The business of conversations: Market social media surveillance and visibility
First Monday

The business of conversations: Market social media surveillance and visibility by Daniel Trottier



Abstract
Businesses increasingly rely on social media for personal information, which renders their market more visible. This paper draws on a surveillance studies perspective to consider the growth of market surveillance on social media. Drawing on a series of 13 semi–structured interviews with professionals who use Facebook as a business tool, this paper considers three emerging strategies. Radical transparency imports self–presentation tactics in a corporate realm, furthering corporate visibility. Listening refers to the surveillance of personal information. Finally, a conversational approach combines the visibility of both the market and the corporate actor. While popular literature celebrates this as a kind of mutual transparency, corporate actors are strategic in terms of what they present on social media.

Contents

Introduction
About the research
Radical transparency and corporate self–presentation
Watching and listening to users
Conversations with users
Discussion and conclusions

 


 

Introduction

Social media make social life more visible to businesses. A broad set of organizational tasks — including market research, recruitment, and customer service — are augmented through a growing body of searchable personal information. Sites like Facebook have undergone a tremendous diffusion into the business world, the effects of which are only becoming apparent. These developments extend from marketplace surveillance of consumers’ personal information. The large scale of information Facebook offers, coupled with its rapid spread to different social spheres, suggests new possibilities for market surveillance, including monitoring market segments through transactional data.

By mapping key sites where a personal information economy emerges on Facebook, this paper illustrates how organizations utilize social media. It offers findings from a series of 13 semi–structured interviews with professionals who use Facebook as a business tool, including marketers, brand managers, community builders, and communications officers. As this is an ongoing development, we attempt to move from industry literature on these practices towards a rich description of how these services are actually being used. In particular, this paper considers terms like ‘listening’ and ‘conversations’ meant to describe the way businesses collect personal information from a growing user base and deliver targeted content to those users.

Surveillance refers to focused and sustained collection of personal information (Lyon, 2001). This collection is fuelled by a political economy of personal information (Gandy, 1993; cf., Gandy, 2009). The following research is aligned with the study of audience labor (Smythe, 1977), political economic concerns in the age of new media (Dyer–Witherford, 1999), as well as social media in particular (Andrejevic, 2007; Fuchs, 2010). Popular literature highlights the revolutionary potential of new media. By treating the range of online services and mobile devices as a landscape of information exchange, authors like Shirky (2008) claim they enable ‘organizing without organizations’. Yet instead of redundancy, organizations face new opportunities by exploiting social media platforms. The rise of social media means an exponential increase in visibility for both individuals and organizations. Disgruntled clients and co–workers may broadcast compromising information on Facebook and Twitter, yet their own personal lives are also made transparent through their prolonged engagement with these sites. The risks and opportunities associated with social media cannot be decoupled (boyd and Hargittai, 2010).

So-called experts, ‘gurus’, and ‘rockstars’ present social media as an invaluable resource for businesses. Indeed, most technologies are ushered into the public by promoters (Mosco, 2004). Facebook and other social media are no exception. Advocates claim social media help businesses by making it easier for them to communicate with and listen to their markets. Organizations are taking proactive measures to exploit these sites. In recognition of the heightened visibility of their brands, corporate actors are actively searching social media for conversations between users about their brand and its products. They are especially concerned about complaints and other damaging statements. Corporations are also using these services to gain new insights about their market. The open–ended nature of sites like Facebook allows for other possibilities for engagement and exploitation, which are considered below.

These developments resemble other kinds of institution–led surveillance (Trottier, 2011). Yet market surveillance marks a further shift toward categorical searching, instead of scrutinizing individual profiles. Market surveillance on Facebook extends from previous attempts by businesses to gather data on a large scale (Elmer, 2004). These practices are fuelled by a number of initiatives, including the use of geodemographic information to locate markets (Burrows and Gane, 2006). Market surveillance on social media intersects spending habits with personal information, but also with relational information. These are sites where users socialize with others, yet they are privately owned and optimized for market led scrutiny, searching and sorting. This kind of scrutiny is important when considering market surveillance more generally. Social media go hand–in–hand with market power. They allow businesses that own or purchase this data to know their market at a greater resolution. Businesses can extract value from social media while they manage their own publicity (Winseck, 2003). The growth of market scrutiny is facilitated by Facebook’s push towards relational searching. In contrast to conventional, ‘Google–style’ analytics, Facebook search scours what users are saying and doing (Vogelstein, 2009). This approach pulls categorical content out of social media information, yet this content is always bound to individual profiles and reputations.

