A couple of days ago, Patricia McDonald of BBH Labs in New York put up a thought-provoking blog post entitled ‘Will Social Media Eat Itself?‘ In this post, she responded to the startling finding, by the Edelman Trust Barometer, ‘that we trust our friends and peers considerably less than we did two years ago’. Apparently, in the US, just 25% of respondents said that they regarded friends and peers as very/extremely credible – that’s 20 points less than 2008. Go here for the full post – it’s a great read.

We’ll get into the loss of trust in real world environments towards the end, but for now, let’s consider the ‘media‘ angle of this social circumspection.

McDonald posits some different theories for the loss of trust with regard to the social web, for example: In times of trouble, we look to more established sources of information. As social media gets older, more commercial players treat it like old media and damage its credibility. Smart commercial uses of social information have been slow to emerge.

However, the suggestion we find most interesting is this:

As the network gets bigger, connections weaken.


We’ve been pondering this for a while. It is the great fallacy of social media that numbers mean power, and that all online connections are created equal. For example,  on Facebook, there are people we communicate with all the time – close friends, family members etc. These we will term thick connections, as they facilitate regular exchange of content and sentiment.

Then, there are those creepy people from school that we agreed to be friends with because…well, that’s Facebook, innit. These are thin connections. They are weak. They are barely used. They are breakable. They are there to bolster the numbers. And they were exploited deliciously and notoriously by Burger King at the beginning of 2009 with its Whopper Sacrifice app in which Facebook users were invited to sacrifice 10 thin connections in exchange for a free burger. 234,000 friends were dropped in five days, QED.

It’s the different between blood and water. Online connections vary in ‘thickness’. It’s a fact of the web.

Twitter, too, is equally guilty of the numbers game, giving rise to a kind of hollow activism. Just because thousands of people are baying in 140 characters for policy change in Iran / the head of Jan Moir / Rage Against the Machine for Christmas Number One, it doesn’t mean it will actually happen. (In the first two instances, it didn’t. In the third, it was only when those people were persuaded to go one step further than retweeting, or adding their name to a Facebook group by actually buying the single that any kind of positive effect was produced).

There is no greater indication of the fact that numbers do not create de facto meaning than Chat Roulette, the random web chat service in which visitors are randomly paired with a stranger on the other side of the world. Acting as a kind of penis media delivery service, Chat Roulette exploded from 500 users in January to 10,000 by the beginning of February, despite the fact that most conversations either last only a few seconds or end in a picture of a scrotum. What does this mean? Nothing, probably. That we’re bored. That we enjoy a little dose of unpredictability and randomness from the comfort of our own homes. Nothing that we didn’t already know about human nature.

The rise of niche networks populated with enthusiasts and experts on a given subject has been predicted for a while. As McDonald points out, ‘for a while this seemed counter-intuitive as I considered the all-conquering power of Facebook and the wisdom of fishing where the fish are.’ However, the joy of a niche network is that all connections are thick connections. Information is shared on a regular basis on specific subjects by people who know or at least recognise each other’s value, and enjoy interaction.

Dunbar’s number is a theoretical number at which a community stops being ‘stable’ – the number at which people in the group cease to know and understand every other member of the community. The most commonly cited representative of this number is 150. It’s fascinating to note that Facebook has more than 400m active users, yet the average user has 130 friends, pretty close to Dunbar’s number. Even if marketers are judging the worth of Facebook on sheer weight of numbers, it appears that we know how to limit our social circles to manageable levels, tech or no tech.

It is here, we suspect, that the benefits for marketers may lie. By providing a utility, a platform, a sensitive addition to these connections, they get thicker, and stronger, and so does their association with the brand. Rather than an irritant, another clattering cymbal in the overwhelming noise of a network borne up by a million thin connections, the brand weaves itself into the DNA of a community. It is as much part of the experience as the participants.

Some other points to bear in mind:

In boom times, when we dedicate ourselves to the reckless accumulation of more stuff, it’s more likely that purchase decisions will be made on the recommendation of a random peer or acquaintance. When money is less readily available and people are notably spending less, any purchase they do make is likely to be the result of more careful research from a number of different sources, both established and casual. It’s not necessarily a reflection on the peer-to-peer relationship, more an indication of overall caution in the marketplace.

And finally – it’s worth bearing in mind how exactly the report defines ‘friend or peer‘. As far as we could tell, the report makes no distinction between ‘people that make me laugh on Twitter’ and ‘John and Sarah next door’. They’re all just friends or peers. So – this isn’t necessarily just indicative of a failure of trust in the connections that underpin our online lives. It points to something bigger. (Have a look at Richard Edelman’s discussion of the results here.)

It’s no coincidence that these results have emerged immediately following an absolute nail-biter of a year in which the global banking system came close to collapse, and many traditional sources of authority revealed themselves to be as clueless as the man on the street. Trust is not like energy. It can be both created, and destroyed, with devastating consequences.

According to the report, trust in the government is up, and trust in corporations (at least in the US) is slowly returning, yet trust in ALL information sources is down. Clearly, it takes time to rebuild what once was. So if we have less trust in our governments to protect us and our bankers to look after our money and our media outlets to be objective and our online social networks to be populated by anything other than mildly amusing strangers and old classmates, then what do we have left? The dichotomy of a world in which we are more in touch but less connected than ever before, and a feeling that if you want something doing, you know who your best bet is going to be.

What do you think?

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