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Navigating the Social Media Map
By Jonathan Salem Baskin

The Topography of Social Platforms Can Get You Found And Lost

Randall Munroe creates brilliantly funny and insightful illustrations. I don't know him, but we had a pleasant exchange a few years ago when I asked if I could include one of his works in my first book, Branding Only Works on Cattle. I've remained a fan ever since, and his latest -- Map of Online Communities 2 -- is worth your contemplation.

The map portrays social platforms as countries, sized according to usage and arrayed geographically by type and purpose. So the archipelago of blogs is separated from the island of Twitter by the Sea of Opinions. An area within Facebook is called the Plains of Awkwardly Public Family Interactions. It's simply hilarious just to explore these naming conventions (MMO Isle has a large Gulf of Lag). Spend some time with it, and be sure to use your zoom to read the fine print.

It's also insightful because it got me to ask a few basic questions:

What's Community? I understand that MMO Isle (home of Worlds of Warcraft, etc.) could be considered a community because people quite literally "live" in those role-playing worlds. But how is Skype a place? I'm not taking the map metaphor too literally but rather wondering if Skype users would ever think of themselves as members of a community. We use the term very liberally when it comes to describing online experience; historically, places (villages, towns, cities) had very obvious and explicit qualities that made them, well, places that had meaning...no, required it of residents. I'd offer that many of the proper noun place names on the map are in reality verbs that describe actions rather than membership.

What's Conversation? Arguably, much of what gets included in this category is really one-way...whether postings of videos or updates to Facebook or Twitter. I guess that if people respond to them then that's conversation, but only sort of. It feels more like a transaction than a dialogue. Comments on blog posts can often be unidirectional missives and not actual responses, and we have this interesting syndrome of people "engaging" in multiple social platforms yet finding less intellectual or emotional ground for compromise and agreement (i.e. many so-called conversations are nothing more than the converted affirming their conversions to one another). So if presence on such sites proof of conversation? Is responding? To his credit, Randall explains that his methodology included best available information, random sampling and educated guesswork, and not so small doses of tea-leaf reading and goat sacrifices.

What's the Real Measure of Utility? Participation, whether measured in attendees, time spent, or visitor recidivism, is kind of a loopy metric. It assumes that time correlates directly with interest, believability, and utility, only they're all incredibly blunt measures, especially when it comes to the marketing validity of chasing it. The map shows those numbers translated to landmass and you immediately think "Facebook is huge, so it must have huge participation." But what about the qualities of that involvement, whether in Facebookland or on any other social platform; things like believability, credibility, authority, likelihood of changing minds, and resilience of message(s) over time? These are all qualities of utility that don't appear on the map, nor in many descriptions of social media strategy. "The medium is the message" is the message these days, when I can't help but think that the real message should be utility.

Anyway, it's also interesting to note that the lands of Online Communities are a fraction of the map of Email and SMS, which are themselves a small fraction of the landmass of Spoken Language which, though not portrayed on Randall's brilliant illustration, is probably a pinprick on the map of Real World. So even if the map reveals some observations about the topology of social platforms, I think it raises as many good questions as it might answer. There's lots to ponder and discuss here. You should definitely check out the map and enjoy it.

Added: 11th November 2010

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