Sunday, October 21, 2012

Going Deeper on Dark Social: What the Invisibility of So Many Social Referrals Really Means

I've been thinking about a provocative piece published by Alexis C. Madrigal in The Atlantic online last weekend. "Dark Social: We Have the Whole History of the Web Wrong" makes a simple yet profound point about the social web that has emerged over the last decade to transform interpersonal interactions and communication. Madrigal's assertion is that while we celebrate the measurement of social interaction on Twitter and Facebook, these sites are but "the tip of the social iceberg." The bulk of sharing done online, he claims, occurs through email, instant messages, and chat that are largely invisible to existing analytics. Madrigal calls this mass of social traffic, which one study has constituting 69% of social referrals, "dark social."

For anyone who has already puzzled over how to measure, analyze or monetize social traffic, particularly across multiple platforms and networks, this is a daunting proposition. Madrigal's piece goes on to make an important observation about the structuring of social referrals. Essentially, he says, the ability to measure and analyze social traffic rests on public publication and sharing. Public sharing, in turn, is made possible in exchange for the personal data that we as individuals provide the networks.  That logic is powerful and drives Twitter and Facebook but it doesn't operate as directly with a range of other semi-private networks, again with email and IM being the most obvious examples. The implications of this line of thinking for marketing, brand communication, social media generally and even privacy are immense.

Yet for me the power of "Dark Social" is what it potentially says more broadly about open markets, the visibility and publicness of social interactions, and capitalism itself. That's quite a lot, of course, and I'm currently researching some of the complex connections for a project entitled, "The Age of Piracy." Suffice it here to extend Madrigal's provocations in two comments. First, there's a need to step back from believing that increasing social traffic or digital communication is somehow necessarily accompanied in lockstep by an increasing capability to measure and analyze that activity. The often-defining unwieldiness and dynamism of social technologies and platforms means that neither the hopes of marketers seeking foolproof metrics and monetization schemes nor the fears of civil libertarians wanting to deny ever-greater techno-surveillance and intrusiveness into private lives are being fulfilled today. Social traffic and networks may not be in the Wild West stage of their development but, as systems and networks, they remain largely fragmented, unstable across diverse markets, and obscure to consistent analysis.

A second extension or, really, expansion of Madrigal's thinking is the topic of the project I mentioned. Piracy today can be understood to embrace familiar acts of criminality and violence on the high seas, infringement of digital rights and other intellectual property, and the financial machinations of rogue traders, black markets and off-shore banks. Unlike terrorists, whose attacks rely on media amplification to instill fear across wide populations and to create platforms for political and economic critiques, these apparently disparate behaviors are driven by many of the same strategies: their actors want to remain invisible before the glare of media, they care little about conventional nation-states or legal regimes or religious values, and they seek to participate in unfettered capitalism. A final twist, ironically, and as I've previously written here, is the moniker of "pirates" adopted by the creators of the MacIntosh computer led by Steve Jobs at Apple and, in years since, by other innovators wanting to think differently. 

Piracy, in this sense, is more than the cyber-criminality that Misha Glenny and others have written about or even the cyber-threats made to both national security and individual privacy. Instead, it is the shadow of twenty-first century global capitalism that thrives precisely by exploiting the system’s digital and global connectedness, uncoordinated regulation, penchant for risk-taking, and pursuit of quick and massive profits. While that may seem an intellectual leap from Madrigal's invisible emails and instant messages, I would contend the difference is of scale and complexity rather than kind. For social traffickers and economic pirates alike, the informality and lack of metrics that have emerged around the boundaries of new technologies, networks, and markets allow for enormous opportunities to operate in the dark. Our challenge in response may therefore should not simply be to strive to create new tools for shedding light on what's currently invisible (emails, again, from Madrigal) but to re-think the structures of emergent networks and markets such that their boundaries (say, of intellectual property regimes) don't create such dark shadows.

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