Most social media content is a kind of personal information. Businesses are taking advantage of this, but their presence on social media demands new kinds of relationships. Will businesses make themselves entirely visible by providing their own content? Will they opt for a more surveillant approach and simply collect personal content from users? Or will they combine elements from both strategies in a conversational approach? This paper describes how people employed as social media experts began working with Facebook. Upon describing these participants, the following three sections focus on three business strategies involving social media: radical transparency, listening, and conversations. Based on respondent accounts and industry literature, these strategies are positioned from least to most effective in terms of exploiting social media. This paper concludes by re–appraising the term social in social media in light of these findings.

 

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About the research

To produce a detailed account of Facebook’s role as a business service, we draw on 13 in–depth, semi–structured interviews with employees and self–employed consultant who use Facebook. These interviews took place between July and October 2009, and once again ranged from 45 minutes to an hour and a half in duration. Businesses were rapidly adopting social media at the time this research was completed. What started as a small group of readily identifiable workers has grown to the extent that social media are ubiquitous in the corporate realm. For this reason, these interviews were arranged and conducted in an exploratory manner. While the participants below come from diffuse backgrounds and perform different duties, roughly half of them do consulting work for clients while the others are fully employed by a corporation.

Susan is employed at a digital marketing agency, where she develops marketing strategies for clients. She assesses whether social media services are a useful addition to these campaigns, and offers clients guidance in terms of how to exploit services. Wade is employed at a venture capital firm where he is developing a Web–based application that relies on the labor of online communities. He is also a digital strategist who consults with organizations to help them connect with stakeholder groups through Facebook. Ben is a co–founding partner at a search engine optimization (SEO) company. He manages his clients’ online reputations through social media services. Damien is the president of a software development company specializing in cloud computing for businesses. He develops software for managing Web content on sites like Facebook, and also uses these services to promote this company. Liane is a self–employed consultant who focuses primarily on organizational development. She helps clients develop appropriate social media strategies. Corey is the president of a new media marketing agency. He works with large and mid–sized companies to develop marketing and public relations strategies on social media.

Matthew manages the technical support network for a transnational consumer electronics company. He scrutinizes social media to identify consumer feedback, but also to recruit employees. Martin works for an independent gaming company that produces third–party applications for Facebook. In addition to developing applications, he manages a growing community of users on Facebook. Janine is a brand manager for a major food producer. She promotes new products on Facebook, scrutinizes the site for user feedback, and recruits Facebook users for viral marketing campaigns. Jared is the director of new media at a radio station in a mid–sized city. His manages a Facebook fan page by promoting the station and interacting with the station’s online fan base. Joana is a marketing and communications manager for a major paint producer. She describes her work as a mix of advertising and public relations. Marc is a sales representative for a software company focusing on game–based learning for the academic market. He uses Facebook primarily to research and contact prospective clients. James is a communications officer with a public health organization funded by provincial and municipal governments. He uses Facebook to coordinate advertising and public relation strategies.

The context in which these interviews took place is worth noting. Businesses were partly concerned with managing their reputation, but they were also eager to find new sources of relevant information. Respondents experience some precariousness on Facebook as they do not have full control over their online reputation, nor over the platform augmenting the visibility of that reputation. Yet they are also taking advantage of user activity on Facebook and other social networking sites. Overall they described their engagement with social media as a kind of personal information frontier.

 

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Radical transparency and corporate self–presentation

Businesses feel compelled to maintain some kind of visibility on social media. This involves not only the visibility of products and services, but also the visibility of people who represent an organization. Often an interpersonal, dramaturgical (Goffman, 1959) style of self–presentation is adopted as a corporate strategy for social media. This makes sense as these companies are promoting their brands and products on a platform tailored for interpersonal exchanges (cf., Hearn, 2008). At the same time, respondents who work in these organizations adopt branding strategies to promote themselves individually within this sector. These developments conflate individual and corporate visibility on social media, leading to a selective visibility of key representatives on behalf of corporations. Being visible is a kind of labor performed by people formally hired by companies as well as by people enrolled informally through social media.

