Untangling the Web: Facebook fan mathematics (JERUSALEM POST) By ELANA KIRSH 04/17/12)
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A few weeks ago I wrote a column urging readers not to believe all of
the so-called “news” they see on Facebook. This week, I’d like to add
another caveat: Don’t believe everything you see on the news about
Adding to a growing news trend of reporting figures from social
media, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu´s Facebook page, which just
recently passed the 200,000-fan mark, made headlines last week.
Granted, it had been a slow news week, what with Passover and Easter
falling on the same weekend, but the story would likely have been
published either the previous or following week regardless. The same
goes for Labor party leader Shelly Yachimovich’s staff attacking
Netanyahu´s "manipulative" claim the following day and accusing him
of inflating his online numbers.
The question of whether - as the Labor leader claims - portions of
Netanyahu’s 207,000 Facebook fans are fakes is certainly news, but
it’s not the full story. In fact, neither story is the full story.
The real question is: Why do we care? And does the number of fans a
person boasts have any bearing on their influence anywhere but
Or, simply stated: Is this news?
The relationship between social media and mainstream online news
media is complex at best, often confounded by murky boundaries and
cross-pollination. Recently, news outlets have been developing
applications to allow users to explore content without leaving
Facebook, while conversely, social networks have developed social
plugins so users don’t have to leave the news site to share stories.
Such developments are making it increasingly difficult to identify
the point where news sites end and social media begins.
However, it’s not just Facebook, nor is it just about counting
followers. A whole subsection of Web jargon has sprung up in recent
years to help quantify what’s going on in social media for use in
the “real world.” Terms like Tweet-per-second, virality and Klout
Scores mean nothing - or something entirely different - to people who
lack a basic understanding of social media. Nonetheless, these terms
are becoming an increasingly acceptable way to measure and serve up
details from these emerging platforms.
The Tweet-per-second metric, for example, measures activity on a
particular topic on the micro-blogging site, Twitter. Examples of
events with record-breaking TPS rates include Beyonce’s pregnancy
announcement, Steve Jobs’s resignation from Apple and subsequent
death and the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. However,
while the measure itself can indicate public interest in a topic, it
does little to explain sentiment. The figure of 10,245 cited as the
number of tweets posted per second during Madonna’s half-time show at
the 2011 Superbowl, for example, tells us how many people were
engaged with or interested in the performance; it doesn’t tell us is
whether they liked or disliked it.
The same goes for virality, or the extent to which a post spreads
online. The number of times a photo was shared on Facebook tells you
only that - how many times it was shared on Facebook. What’s missing
is why it was shared, in what context, and what captions and comments
were attributed to it.
It seems that too often, traditional journalism doesn’t have the
time, the means or the inclination to properly report on interactions
taking place online, and so instead they report on the numbers.
Figures are something that can easily and quickly be compared and
contrasted, and are considered supposedly solid; the problem is that
their meaning is often only skin deep.
The phenomenon is particularly prominent in Israel, where social
networks are still in the process of being accepted as legitimate
platforms. As Israelis catch up to other Western countries in the
expanding uses for social media - like many Israeli politicians have
done in the past year - they especially need journalists to interpret
this information accurately.
Which brings us back to the issues brought up by the Yachimovich camp
in last week’s so-called “Facebook Wars.” When does 200,000 not
actually mean 200,000? Just like electoral schemes where deceased
persons’ names are fraudulently used to cast ballots, Facebook
profiles don’t necessarily represent individual, active people
accurately. On top of that, ‘Liking’ a politician’s page could mean
many things other than that you actually like that politician in real
life. It could mean, for example, that you are an editor on a news
desk, PR agent, political strategist or university student. Or, worse
still, you could be a bot - not a person at all. In short, these
figures are easily manipulated and subject to little regulation and
as such, are not always what they appear to be.
Having said that, if numbers weren’t important, there wouldn´t be any
reason to celebrate them or any need for an attempt to inflate them.
So what do the numbers really mean then? Social influence. It’s all
about clout, or “Klout,” as a relatively new website by that name
would have us call it. According to the site, Klout works under the
assumption that “social media has democratized influence,” using data
from social networks to measure an online personality’s influence and
that of their network. Each user is given a dynamic score from 1 to
100, developed using an algorithm which filters out spam and bots and
instead focuses on the people who are acting on online content. In
other words, the Klout Score fills in gaps where the straight fan-
base figure fails.
Journalists - and indeed anyone looking to assess social media
accurately - need to look at a similar combination of factors;
engagement and content on top of the raw figures. Such reportage
might include some numbers as a starting point, then go on to assess
whether sentiments expressed were mainly positive or negative,
describe the demographic makeup of a fan base and quote specific
online interactions. A combination of data could also be used, rather
than just one figure from one source. This sort of deeper coverage
serves the readers by delivering the full picture, rather than
regurgitating information which is freely available anyway.
It is not beyond the realm of possibility that in years to come, the
democratic process will involve social media elements, though we
probably won’t be voting by Tweet any time soon. In the meantime,
journalists can begin to interpret the information and provide
context for those who are less involved in new media. This will bring
legitimacy and clarity to the expanding arena of social media and
will also allow readers to understand not just how many followers
say, Yair Lapid has (53,701 at time of writing), but what that number
might really mean. (© 1995-2011, The Jerusalem Post 04/17/12)
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