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Hyperbole, incredulity and social media extremist syndrome

Tweets, Facebook updates and news headlines are strikingly similar in two ways:

  1. They convey limited information at breakneck speed
  2. Their value is entirely contextual

Social updates are short by design. They each tell part of a larger story. Their accuracy and usability depends on the credibility of the person creating them, and the content they reference and link to. People get this, mostly. But no one can read the piece behind every link, or separately assess the authority of the people sharing it with them.

Headlines work the same way. We can’t get the full story from them alone. We can’t truly say whether we agree or disagree with an article if we’ve only read its headline. The article and author behind the headline give it almost all of its value.

But we take shortcuts, because it’s impossible to fully evaluate every piece of content aimed our way. If I trust The Economist, I’m not going to be as skeptical of its articles as I would be of the “news-repurposing turbine” that is HuffPo. If my friend is an amazing cook, the opinions she tweets about food will carry more weight than tweets from my culinarily-challenged college roommate. And if enough people point to a headline, people start to think the headline tells more of the story than it actually does. It’s human nature.

When the conversation is about something as complex as social, that effect is amplified. How do headlines like these shape our understanding of social’s value?

Together, these headlines appeared in thousands of tweets, Facebook and Google Plus posts. The research and reporting behind them is actually pretty solid and nuanced. But headlines and nuance don’t mix well. As a result, the conversation has a difficult time evolving past the narrowly-defined, shortsighted understanding of social’s value.

Traffic, conversion, followers, likes, mentions (we might as well add pins to the list now)—all good things to celebrate, monitor, analyze and even worry about. There’s a whole other universe of value to unlock. We get there by trying our damnedest to answer questions like:

  • What do my customers actually care about?
  • What are they getting out of sharing their data with me?
  • How can we build social experiences without building barriers?
  • How can better data move “influencer engagement” past sending people free stuff, and hoping that they’ll blog about it?

One of the unfortunate realities of the conversation about social is its tendency to swing between hyperbole and incredulity. It’s just like political coverage in this way:

Hyperbole

  • Fake SM headline: Drop everything and get on [new social network or tool] now—or you’ll be sorry
  • Fake political headline: [Candidate name] is unstoppable

 Incredulity

  • Fake SM headline: What’s so great about [new social network or tool]?
  • Fake political headline: [Candidate name] wins [state name], but does she really have a chance?

If there’s one thing we in new media love talking about—and writing about—it’s how different “our” new media is from “their” old media, how much better we are. In a lot of ways, we are better. But on this point, whether we’re really less prone to sensationalism and superficial exploration of topics that deserve deeper digging, I think we’re far from proving it. Let’s change that.

Ian Greenleigh
Author | Turning data into stories | Sr Mgr, Content & Social Strategy, Bazaarvoice | Former baby