Visibility is paramount to marketing and public relations, especially with the advent of social media. Industry literature calls for “radically transparent” corporations (Tapscott and Ticoll, 2003; Li and Bernoff, 2008). This material overstates privacy’s obsolescence by treating transparency as a best practice:

Secrecy is dying. It’s probably already dead. In a world where Eli Lilly’s internal drug–development memos, Paris Hilton’s phonecam images, Enron’s emails, and even the governor of California’s private conversations can be instantly forwarded across the planet, trying to hide something illicit — trying to hide anything, really — is an unwise gamble. (Thompson, 2007)

Underlying this literature is the belief that the executive class gains a competitive advantage by baring their insecurities and dirty laundry to the world. Yet augmenting a brand’s visibility through social media requires the involvement of employees and consultants. Individuals who are already good at making themselves visible on social media are perceived as predisposed to this labor. While most industry literature calls for top brass to make themselves visible, respondents suggest a comfort with visibility among workers is also valued.

Respondents use personal branding to secure employment in social media. Career advancement was seen as the result of effective branding. Here, they draw parallels between corporate branding and personal branding within a corporation. This implies a broad range of identity management tactics, ranging from managing information online to dressing appropriately. Susan is quick to point out that the deliberate management of a personal identity brand should not come at the expense of authenticity:

You can create your image the same way you would create your company’s brand. You are a brand, you’re potato chips basically. And you know, you can make sure that you have a strategy in terms of what you post, and you know how you present yourself online, the same way that you would have a strategy in terms of what you wear when you get up in the morning and how you present yourself off–line.

For Susan, self–presentation involved in these branding strategies is a concern that pervades every personal and corporate engagement. She claims branding should not compromise authenticity, but rather that “telling [a] consistent story” should be prioritized. Some businesses see the combined desire for effective branding and personal authenticity as a product of the heightened visibility created by social media. As a result, networking and building relationships is the product of a kind of passive communication via your online presence:

You have to communicate your brand, your self brand, and you have to be aware of what’s out there about you because information is becoming more public and public, privacy is becoming less and less, (...) that’s going to create channels of success and failure for you. Whether it’s making sales, or creating relationships on the business side, or even just trying to get a job, right? It’s all about communicating the right message. (Marc)

Coping with this visibility is treated as a requirement to ascend in a career, in terms of self–promotion and nurturing relations with others. But in a more general sense, people who work with social media cope with a pervasive visibility to their market. This is because at the time of the interviews, Facebook required businesses to have a personal identity tethered to a corporate presence. The conflation of personal and professional is especially concerning for smaller organizations:

That’s just the nature of the space. Facebook itself, you are you; you’re not anonymous, for one, in general. And when you’re dealing with people, we’re also ourselves. Facebook doesn’t allow you to create fake accounts as a corporation. I’m me on the account that I’m responding to players, for instance. And our relationship, and this us, this is not every company, there’s sharks out there and there are medium to small sized fish like us who decide to do things in a certain way. (Martin)

Business users are able to cope with these conditions by using privacy settings to restrict what details are publicly available. Yet the connection between their personal presence and corporate endeavors is seen as obligatory and overwhelming. Martin changed his setting to prevent strangers from adding him as a friend, stating he “just got overwhelmed by people I didn’t know in Louisiana wanting to be my friend on Facebook.” Other respondents limited access to their profiles for this reason. Managing a fan page also leads to the visibility of your profile, allowing fans to add the respondent as a friend:

Because the fan pages are actually linked through my profile, a lot of the people (...) who are within those fan pages also end up seeing my name, associating my name and invite me as a friend. Most of them I have as a limited profile so it still allows me to see what they’re saying without them knowing that I just got married or my daughter just turned two, or any of that personal stuff that I don’t necessarily want to share wit the general public. (Jared)

Respondents treat personal branding and self–presentation online as an effective tactic, though one that is not appropriate for all businesses. Some small businesses benefit more from a personal engagement of social media than others. Liane offers a comparison between a divorce counselor and a debt counselor, stating the former is better suited to render their personal life transparent. Certain professions are associated with particular personal details not fit for public consumption. This suggests an emerging politics of career visibility, where personal disclosure can be an asset or a liability. Returning to the recommendation for CEOs to bare their souls to the world, respondents suggest this is not an easy or likely outcome. Wade claims transparency requires a particular skill–set, and a CEO who is otherwise shielded from public scrutiny is not going to benefit from this approach:

If you’re the CEO of a start–up company and you’ve always largely been a transparent person and that’s your general nature, these tools are probably going to help you facilitate that. If you are an old school CEO of a Fortune 500, global company, and you’re not used to a world of a great degree of transparency, it may not help you become more personally transparent. (...) Aside from the entertainment value, largely customers don’t care if the CEO of the company just bought a computer, what he had for lunch today, or that he’s suffering from depression. The investors might want to know that. But on average, the average consumer does not.

