Social media as a research tool—Volume three: The perils of digitized life


In my recent two posts, I explored social media as a means to access potential audiences for research and as a way to interact with them. In this final installment of my trilogy I will discuss the most compelling application of research to social media—how to observe and analyze people's interactions in order to draw insights about their habits and choices.

Observation is the most straightforward use of social media. Marketers can track what people are saying about a brand in the public social media sphere (as well as within traditional media) in real time. Employing nimble, fast-response operations, they can even immediately act to improve customers' brand experience. JetBlue is often identified as a brand that uses Twitter to learn from its customers and provide a differentiated positive experience. Blogger Dave Raffaele documented an early example of JetBlue's proficiency.

However, given that social media sites have the ability to gather a wealth of data, it's scary to think of the possibilities of how this information can be used. Now that we are living in a world of constant online interaction, more and more of our identities, behaviors and attitudes are becoming data points. Most of your information is housed in a limited number of places: your bank/financial services institution, the IRS, Google (especially if you use it as a main online destination/service provider) and Facebook (if you are an active user).

What can be done with all of this data? Law enforcement has been using it to anticipate whether a crime might happen. As outlined in a recent Economist article, the police in Richmond, VA, monitor Facebook, MySpace and Twitter to determine the location of the rowdiest parties, and deploy its police force accordingly. While this seems to be a relatively benign use of social media data, how far behind the movie Minority Report are we? By modeling all of the online behaviors and data of criminals and then running correlations, you could profile and classify people who are not yet criminals but are most likely to be arrested for one crime or another. Using Foursquare, you can then find where they are and monitor them or, per the film, preemptively arrest them. This is where loss of privacy issues brought about by online social network participation come to the fore.

The data that Facebook (as well as online marketplaces such as Amazon) has in its possession is truly powerful given the scale and the breadth of information collected on who people are, what they like and what they do. With increasingly sophisticated network analysis, organizations can map the impact of individuals and groups to desired outcomes, from promoting and buying a product to promoting democracy. How these insights get used, who truly should own/oversee them and whether they actually enhance or curtail individual freedom is still up in the air. Given our increasingly digitized life, the same examination of ethics that advances in biotechnology have occasioned should be applied to the use of data created through social networks and online interactions. Let's hope that the novel 1984 wasn't just predicting 2014!

Brian Rafferty is the global director, customer insights, for the Siegel+Gale New York office.


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