Social Performance (and the Sound of Silence)

Social performance. That modernest of metrics. Social performance is the way we measure “impact” in the world of big data.

It is an approximation of the weight of a tossed stone, extrapolated from the size of the ripples it made. From the chatter it generated.

Social performance is the evidence that something occurred. If it wasn’t tweeted, instagrammed or youtubed, it simply didn’t happen. And if it wasn’t then retweeted, liked, or tumblred it may as well not have.

The metric works better for some occurrences than others though. The impact of a virtual event, a meme or social media campaign for example – something clicked when sat before a screen – can be measured well using this method.

But “real world” events are a little more questionable, because the disconnect between real and digital brings with it a hint of slightly comical artifice.

The Writers of Modern History

If you dabble in the social sphere you’ve probably seen one of those “I’m at the Chocolate Starfish gig, it’s AMAAAZZZING” -type message chassé its way up your timeline.

One’s natural response to this, if in possession of a logical mind, should probably be:

How “AMAAAZZZING” can it be if it’s failed to drag your attention away from your phone?

Isn’t the message paradoxically self-defeating?

There is also the “taking a shower” status update. Or “hang-gliding over Dorset”. Inherently contradictory, indeed impossible, things to be typing, but somehow quite valid forms of public journalage.

In these cases, if we wanted to be pedantic, social media silence is the more correct expression. Yet silence is not an option, because silence is invisible to the social sphere, and is a quantity no analysis tool (either automated or human) can accurately measure.

Silence is no longer an acceptable expression of anything.

Just as Wikipedia democratised knowledge, social media is modern history written by the wisdom of the crowd. Which is partly what accounts for Facebook and Twitter’s insane stock prices. They’re invested in the long game; they are the owners of modern history.

History, like so many other informational constructs, has been decentralised by the internet. It is now the product of the people, not one or two people, but people en-masse. History is written by social performance; information gathered from the noise. Never from the silence.

The idiotic chatter of a million self-obsessed attention-hungry content generators may be kipple qualitatively. But quantitively it is public record. And with this method any silence is inaudiable, while the noise is overpowering.

The new shape of history may have plenty of figure, but it has a distinct lack of ground.

Project, counter project

I studied this recently with the World Cup data dashboard I built for Brandwatch. It measured the quantity of twitter traffic around certain topics through the course of the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

Late in the day I added a “social performance” play-off element to it, where it replayed all the fixtures and scored them on the amount of fan chatter during the games. It was an interesting angle, but I had my doubts about it’s worth as a measure. If a fan is tweeting during a game, it can only mean their eyes have wandered from the pitch.

Might we argue that a better qualitative measure of the impact of any game would be the level of silence that descends. That measure discernible in town centres, by our eyes and ears, when a match is on.

The eerie quiet that settles during a big international, the populace sucked in close to their screens, like moths to electric lightbulbs. The streets clear. The noise and the traffic subsides for a while. It’s the perfect time to do a bit of shopping.

While I was building the Brandwatch site, I also knocked out a quickie counter-project.

I tweaked my pet twitter-bot to algorithmically construct comments on the games as they were happening. Both to contribute to the data my dashboard was monitoring, but also, importantly, sparing me the need to do so myself.

I could watch the game without suffering the obsessive-compulsive urge to share the occasional smart-arsed comment, just to be part of the social sphere.

I did the same with Glastonbury for a bit too, as my interest in the first round flagged, simply switching the bot’s interests temporarily, so human-me could enjoy it (on the telly), while bot-me took care of the chat.

Not everyone has the luxury of a twitter bot to automate their more pavlovian compulsions. Most simply suffer this obsessive-urge to get their thoughts out of their head and into the public sphere.

And it is this compulsion that is the counter argument to my cynicism. And the reason big data still works, even for events like these. And works well.

The existential hunger of the Twitter football fan

It may make no sense, logically, that the level of social chatter is a positive, not negative, indication of an event’s impact or value. But the data suggests otherwise.

There are correlations between experience and record. The biggest games of the cup so far have been the most tweeted. And not just after the event, but during the matches themselves.

The act of sharing may be discordant with the message they are sharing (“this is great, so great I’m going to stop enjoying it to tweet about it”), it doesn’t mean people won’t still do it. They can’t seem to help themselves. The urge to share, to be a part of the bigger conversation, is for many a greater compulsion than enjoyment of the moment itself.

And it’s nice, in a way. It’s sharing in something bigger.

It’s involvement.

Watercooler moments – the big events that everyone talks about the next day – no longer wait for the next day; they happen in real time. By the time we gather in person the conversation has moved on to something more topical.

The social data we mine is the product of an existential compulsion. A need to exist in the modern world.

If you don’t have a social presence, you don’t figure. You leave no ripples.

If you remain silent, you remain invisible. Your data point has gone uncounted. And for most, this is unbearable.

Existential angst propels this urge to contribute. To be included. This is the fuel of our modern obsession. And this obsession makes for great data.