In the case of the executive class of a large corporation, Wade also suggests the audience to this transparency may be quite specific. To be sure, investors may insist that a CEO remain transparent to them. Other respondents suggest the executive class can avoid transparency measures from which smaller businesses are not exempt.

Open–minded companies are embracing ‘radical transparency’ whether or not it is an effective approach. Respondents cite success stories like Dell’s attempt to publicize complaints about its products. Yet Marc is skeptical of the outcome of this publicity:

A lot of what I’ve heard about has been just more of a success story with this transparent visibility, you know, than a negative. But I can foresee how that can be a problem, especially if you don’t have solutions to the problem, right? It’s a risky business with that, it’s very risky to post things public, but what’s funny, and you’ll find this with a lot of businesses, their culture is moving towards that direction. Their culture is moving towards a transparent visibility that allows everyone to see what they’re doing, when they’re doing it, because they want to seem like they have nothing to hide.

He suggests the appearance of transparency is much more important than actual transparency. Yet even radical transparency draws on user–generated content, complaints in this case. This enables corporations to take advantage of user–generated content, all while exercising censure if deemed necessary. Marc cites Research In Motion’s approach as an example:

Even with the Crackberry Web site, I think I heard some examples where some things were kind of filtered, because they still have complete control over the Web site, of course, right? It’s user–generated, but at the same time they can control what user generates and if they want, delete them when they can. And I think there were a few instances I heard in the past where they did eliminate things, maybe because they didn’t have solutions to the problem or maybe because it was just too negative a comment that may have turned off a few users.

Certain corporations may combine the appearance of transparency with a selective presentation of the self, omitting negative information or emphasizing positive features. Nevertheless, respondents suggest those not involved in large corporations cannot easily accomplish this. Ben offers a cautionary tale of a disgraced social media consultant who ruined his personal brand in a public way. This consultant had an audience of over 150,000 followers on Twitter. At a public event he claimed these followers pressured entertainer P. Diddy to agree to meet with him. Yet this was entirely false:

By Monday there was such a backlash, because the story he told wasn’t true. He made it up. So, I guess out of fifteen hundred people in the audience, there must have been a few of them who didn’t believe him and tried to find out if it was true or not. And they did and it wasn’t true. He had to apologize online to everybody that it wasn’t true. That’s how fast people can find you out if you’re not 100 percent out there.

This cost the consultant his career, and was a product of his exposure to a large audience and its scrutiny. Ben suggests independent and smaller businesses are not always predisposed to transparency, and can be exposed as fraudulent. Exposure is a risk when personal and corporate brands are conflated. Damien treats this as an ongoing endeavor shaped by all visible aspects of a person’s career and life:

The personal brand and the corporate brand, the fact of the matter is, every time you open your mouth or every time you publish a photo or a video or whatever, some kind of connection to you, you are creating your brand. I think the challenge that we are going to learn from all of these tools — any technological advances have always been abused on the way. (...) I think with these social media pieces, we all need to understand that every time we open our mouths, we are creating a personal brand.

Self–presentation implicates businesses as they increasingly build a presence on social media. This is either done proactively, or reactively when responding to customers. Their self–directed visibility is augmented in reaction to information provided by individuals. As individual use is the template for engaging with social media, businesses’ own visibility is modeled in terms of personal information, profiling, and routine updates.

