Socialnomics Should Not Be Voodoo Economics

UPDATE: Eric Qualman, author of Socialnomics has now produced a full refresh (and much better) video promoting his book: Social Media Revolution 2 (Refresh). I am happy to report that in the true spirit of social media, he has taken the criticism from his first video to heart, listened to the community and addressed the issues by producing a new video that now represents the best in social media, respect for intellectual property; factual accuracy, and the integrity to present information in a compelling, but responsible manner. As a result, his role in the social media revolution has changed from propagandist to evangelist. His new approach itself provides an excellent example of social media’s power to effect change.

I am as big a social media evangelist as anyone – I sincerely believe the growth and impact of social media has been transformational on global culture. Because of these convictions, it drives me crazy when this genuine phenomenon gets spun into hype. Case in point – has produced a fairly popular YouTube video (328,000 views & counting) to support the sale of its book Socialnomics: How social media transforms our lives and the way we do business.

Crossing my fingers...Creative Commons License photo credit: Erica Marshall

If the subject is social media, are 'LMAO', 'ROFL' or '#FAIL' acceptable citations for some statistics?

Unfortunately, the video format is completely derivative of Karl Fisch, Scott McLeod and Jeff Brenman’s great “Did You Know” series, down to the same Fatboy Slim soundtrack. However, this disregard for intellectual property is not even what concerns me most about the video – It is the fundamental issue that several of the statistics presented are flat-out wrong.

One of the major gripes about social media is that its impact is difficult to empirically measure. This presentation does nothing to help dispel that criticism – in fact, it makes it worse by presenting some statistics that can only be characterized as unsubstantiated hype. While I can not fault the video’s obvious intent to promote social media as a revolution, the fact checking was abysmal.

For example, at 1:05 the statistic “80% of companies are using LinkedIn as their primary tool to find employees” is presented. Wrong. The source information was from a survey that revealed: 68% of respondents (or their companies) used social networks or social media to support recruitment efforts. 13% planned to start using social networks or media within a year. Of the 81% who responded affirmatively to the social network question, 95% used LinkedIn. At most, 64.6% of the responding companies would have been using LinkedIn in some capacity. There was also no indication that LinkedIn was used as “their primary” tool for recruitment. The Jobvite survey was conducted online, based on a sample of 438 respondents to invitations from the Jobvite web site and e-mails sent to HR professionals. The survey methodology and sample would seem to skew results heavily toward individuals predisposed to using online social networks, especially since Jobvite web site claims it is “The only recruitment platform tied into social networks…”

At 1:28, the statement is made that “80% of Twitter usage is on mobile devices.” Not even close. The statement was probably based on the fact that only 20% of Twitter users actually use the Twitter website due to all the 3rd party applications (TweetDeck, Twitterfeed, etc.) running on desktops and notebooks in addition to mobile clients.

Similarly, the statement that Amazon’s Kindle e-book sales are tracking at “35% of book sales on Amazon” as stated at the 3:18 mark. This is an unfathomable misrepresentation by omission. The original 35% figure was limited to titles where a Kindle version of the e-book was available. Further, when Jeff Bezos originally presented the slide, he caught some flack because the 35% was compared to the base of print sales for the book, not the title’s total sales – a more accurate and meaningful statement would be “Kindle sales are tracking at 26% of total sales for the title when a Kindle version of the book is available.” That’s still an amazingly high figure, but publishing the fictional “35% of Amazon book sales” factoid makes one question the legitimacy of the other stats getting tossed onto the screen.

Let’s make it clear, there are many factual statistics included in the presentation. Facebook has added over 100 million active users within a year. There is plenty of great news. Inflated numbers do not strengthen the argument, they weaken it – judge for yourself.

This video accidentally highlights the underlying challenges facing social media and contrasts them against the value provided by quality research and journalistic standards – the frequent absence of an editing process and the lack of citations for source material. So it becomes even more startling that the Socialnomics blog tried to substantiate its video content by blogging to cite its sources. This would normally be an excellent idea to silence the critics. It looks very professional and convincing until one starts to read the actual citations.

What amazes me is that the blog post “reworks” some of the facts presented in the video and then cites the source for the misstatement. For example, in the video, the aforementioned Linked in example read “80% of companies are using LinkedIn as their primary tool to find employees”. This is altered in the blog post to read “% of companies using LinkedIn as a primary tool to find employees….80%”. That is a considerably softer statement, even though it is still nowhere close to accurate. Even worse, the citation references the link, but goes on to state “80% will use social networks in their assessment. 95% will use LinkedIn in their assessment. When we revise the Video needs to be updated changing ‘their’ to ‘a’ primary tool need to see if we bump 80% to 95%” (bold type indicates my emphasis.) Based on the actual survey results, Socialnomic could not reasonably bump the figure to anything higher than 77%, but only IF they also strike the word “primary” from the sentence.

This certainly gives one the impression that the inaccuracies did not stem from simple errors, but that the data is being purposefully manipulated.

Hilariously, the blog shows the 80% mobile Twitter usage item from “Source: Attempting to relocate.” I’m not even sure what that means… Out of the 37 “facts” presented by the video, two offer the “Source: Attempting to relocate” citation and another four are categorized as “Opinion.” One point had no citation (it was an opinion as well.) My calculations indicate that at least 18.9% of the content was knowingly not based on substantiated facts.

One final example (cited as a fact in the blog) is the Kindle statistic. The citation is for a Silicon Alley Insider blog, but the factoid actually misquotes the blog. Incidentally, the blog, in turn, had misinterpreted an ambiguous statement by Jeff Bezos when announcing the launch of the Kindle DX. Jeff states Kindle sales are 35% of the “books” – later clarified as the number of printed books sold. This is a good example how social media can feed a viral “mob think” mentality based on inaccurate information. This is not a social media benefit; if anything, it could serve as an Achilles heel to thwart the long term success of social media.

Simply put, Socialnomics’ fact checking was sloppy. But, who really cares because the tune is catchy and the video is well produced? Or that the originators of this video format and soundtrack were not acknowledged? In social media, packaging sometimes trumps truth. I would have preferred it if Socialnomics had used the same packaging to relay accurate information and then referenced their creative muse. Such transparency would not dilute the message and could help to validate the value of social media. Instead, we have accurate statistics mixed in with a bunch of hyperbole that inadvertently undermines the credibility of both the presentation and social media. The video is a perfect example of social media at its worst.

The title of the Socialnomics blog post was “Statistics Show Social Media Is Bigger Than You Think.” It could have more accurately read “Statistics Show Socialnomics is Bigger than Reality.” So please vote – based on this information, is the team at Socialnomics:

    a) Sloppy
    b) Stupid
    c) Evil
    d) All of the above
    d) None of the above – social media is new & complex, so it is impossible to measure its impact

I could not tell you which answer would be the worst, but I will work up the statistical analysis and present the findings as soon as I can find a snappy tune (perhaps Daft Punk’s Technologic might work…)

Incidentally, I do find it deliciously ironic that in this renaissance age of social media, the viral nature of the medium itself has now caused a video factoid barrage featuring a Faboy Slim “Right Here, Right Now” soundtrack to become a cliche… Given the nature of several Socialnomics statistics, the tune could well have been “Never Here, Not Now.”

About Robert Cole

Robert Cole is the founder of RockCheetah, a hotel marketing strategy and travel technology consulting practice. He also authors the Views from a Corner Suite Blog and publishes the Travel Quote of the Day. Robert speaks regularly at major travel industry conferences, authors articles for leading travel industry publications, advises travel-related startups and the equity investment community. He is an evangelist for the global travel industry.