Opinion

Paul Smalera

The platform problem in social media

June 22, 2012

The two speakers from Twitter — Ryan Sarver and Doug Williams — had just left the stage at Big Boulder, a data conference I’m attending in Colorado, when Twitter, the service, went down Thursday. Neither of them have anything to do with keeping the service up and running, but the restless audience probably still would’ve thrown the hotel-provided notepads and candies at them if they could’ve. Such was the level of dissatisfaction about the Twitter platform’s outage yesterday — and let’s face it, any day a service we rely on goes out, even when the crowd in question doesn’t consist of users and consumers of social big data, and the odd journalist.

The outage may have been poorly timed for Sarver and Williams, but the incident speaks to a larger problem the companies represented in this room are facing: building on top of social platforms.

Consider Zynga. The high flying gaming company, built primarily on top of Facebook’s Open Graph, has faced record lows in its stock as investors have lost some confidence in the company’s ability to continue growing. Or consider just about any other company, social or not, that is trying to reach its fans and customers in the social media world.

Get Satisfaction CEO Wendy Lea walked me through the gently sloping path to hell many of these companies are facing:

“Marketers got [their companies or brands] a Twitter handle and a Facebook Fan Page. Then they went to their interactive digital agency to make the Fan Page look like the brand. Then they went to Buddy Media or Vitrue to run a contest to get fans or followers. Then they got Radian 6 and got a [social media] listening platform. Now they say, ‘I’m analyzing.’ Now what? There’s a huge gap to their in-house [customer database] system they spent $2 billion to create.”

Lea’s company promises to help bridge that gap and be an “open door” between the social web and companies’ internal systems, but read her words out of the context of commerce for a moment and it becomes easy to see that the problem she describes affects our entire social lives online. Just as marketers are now discovering — building on top of platforms like Facebook have locked their customers into the Facebook experience — our personal online data sets are held hostage by the platforms whose tools we use when we create them.

Many of the people in the room I’m in are either paying for or selling the data that we — all of us who use social media — are creating for free. That’s not inherently a bad thing. Over the course of today I’ve heard how that data is sliced a thousand ways to make our online lives incrementally easier to live every day. Suggestions get better, advertising becomes more useful, information becomes easier to find, communities become more meaningful and frictionless. And that’s just scratching the surface. But it all stems from the platforms all this data streams from. If users abandon them, or the apps built on them — the firehoses of data grow weak, and so does the intelligence flowing from them.

Lea sees marketers as about to wake up to the realization that they’ve allowed the data of their customer bases to be distributed among all our varied social platforms, without a strong plan for how to unify and act on that data, to make money and keep customers satisfied.

Turning that assertion around, and looking at it from the perspective of a user, one byproduct of the way our social media ecosystem has grown is that it may be nearly impossible to aggregate our personal data off of all the varied social platforms and into a unified, platform-agnostic picture of our online selves. The only people who can who give you the complete picture of who you are online (though there are nascent efforts like ThinkUp, which gives individuals tools to save down their own account data) may be the people in this room with me, buying and selling and using your data.

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