 

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Watching and listening to users

While maintaining transparency on social media is seen as an effective strategy, it is also an approach that must be performed tactfully for the sake of maintaining a good reputation. Another key strategy for social media — one with fewer opportunities for downfalls — is to watch over users. As Facebook and other social media are a vast and accessible source of personal information, a lot of industry literature recommends that businesses pay attention to this. Following Li and Bernoff: “Consumers in the groundswell are leaving clues about their opinions, positive and negative, on a daily or hourly basis.” [1] Li and Bernoff recommend that businesses ‘listen’ to social media in order to: find out how customers interpret their brands, obtain a high–resolution and constantly updated understanding of the market, invest less capital for better feedback, identify key influencers in social media, effectively identify and manage public relation crises, and generate new product and marketing ideas [2].

Businesses can access user content on their profiles. They can also develop a page that not only centralizes relevant content, but also provides additional analytics. They may also rely on detailed feedback offered by Facebook’s advertising services. Finally, they may rely on external social media services like Radian6 (http://www.radian6.com/) or Reputation.com (http://www.reputation.com/). Based on the access that any of these entry points offers to nearly one billion users, Marc goes so far as to describe Facebook as a source of “unlimited information.”

Respondents described their engagement on Facebook as if they were dwelling in these spaces rather than owning them. This makes sense as business users do not have more claim over Facebook than individual users. Yet this is not to suggest businesses are identical to Michel de Certeau’s (1984) tacticians, who dwell precariously in borrowed spaces and have only marginal control over these spaces. Susan suggests Facebook is used as a site for tactics rather than strategies. When asked to elaborate on her definitions of these terms, she offers the following: “The strategy is the overall plan, what are you trying to do. And the tactic is how are you going to go about doing it.” While businesses may experience some precariousness by not having complete control and ownership on social media, their presence on these spaces is used to augment brands and products they own and control. The lack of immediate control over Facebook is offset by the ability to have a more pointed engagement with the site. Businesses may employ tactics based on watching and listening to users without any responsibility towards this group.

When asked why they chose to collect information through Facebook, respondents point to its methodological advantages. Jared’s radio station audience uploads personal information on Facebook that does not appear elsewhere, for example if they are coping with a death in the family. While the immediate market value of this information is difficult to ascertain, it supplements a conventional way of understanding an audience in a comparatively risk–free manner.

Other respondents collect information on Facebook because it is a lot cheaper than the alternatives. Market research in particular is seen as prohibitive and lengthy compared to social media:

Market research is very, very expensive so for us to get an Ipsos study done costs a lot of money and involves a lot of lengthy phone calls and interviews and a lot of compilation of data and this would be just another avenue of hearing consumers’ comments and, you know, first hand, really. (Joana)

Not only is market research riddled with logistical issues of cost and time, but the above quote also frames that process as burdensome compared to first hand accounts. Joana goes on to suggest that Facebook leads to more authentic information, as it does not rely on leading questions. This is a fair assessment, as users do not consider Facebook to be a questionnaire. For Wade, Facebook is not an explicit site of inquiry. He is fine with this, as he discredits users’ ability to self–report:

What I think even more important than where the criticism happens is being able to observe the actual behavior. So, you know, it’s often true that people will tell you that they want one thing, or they do something one way but they do it another. As subjects, humans are actually poor at self–reporting. (...) I think if you own the social network, or the social application, and you have good measures and analytics on the back end, you’ve really got this amazing tool set because you can look at not just what people say but what they do and where the delta is between those two things.

This suggests the real value of Facebook’s data will come from emerging analytics to process it. Facebook’s potential for behavioral assessment is unclear. However, this has been a key ambition for market surveillance (Elmer, 2004). Behavioral scrutiny sorts users based on their engagement with brands, their purchase histories, and other transactional data. By generating data about social ties as well as operating in a prolonged engagement with users, Facebook is regarded as offering better insight into consumer behavior. Wade underscores the importance of the ownership of new media (Winseck, 2003), including social media databases.

