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FEATURE28 May 2009

Seeing the future in social media

News Trends

Analysis of social media conversations is proving to be a useful proxy for companies who want to know how their brand or product is perceived in the marketplace. But is online talk a reliable indicator of the state of play in the offline world?

Social media research agency Biz360 thought so – at least until its prediction of who would win American Idol last week fell flat. To call it a failure, though, would be uncharitable.

The Redwood City, California, firm backed contestant Adam Lambert to triumph over eventual victor Kris Allen. This prediction was based on the fact that Allen had generated a slightly lower amount of social media coverage and a lower amount of ‘positive to neutral’ chatter than his rival.

Biz360 noted that with less than one percentage point between the two contestants, an accurate statistical prediction was “impossible due to the limitations of margin of error”. The firm knew it was going out on a limb, but did so anyway – perhaps buoyed by its success in previous weeks in accurately predicting who would be voted off the show.

Matt Girard, Allison Iraheta and Danny Gokey all went when Biz360 said they would. So ignoring the hiccup at the final hurdle, can social media analysis be used to predict the outcome of other real-world events? Elections, say?

Certainly, by looking at the huge amount of online chatter surrounding Barack Obama, one could have made a fair stab at guessing he'd end up in the White House. But that’s all it would have been – a guess.

“Elections aren't just popularity contests,” says Mark Rogers, CEO of online monitoring firm Market Sentinel. He quotes Morrissey’s Glamorous Glue:

We won't vote Conservative because we never have
Everyone lies, everyone lies

“One of the things you need to be conscious of is of the social circumstances in which people are talking,” Rogers explains. Even online, behind the shroud of anonymity – or should that be pseudonymity? – there is a certain amount of ego projection and protection that goes on, and how honest people will be depends on how much skin they have in the game, he says.

“I would say that generally you can predict the future if what you are asking is a simple enough question that does not involve people compromising themselves,” says Rogers.

The fear of social disapproval can certainly act as a brake on what people are willing to say in an online discussion, according to research consultant and psychologist Alison Macleod.

“I noticed this particularly on discussions of racism on American social networks, where it is actually something that people are really quite afraid of talking about,” she says. “It’s not that they themselves are racist, but often a thread starts and a theme emerges and people are reluctant to diverge from that.”

(For more on this topic, see Macleod’s blog post ‘The meaning of silence in an online context'.)

When it comes to predicting elections, Macleod says she'd be “amazed if social media analysis got it right”. Bigger than the issue of tempered opinions is that of sampling bias, she says. “Social media tends to skew younger. It skews more left-wing, more Democractic” – hence all that Obama buzz.

Still, the definitive verdict will only come when a company is willing to go out on a limb and make a call at the next big national vote. Let’s hope Biz360 has not been burned too badly by its American Idol experiment.

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