[SERI Column] The perils of social networking

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[SERI Column] The perils of social networking

Social networking services are fast becoming part of daily life, having political, social and economic impact because information can be delivered in real time. Twitter has 3.6 million subscribers in Korea and the number of Facebook users in the world has recently topped 600 million.

But companies that regard SNS as merely a tool for word-of-mouth marketing and other operations risk overlooking the drawbacks, which range from embarrassment to real damage to the company. There are a range of points to be considered.

First, SNS raise concerns in the workplace. For example, communicating with colleagues through Facebook can blur the line between formal and informal contact. But more important is what is communicated. Thus, legal departments worry that employees’ online chatter may cross over into confidential information.

These concerns are beside the question of whether SNS should even be in the workplace. Nucleus Research, a global provider of research and advisory services, calls social networking “social NOTworking” and according to a local survey, the average time each user spends on social networking sites in Korea is 1.56 hours per day.

Some companies don’t mind the use of SNS and, in fact, encourage it to bring coworkers closer. But the companies can be lulled into thinking that SNS can also become a primary vehicle to communicate with customers. In that case, profiting from their external use of SNS can be difficult, especially if customers are not accustomed to it.

SNS provides fleeting contact, whereas solid customer relations are formed around long-term communications and conversations. As U.S. TV and radio host Larry King said in his recent visit to Korea: Despite all the technology, and all that it’s going to bring, we are human beings, connecting one-on-one.

Second, companies may incorrectly assume that SNS facilitates two-way communication. But SNS is inherently passive: the sender delivers what they chose to say and the recipient gets the information. In Internet culture, there is a principle of “90-9-1.” It means that 90 percent of users are the audience, who tend to read or observe but don’t actively contribute; 9 percent are editors, sometimes modifying content or adding to an existing thread but rarely creating content from scratch; 1 percent are creators, driving large amounts of the social group’s activity.

The larger meaning here is that more people lurk in a virtual community than will participate.

This year, Yahoo Research and Cornell University Professor Shaomei Wu analyzed 260 million tweets and found that half of them came from only 0.05 percent of Twitter users.

Third, there is a tendency to think that the information communicated will be understood. However, what appears in SNS may be misconstrued just as much as in any other form of communication.

For example, a famous foreign apparel maker launched a new product around the time of the populist uprising in Egypt.

When a tweet from the company linked the two events, it incited a wave of anger on the Internet. Because SNS are so easily shared, a company has no real control over its target audience. As Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has said, the conventional concept of privacy is no longer a social norm.

Fourth, there is tendency to think that SNS can raise an individual or company’s image. Of course, SNS can boost reputations. Tom Dickson, founder of U.S. blender maker Blendtec, made a series of promotional videos for the Internet called “Will It Blend?”

The premise was to put unlikely things like an iPhone into a blender and watch the destruction. Netizens put the videos on YouTube and Dickson’s popularity exploded.

But it must be remembered that SNS can also be just as effective in casting a company or an individual in a negative light.

BP, after its oil-drilling platform explosion and subsequent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, advertised its cleanup efforts through the traditional mass media and Twitter.

But people perceived a lack of urgency in containing the spill and sympathy for those affected. Even a fake Twitter account poking fun at the company’s public relations efforts in relation to the oil spill has gained popularity online. In a world where everyone is connected, people tend to be more attracted to bad news than good.

In social networking, one person posting negative comments can have more power than 1,000 fans. Moreover, companies are powerless in controlling the spread of rumors and misinformation because SNS sites are so easily accessed. Once negative statements go viral, effective communication becomes paramount in damage control.

Thus, a mere understanding of SNS technologies is insufficient. Rather than thinking about what to do with social networking sites, what customers’ need should be taken into consideration. Whether a company’s efforts to communicate have succeeded will be judged by the quality of information.

*The writer is a visiting researcher at the Samsung Economic Research Institute.

By Hahm Yu-kun
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