For respondents developing applications for Facebook, their software enables a rich set of opportunities to watch over users. On the one hand, they are able to monitor user activity within the application. This allows developers to see what features are popular as well as manage vulnerabilities and potential exploits. But they also benefit from discussion groups elsewhere on the site. This suggests developers not only have access to opinions voiced by users, but can also monitor their behavior on these services:

If we watch them play our game and we know they’re spending, you know, on a certain stage, we’re like, ‘Ok, Stage five seems to be where a higher percentage of people spend. Why is that?’ And then we’ll look into their behavior on the game itself but that’s not, that has nothing to do with their Facebook accounts. That just has to do with how they’re playing our game as a player. (Martin)

The reliance on user–generated content is also regarded as a way to side–step methodological tools in order to reach user perspectives. Jared described how Facebook enabled them to access photos their listeners would take at events the radio station would host. These photos allowed the respondent to “understand what they’re looking at” and “allows us to see it from their eyes too.” While Facebook is clearly a mediating link between businesses and users, the fact that it is not an explicit service for this end suggests it can provide a more intimate connection to a user base. The fact that businesses can collect information before engaging with users suggests it provides the former with a strategic advantage over the latter. Marc uses this advantage to gain leverage over potential clients:

The more information you have, the more leverage you have when it comes to making your pitch. That’s one thing I’ve realized. And that’s what I like about the social networks, it’s because it’s a gateway for me to, kind of, look into their lives and figure out what they like and we have in common, you know, things I can bring up to build rapport when it comes to our phone conversation.

Here user–generated content is valued for its ability to understand markets and generate sales. This is not a new feature of marketplace surveillance, yet Facebook’s ability to effortlessly locate a broad range of biographical and relational details about any single person is noteworthy. Indeed, it marks a more precise resolution, where marketers and sales staff can search both abstract categories and key individuals. This also suggests services like Facebook can be used to establish trust with clients in a way that may violate personal boundaries. This is not surprising, as the violation of such boundaries remains a pressing concern for social media users.

While polling and market research services are being made redundant by social media, Liane believes it is more likely that the two would enter into a partnership that would enhance the scope of the former while providing a way for the latter to monetize their content. On the heels of an announcement that Facebook developed analytics to track moods and emotions online, she states:

Maybe this is a better way of monetizing Facebook is to go out, speak and share your research with research organizations. I’m sure Gallup would enter into an interesting partnership and Gallup sure figured out how to get money out of research.

Listening as a strategy allows businesses to easily collect information about their clients through their online presence. User visibility in this context is often motivated by reasons external to the business, such as peer–to–peer sociality. Yet businesses gain from interpersonal scrutiny by covertly accessing that information. While users may be aware this is going on, they do not know exactly what information is collected. Jared suggests users benefit from this visibility, in that they can voice their opinions. Yet he also acknowledges his radio station exploits this visibility to develop their market. While users may enjoy intrinsic rewards through social media, businesses enjoy extrinsic, monetary rewards. Even in the absence of a multitude of ways to monetize Facebook, the costs associated are so low that listening on social media seems like a low–risk strategy.

 

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Conversations with users

The previous two sections examined how businesses exploit Facebook to augment their own visibility as well as take advantage of the visibility of users. A third approach fuses these two in a way that facilitates a long–term engagement with the site’s user base. Some businesses dovetail their own visibility with that of users as part of a broader social media strategy. Industry literature touts this approach as a paradigm shift in terms of market relations. Internet business guru Don Tapscott suggests to businesses: “Don’t focus on your customers — engage them. Turn them into prosumers of your goods and services. Young people want to co–innovate with you. Let them customize your value.” [3] As social media have historically not been used to this end, research needs to examine the kinds of relations businesses are seeking with clients/users as well as how personal information on social networking sites contributes to these conversations.

Both industry literature and respondents emphasize two–way communication and engagement as opposed to broadcasting. This resonates with Andrejevic’s (2007) description of mass–customization, where user input is presented as empowering consumers, but clearly benefiting telecoms and other businesses. Yet the kinds of engagements imagined and attempted through social media are diffuse. These developments can bring a democratization of visibility. But they can also optimize businesses’ exploitation of social media. Popular literature describes this as empowering for individuals in their relation to businesses. Shirky (2008) claims these tools allow users to voice their complaints, make suggestions, and be less removed from production process. These features are not inherently problematic, but they can be configured by businesses to maintain an exploitative relation vis–à–vis their user base. In particular, they enable unpaid labor by further extracting value from users.

A conversation–based engagement presupposes users want to directly engage with businesses on Facebook. Sometimes users welcome a corporate presence on Facebook. In other instances their presence marks a privacy violation. Joana, who is developing a Facebook presence for a brand she represents, is concerned with whether or not she should announce herself as officially tied to that brand. For these reasons, many businesses prefer to remain covert on Facebook. Yet Ben contends that users value businesses that are visible and willing to converse. This strategy is deemed effective when coping with negative feedback about a brand or product:

I think people just want to be heard and if you are prepared to listen to people and if again (...) [m]ost people will stop at that point. At that point, people will be like ‘You know what, okay. At least they are trying.’

