Last Saturday UNC played host to the SMART Conference (Social Media and Related Technologies). During the conference I got to listen to a handful of exceptional speakers/thinkers, among them UNC students, staff, and business professionals. For a full list, check here. Among the subjects on the docket were Twitter, blogging, location-based services (in/out of mobile apps), and using social media in the real world both to find jobs and to enhance professional collaboration, news-gathering, and information-sourcing.
First up was a general information session delivered by Jeffrey Cohen, a master of many social media technologies. He provided a lot of shocking stats concerning the rapid growth of social media, their revenue streams, and the very real impact they played on people and companies (both famous and not). He discussed the little-known origins of some of the major sites and some controversies and successes. Especially popular was an image of an Egyptian protester holding a cardboard sign that read “Thank you Facebook”. It’s becoming clearer and clearer that social media have a large role to play in the construction of modern societies (or in their destruction/reformation as the case may be).
Second was a selective session about location-based services where the South-east regional manager (Kevin Newsome) for YELP spoke for a short time about the rapid growth of YELP and the services they were able to offer to people and businesses. Their product model is all about connecting people with local businesses, and it seems to be working. Mr. Newsome said frankly that the PowerPoint presentation he was using was perhaps a month old, and in that time its figures were outdated by the millions. That kind of growth is truly impressive. Of his major talking points, he discussed the role of trust and authentic reviews in sculpting a good community on the YELP platform. “Trust is our oxygen” was one of his memorable quotes. He fielded dozens of questions, some related to the pervasiveness of the company and others related to reviews, but a prominent question offered this insight: how do you know you can trust reviews? This brought up the concept of astroturfing, a new scheme that many large companies will deploy in order to flood aggregation sites (like YELP) with positive reviews for their own services/products and negative reviews for their opponents. Mr. Newsome spent some time discussing their filtration technologies in a basic sense and assured everyone that the reviews were carefully monitored. In my personal opinion, it seems interesting that these matters even warrant so much discussion. It is probably proof that there is a lot of work to be done in this area and brings to light the issue that it is very difficult to judge the value of online content, especially as it relates to social media and the dissemination of information.
The last half of the conference dealt with the future of social media and part of it was focused intensely on Twitter. Students in attendance were told to look at ‘outcomes’, not just ‘events’, in technology and media progress. By doing this we would be shielded from the information-media’s voracious appetite for needless novelty. We were told to search for good ideas regardless of their source and to judge all information with an erudite skeptic’s eye. More importantly, though, the panel of experts talked (and argued) about the power and span of social media, especially Facebook. Speaking to their pervasiveness, many wondered just how effective their business models could remain in the present climate. They talked of necessary change and constant adaptation to shifting models that were almost impossible to predict. Professionally, this meant that simple production of content was much less useful than smart aggregation of content. That is one key point that stuck with me. There are hundreds of thousands, even millions of people who are experts in their fields and produce professional information and content every single day that they work. There are many fewer people who can expertly sift through that information and choose the best of the best. The panel said they loved hiring people who could aggregate and sift, not just produce. This references the fluid nature of information and I think it’ just skimming the tip of the iceberg as far as the potential of social media is concerned.
Quite literally, anyone can learn almost anything almost instantly. That is the power of social media and digital aggregation of content. Choosing what to get and how to get it are very important. Those people and companies whose model practices involve getting just the right information to and from the right people are going to be the ones that survive. In a world with increasingly mobility and super-powerful computers, people will still be absolutely vital. We are now, and will be for some time, the filters for all of our digital creations. That role is perhaps more important than what produces that content in the first place. After all, we can all produce so much of it already.
In the digital hyper-modern realm of far-away tomorrows that’s what matters. That’s what’s smart.