Saturday 23 October 2010

Signal to noise ratio on social media

A social media enthusiast is visiting a conference in Sao Paolo. He takes time out, and visits a coffee bar in the city. He tweets where he is, and one of his 4000 twitter followers picks up this tweet and joins him. They have a good conversation.

Another social media enthusiast is at another conference; a social media conference in Los Angeles. He finds he has forgotten his laptop cable. He tweets this to his 1800 followers, and three people at the conference offer him a cable.

These stories illustrate both the power and the weakness of social media. In the first case, the message is relevant to one follower, who happens to be out and about in Sao Paolo that day at that time. It is irrelevant to 3999. He gets a result, from one person. For 3999 people, he creates noise. Signal to noise ratio; 1:3999.

In the second case, the message is relevant to three people, and irrelevant to 1797, for whom it is just noise. Signal to noise ratio 1:899. He would have been far better served to have just made an announcement at the conference itself. Then the message would have been relevant to all its receivers, as they were all at the conference and all had laptop cables. The message would have been all signal, an no noise.

Twitter is a scattergun. The more followers you have, the wider the scatter. Maybe one pellet will hit a target. For the others, its just noise. OK, you can use hashtags to reduce the scatter to a degree, but the signal to noise ratio is often still very low, at least with the hashtags I am familiar with. Filtering is vital if you are to gain value from the stream, given the amount of noise. Compare this to a targeted community forum, where all messages are relevant.

The picture I have reproduced with this post (from Flickr, with attribution) makes the same point. On Flickr, the authors say "There is a need for organizations to develop processes that go beyond the tools, to hear (and act on) relevant signals in the sea of social media noise. The concept of meta-filtering signals and having strategies/resources in place to act on those signals in a meaningful way, adds an important new dimension to social media strategy for business".

There is huge power in connecting people, and social media gives us this power. However attention needs to be paid to the signal:noise ratio. Too much noise and not enough signal, and people start to switch off, even with the best filter. I know I do - there are people I have unfollowed purely due to the excess of noise compared to signal. And sometimes, tools like Twitter are just not the right tools. Maybe sometimes we need to just speak to the people at the conference, rather than reaching for the iPhone.


Ian said...

The trick though with signal/noise is that it's not always apparent which is which. Unlike with radio (the origin of this metaphor) where the signal and noise are obvious, in social media one person's noise is another's signal.

I've made a number of valuable unexpected discoveries through twitter, some that I wasn't necessarily looking for, that I can't have imagined making in targeted community forums I would have never know existed or ever bothered to sign up for. A particular strength is cross disciplinary and cross community sharing of knowledge.

Basically tools like twitter make knowledge and potential cross disciplinary and cross community connections more visible but at the expense of also receiving more things you don't want.

The trick here is to develop skills and tools for both better sharing (the two examples you shared show a person who is being very selfish in not considering others time in making the request), and better filtering of what you receive. I follow over 700 people on twitter many of whom are very active and I've found practice speed reading/speed scanning to be a great way to process this. People who don't share stuff of interest on a somewhat regular basis are unfollowed and I barely notice the tweets about power cables and coffee meetups and music selections of those who I do follow for the good stuff that's mixed in with the less good.

Nick Milton said...

Hi Ian, thanks for the comment. I totally agree "The trick here is to develop skills and tools for ... better sharing"

Sometimes a scattergun is the best weapon, sometimes a sniper rifle. Sometimes you need to boradcast a message on all wavelengths, sometimes you need to narrowcast it.

I would personally put more onus on the sender than the receiver. If the sender filters what they send, and uses the right tools for the right ends, then the receiver needs to do a lot less filtering, and is morel likely to find some signal amongst the noise.

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