Navigating the Internet using a Social Infrastructure

Do you remember that thrilling moment when you first started using the internet? I don’t either. OK, I have a vague recollection of sending my first email and experiencing internet addiction first hand after playing a multi-user dungeon (MUD) game in university for three straight days when I really should have been studying for finals. But, I don’t remember which website I visited first. In all likelihood it was probably Microsoft, since I think I used an early version of IE for Mac as my first web browser.

What I do remember is the dichotomous relationship between promise and practice. The early days of the internet were wild, as in feral, yet it was fueled by the dream and promise of what it could become. Finding sites online started with a physical library-style search for urls. My source material was magazines, newspapers, television and other websites that mentioned a rare .com address. Yahoo was embryonic and Google had yet to launch.

Though there may have been a lot of information available online it was hard going trying to find anything of use until Google came along and everyone shouted “thank you!” many hundreds of times a day. I still find myself thanking Google for delivering some really amazing online experiences (Maps, Streetview, Google Docs come to mind).

Since Google took off circa 2000 I have relied almost exclusively on a search architecture to navigate and find what I’m looking for online. However, I’m increasingly discovering websites and other online fantastic-ness through my social network. I hear about breaking events and news through Twitter. I bone-up on the latest meme through Facebook and learn about new business opportunities through LinkedIn.

Social media has shifted our understanding and use of the internet, and consequently of branding, from a professionally managed top-down exercise to a community-driven one. In case you hadn’t heard, you don’t own your brand anymore—we do. It’s as close as we’re going to get to corporate nationalization. A company’s website used to be the primary touchpoint for a corporate or product brand, but that isn’t necessarily the case today.

If you don’t believe me, read about Nestlé’s recent run in with a Greenpeace-powered social media campaign that attacked the company’s activities in Indonesia, and Halifax’s own Sons of Maxwell’s viral send-up of United Air’s baggage handling misadventures.

In Nestlé’s case, the company initially fought the social media mockery with old school tactics (cease and desist letters, etc.) but eventually conceded that there was perhaps some merit to the criticism. Nestlé issued a mea culpa once the campaign started to have a harmful impact on its brand and is now working hard to turn the situation around.

The “United Breaks Guitars” song has more than 8.5 million YouTube views, which is quite impressive considering it represents just over 10% of the number of actual passengers the airline carried in 2009.

I often find that my first impressions of brands are formed through the recommendations and opinions of members of my social network. With so many innovative and ground-breaking technologies launching daily it’s impossible to keep track of everything that is happening in the world. For instance, I first heard of Mozy, an online backup software utility, through Twitter and it was only after I read my colleague’s impression of the software/service on the Smallbox blog that I visited the company’s website to see what they had to say.

All the major search engines now include social network data as featured content in search results. If Google and Bing think it’s worthwhile to include live data from the social network conversations happening on Facebook and Twitter then I say it’s time to start paying attention to all those tweets.

Keeping track of and making sense of all this data is adding value to company’s brand, and is no doubt one of the reasons why Twitter recently purchased Vancouver-based Smallthough Systems, makers of DabbleDB and Trendly.

A product of all this chatter is a new metric for measuring the impact of social conversations. Twitter tracks the Tweets per Second (TPS) a particular trending topic generates. For instance, when the Lakers won the 2010 NBA championships Twitter users were tweeting at the rate of 3,085 TPS. Normal TPS volume for Twitter chatter is closer to 750 TPS. It can’t be long before marketers and managers start referring to TPS as a measurement of a successful event or campaign.

If you’re interested in how you can incorporate a social architecture in your web design you can view a recent presentation I gave to RGD members on the subject.

Social network. Social navigation. Social architecture.