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HAHM Yukun

Mishap and Pain in Social Networking Services

HAHM Yukun

June 13, 2011

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Twitter has 3.6 million subscribers in Korea and Facebook users in the world have recently topped 600 million. Social networking services (SNS) obviously is fast becoming part of daily life, having political, social and economic impact because of the real-time delivery of information. But companies that regard SNS merely as a tool for word-of-mouth marketing and other operations risk overlooking the downsides, which range from embarrassment to real damage to the company. A handful of considerations need to be in constant check.

First, SNS communications carries usage concerns inside the workplace. For example, communicating with colleagues through Facebook can blur the separation of formal and informal contact. But most importantly, what is communicated is a vital matter. Thus, we see external relations and legal departments worry that employees' online chatter may step into confidential information. These concerns are beside the question of whether SNS should even be in the workplace. Nucleus Research, global provider of research and advisory services, calls social networking is social NOTworking and according to a local survey, the average time spent on social networking sites in Korea is 1.56 hours per user per day.

Some companies don't mind SNS and, in fact, use it to bring coworkers closer. But they can be lulled into thinking that SNS also can be primary vehicle to communicate with customers. In that case, profiting from their external SNS can be difficult, especially if customers are not accustomed to it. SNS is fleeting contact whereas solid customer relations are formed around long-term communications and conversations. As US TV and radio host Larry King said in his recent visit to Korea, "Despite all the technology, and all the what's the figure's going to bring, we are human beings, connecting one-on-one."

Second, companies may wrongly assume that SNS facilitates two-way communication. But SNS is inherently passive: the sender delivers what they chose to say and the recipient gets the information. In Internet culture, there is a principle of "90-9-1." It purports to the notion that that more people will lurk in a virtual community than will participate. It means 90% of users are the "audience," who tend to read or observe, but don't actively contribute; 9% of users are "editors," sometimes modifying content or adding to an existing thread, but rarely create content from scratch; 1% of users are "creators," driving large amounts of the social group's activity. In 2011, Yahoo Research and a Professor Shaomei Wu at Cornell University in the US analyzed 260 million tweets, and found that half of all tweets consumed came from only 0.05% of Twitter users.

Third, there is a tendency to think that the information communicated will be understood. However, what appears in SNS may be misconstrued as much as in any other form of communication. For example, a famous foreign apparel maker launched a new product about the time of the populist uprising in Egypt. When the company's tweet linked to link the two events, it a wrath of anger ensued on the Internet. Because SNS is so easily shared, a company has no real control over its targeted audience. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg explains, the conventional concept of privacy is no longer a social norm.

Fourth, there is tendency that social networking service can raise an individual or company's image. Of course, SNS has its merits in its ability to raise reputations. Tom Dickson, founder of US blender maker Blendtec, made a series of promotional videos for the Internet called "Will It Blend?" The premise was to put unlikely things like an iPhone into a blender and to watch the destruction. Netizens put the videos on YouTube and Dickson's popularity exploded.

But it must be remembered that SNS can also be just as effective in casting a company or an individual in a negative spotlight. BP, after its oil drilling platform explosion and subsequent massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico advertised its cleanup effort through the traditional mass media and Twitter. However, people perceived a lack of urgency in containing the spill and sympathy for those affected. Even a fake Twitter account poking fun at the company's oil spill public relations effort has gained popularity online. In a world where everyone is connected, people tend to be more attracted to bad news rather than good news.

In social networking, one person posting negative comments can have more power than 1,000 fans. Moreover, companies are powerless in controlling the spread of rumors and misinformation because SNS sites are so easily accessed. Once negative statements go viral, effective communication becomes paramount in damage control. Thus, a mere understanding of technologies surrounding SNS is insufficient. Rather than thinking about what to do with social networking sites, what the customers really need should be taken into consideration. Whether the communication has succeeded will be judged by the quality of information.

The writer is visiting research fellow at Samsung Economic Research Institute.

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