Activity on social media often has multiple benefits. Joana describes the returns she was experiencing when building a significant presence on Facebook:

We’re getting really marketplace information, like we’re getting consumer feedback pretty much first hand if we can see those comments and also it becomes really word of mouth marketing at some point when people are reading each others’ comments and commenting on each other.

An optimized social media engagement combines the collection of market information with viral promotions and advertising. It combines the strategic advantages of radical transparency and listening for businesses.

Respondents claim Facebook is optimized for maintaining connections with users, which means exercising caution when promoting business content. Corey favors a conversation–based approach to Facebook, noting those who bombard their audience with content are punished when they lose that audience. Instead, he suggests businesses need to learn about their market by watching and strategically engaging with it online. Marc echoes the idea that Facebook can foster long–term relations with clients, as users find that mutual visibility to be less intrusive, thus leading to a richer engagement on their part.

The conversational approach resonates with the way application developers build their products. Developers make perpetual revisions to their products based on in–game and external feedback generated by their users. They watch over and listen to users, and respond to this information by improving their product. Likewise, businesses revise corporate strategies based on information garnered from users. In terms of how Facebook shapes the production process, respondents claimed it helps integrate user labor. By targeting key populations and maintaining a lasting engagement with them, Facebook allows businesses to channel user input at an early stage, and frequently return to these users. Damien takes advantage of user activity in public discussions to add value when developing and revising products. This approach harnesses user input to the benefit of the company. Martin echoes this approach:

We often launch an application before it’s completely perfect, and then fix it as it goes. We have an “always in beta” kind of mindset. Again, spending two years developing an application and then releasing it, it’s better to just get something out there, watch your customers, talk to them about how to make the game more fun, and then bring those changes in as it goes. It’s pretty interesting and fun that way. Sort of a ready–fire–aim approach.

Here, a conversational approach fits with a development cycle modeled after Facebook’s own way of operating, as ongoing revisions are based on user visibility.

Both Facebook and developers are able to closely watch user behavior on the site, as well as complaints and recommendations they broadcast. They are able to modify their services based on what they know about users. Respondents suggest the optimal way to use social media for some businesses is to selectively target a group or population, gather information they broadcast, and eventually converse with them in a strategic manner. In particular respondents encourage users to think of social media spaces like pages and groups as belonging to users themselves. In the case of application developers, maintaining close relations with users enables them to receive feedback to improve their products, all while giving the impression they are committed to keeping users satisfied:

But players have really helped us to develop the games. They’re saying, ‘oh my god, wouldn’t it be cool if you did this?’ And we’re like, ‘wow, that would be really cool.’ And then we do it and players like it. So they are actually helping to design the games themselves and what better way to get people’s interest and potentially to get them to spend than have them as a co–designer? (Martin)

Businesses on Facebook are able to exploit users by collecting feedback from them. This relates to the notion that Facebook is more like an enclosure than a conventional database, and that it is able to gather a wider range of input, including suggestions to make products and services more valuable. This is a consequence of users increasingly living their lives in these enclosures. Respondents favor the visibility of users, citing that being able to identify them leads to a more disciplined user, and more valuable data. For Damien this is “the flip side of getting rid of the anonymity: the quality of conversation goes up.”

A conversational approach to market surveillance is informed by users’ familiarity with interpersonal visibility on social media. Respondents suggest that users are more comfortable making their lives public to businesses if they feel a sense of reciprocation. Corporations manage their presence on Facebook through employees who use peer–to–peer sociality with a target audience. Based on the descriptions offered above this approach resembles Dallas Smythe’s (1977) understanding of audience labor. As industry literature describes a shift from an attention economy to an engagement economy (McGonigal, 2008), audience labor involves an active construction of goods and services by unpaid laborers. This suggests a personal information economy goes beyond surveillance in taking advantage of this connection to enroll users into the production process.

