Humans have tried to predict the future for thousands of years and yet, as Professor Noreena Hertz, (author of The Debt Threat and The Silent Takeover), argued at the Wired 2011 conference, we’re really not very good at it. However, with the explosion of social media use, and the resultant boom in available data, we may have an opportunity to see not only what is going on, but how social groups may behave in the future.
Make sense from the chatter
Hertz argued that social media produces a cacophony of chatter which is not useful unless it is mined in a meaningful way. Experience has shown that the numbers don’t just speak for themselves. For example, the police have been collecting and processing social media data since the G20 protests, yet in their own words, they were ‘overwhelmed’ by chitter-chatter during the recent London riots, and struggled to identify the key voices involved.
In order to make the data from social media useful, we need to be sure of how to use it. Hertz said that we could potentially use it to understand how buzz relates to sales, how it relates to voting tensions, or negative sentiments to violent actions and so on. The challenge is to understand this social media buzz and to learn how to communicate these insights.
Social Media and the X Factor
Hertz called the X Factor “research gold dust” as not only does it generate a great amount of much social media buzz, but it also involves a public vote. Therefore, it is a fascinating subject for what she terms ‘social media scientists’ as they can test how far social media data can predict who will be voted off that week and gain insight into what X Factor fans think, like and care about.
Understanding social media buzz is more complex than simply identifying ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’. Hertz reminded us that language can have complex meaning, especially when it includes specific audience classifiers such as ‘OMG’ and ‘narked’. Human behaviour is also non-linear – so just because you tweet about something, doesn’t mean you will buy, or vote.
The result? Hertz’s new site, xfactortracker.com. Not only is it a fun way to make sense of X factor related social media buzz, but it also is a potentially influential step towards understanding more about all of the data we have access to.