to the point, this software represents LIVE interaction with the internet: it is real-time data analysis.
For instance, based on the input that is provided by Facebook users, combined with their likes,preferences, quiz answers and interactions with friends, it is now possible to determine with deep precision the waking habits, breakfast choices, toothpaste preferences, earnings, commute location, employment, age, sex, marital status, number of children, pets, relatives, social circles, hangouts, hobbies, music preferences, and sexual escapades of any and every individual on Facebook.
The data stored in that social platform is that rich.
It’s practically nirvana to advertisers and appears capable of launching Facebook to great heights. At the same time, it triggers distrust from a large portion of the social site’s user base…in fact, the phrase “how do I delete my Facebook account” is actually trending on Google search as I write this.
Will Facebook fly too close to the sun?
The answer remains to be seen, but this much is true: social media enable a level of real time analytics compilation that is unmatched by almost any other medium (reserving the possibility that there may be spy networks that are more invasive.)
When an advertiser compiles a study of television viewer habits or radio listener profiles, that action requires time, and time creates distance between when an audience is recorded doing something, and when the advertiser or marketer can respond. As such, the advertising study is by nature less than completely reliable.
Social media, by contrast, enable nanosecond analysis of actual activity by real people. The data is completely reliable, because it is happening as it comes in. And it is completely trustworthy, because it reflects real input by a real person. (True, there are ways to game social media, for example by creating “teams” that will trend a particular subject or individual, but this is easily noted and can be factored out.)
To those of us who grew up with the dawn of television or even the dawn of the computer, the idea of being that closely monitored, in real time, can be extremely discomforting.
Further, the idea that such monitoring can go on without our knowledge, and that the information can be traded – also in real time – for the benefit of advertisers and marketers, is completely beyond the realm of our experience.
But it is happening.
Icarus is flying, and the whole world is watching.
Of course, the story of Icarus is an old one, so you wouldn’t expect a modern tech company to fly in the same manner.
And you would be right. Facebook has learned a thing or two from the many publishing houses, music companies and social media platforms that have come and gone before it.
Most importantly, it has learned that in order to keep growing, you have to continue to stretch your wings further over the media horizon.
So now, it is employing its fan pages and like buttons in novel ways, pushing them out beyond Facebook and into the millions and millions of web pages that make up the Internet itself.
In other words, Facebook can monitor its members in real time, even when they are not on Facebook. And they can share that information in a variety of ways.
Icarus, it seems, is no longer waxing feathers and flapping like a bird.
Using the height of modern technology, he got his wings from his customers and his ambition from Madison Avenue. He has mastered the art of flying, social media style.