 

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Discussion and conclusions

Businesses are turning to social media to scrutinize personal information as well as provide targeted content to users. An emerging personal information economy relies not only on personal details submitted by users, but also on a prolonged engagement with these users in social networks. Social ties are increasingly valued as part of emerging monetization strategies on social media. These developments suggest two possibilities, or two visions that are not mutually exclusive. On the one hand, industry literature emphasizes the importance of community building online (Li and Bernoff, 2008; Tapscott, 2009). This creates an enduring space that prioritizes ongoing relations between brand enthusiasts and representatives. This kind of space is deliberately themed by the brand, but this does not exclude other opportunities for monetization.

Yet all that is being described here resonates with Andrejevic’s (2007) notion of the digital enclosure. Social media services present themselves in terms of sharing free content. Yet ownership of this content is crucial (Wineseck, 2003), especially because these enclosures are used for a broad range of scrutiny and social sorting. The enclosure is a space, but also a process where “a variety of strategies for privatizing, controlling, and commoditizing information and intellectual property.” [4] This suggests an ongoing development where practices are fluid and emerging, and where users may grow accustomed to living under pervasive scrutiny.

While respondents and industry literature offer a more positive description, they describe a scenario where users have a prolonged engagement with businesses, giving up personal information in exchange for targeted content. The extent to which these two perspectives overlap remains an ongoing topic of inquiry, and insight can be obtained by looking at how the term social features in these configurations. To be sure, the term social is notoriously difficult to isolate. The question “what’s social about social media?” underlies this research. It refers to the convergence of social contexts, as users cannot keep personal information in one frame. The social in social media also reconfigures information flows. Wade claims these flows become socialized insofar as they “are about the people who you know or the people you care about, friends, family, people who you follow for professional reasons as thought leaders.” Here, social refers to social ties. This paper suggests social ties are growing from the basis of an emergent media to a vital component in emergent business models. Damien highlights the social value of social media, claiming:

Technology is finally beginning to deliver social value from the standpoint of allowing you to control your destiny, your voice, the way you are published, who you interact with, how things are protected or not, as you conduct those interactions.

Damien presents Facebook’s social functionality in terms of affordances to users, but also businesses that engage with the site. He goes on to describe a conflation of the two:

Social media users are increasingly becoming developers because your ability to go into Facebook, add new applications to it you know, create a fan page and connect with many other people in your customer ecosystem. All of those things used to required software developers, they are now things that you are I can do ourselves. So, when we talk about power — not only the tool and the user gets more powerful, the ability to manipulate that tool and connect it to other platforms and tools is now becoming ... in the hand of you and I, as opposed to in the hands of developers.

This is described as a kind of empowerment where users can operate while unfettered by corporations, but this also benefits businesses that take advantage of the labor and feedback of users. In either case, these are being treated as spaces for long–term engagement. While it may be too soon to tell, social media seem to intersect interpersonal sociality and corporate monetization.

The interviews in this study highlight the complexity of market–based surveillance on social media. Businesses are using sites like Facebook for different ends. Various kinds of labor are situated on social media, including brand management, market research, and customer service. Yet at this stage some patterns are emerging. Through Facebook businesses have access to a range of personal information pertaining to their brands, products, and markets. Much of this information is generated from people making themselves visible to each other. Their scope is augmented because they sharing the same interface and information with interpersonal exchanges. In addition, respondents mimic interpersonal surveillance to engage with users. A conversational approach with users is prescribed to maintain these relations, suggesting that businesses are employing interpersonal surveillance tactics to augment market surveillance. End of article

 

About the author

Daniel Trottier is a postdoctoral fellow in the Communications and Media Research Institute (CAMRI) at the University of Westminster. He is the author of Social media as surveillance: Rethinking visibility in a converging world, published by Ashgate in 2012.
E–mail: dan [dot] trottier [at] gmail [dot] com

 

Notes

1. Li and Bernoff, 2008, p. 81.

2. Li and Bernoff, 2008, pp. 93–95.

3. Tapscott, 2009, p. 217.

4. Andrejevic, 2007, p. 54.

 

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Editorial history

Received 24 January 2012; accepted 20 January 2013.


Creative Commons License
“The business of conversations: Market social media surveillance and visibility” by Daniel Trottier is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–NonCommercial–ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

The business of conversations: Market social media surveillance and visibility
by Daniel Trottier
First Monday, Volume 18, Number 2 - 4 February 2013
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3930/3413
doi:10.5210/fm.v18i2.3930





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