Gerald Kane: Measuring social media as a complex adaptive system — Live from the Brands-Only Summit

Coverage of this session by Peter Wiley of

2:45 —'s Don Vanderslice introduces Boston College and MIT-Sloan Management Review's Gerald Kane.

2:46 — Gerald: I have two roles, the geeky academic side, and the business-savvy side. I got started in social media after Facebook unveiled newsfeed.

2:47 — Gerald: The opportunity of measurement is what got me interested in social media. We can track everything. The opportunities for a researcher are amazing.

2:48 — Gerald: Measurement matters for companies. As companies get more mature, they can measure more (and measure differently). As companies get larger, they tend to measure based on a wide range of approaches.

2:49 — Gerald: The problem with social is complexity. We are working with complex adaptive systems, and these are nonlinear, they have co-evolution, they're self-organized, and exhibit emergent dynamics.

2:50 — Gerald: If we take averages of all the measured points, we may see no or little change.

2:51 — Gerald: I started my research with Wikipedia, one of the grandaddies of online social spaces. We can learn a lot about measurement by looking at Wikipedia's historical examples (it's been around for 15 years).

2:52 — Gerald: There is a “just right” effect. More information might be better, but only to a certain point. Looking at page ranks in Wikipedia, moderate user turnover of an article was the best for its page rank over time.

2:57 — Gerald: We need to avoid oversimplifying social media communities. We want to communicate it simply, but we don't want to get it wrong.

2:58 — Gerald: About co-evolution: Changes in one part of a community or platform, can really have a big effect in another part. In studying Wikipedia, we found that information quality is “contagious” between articles. Good quality created in one article would continue to spread to more articles, like bees pollinating a field of flowers.

2:59 — Gerald: Wikipedia is not a discrete system, it's an organic ecosystem of knowledge. We need to treat social as an ecosystem rather than a cut-and-dry system.

3:00 — Gerald: On emergence: can we have order evolve without formal management involvement? In Wikipedia, we studied the article on Autism, which is one of the highest quality in all of Wikipedia. A group of managers evolved over time and came to take control of the page.

3:02 — Gerald: On dynamics (aka feedback loops). Often time, two characteristics can mutually reinforce one another. Can more viewers, create more contributors, and create more viewers? We found that yes, this feedback dynamic is taking place in Wikipedia.

3:03 — Gerald: On implications for organizations: a combination of qualitative and quantitative data is powerful. Make sure brand ambassadors have internal practice before unleashing their powers externally. Look for leadership examples outside business (e.g. military, non-profits).

Q & A

Q: On the paradox between leading and following: it seems like community managers could get in the way of growth, so how do we balance that?

A: Managers need to keep the vision in front of users so that they know where they're going. Sometimes users need to be kicked out, but for the most part, it's about keeping the overall vision at the forefront of everyone's minds.

Q: Is it better to try and manage an external community or bring a community into our own in-house platforms?

A: The bottom line: If you want customer communities, go where they are. You must acknowledge that being on social carries with it a little risk. The benefits usually far outstrip the risks. As long as you're aware of the risks, it's best to go out into the larger communities. It can create some uncomfortable situations, but they have been outweighed by the benefits.

Q: How do you make sure that the culture that you're trying to bring to social doesn't get in the way of your actual purpose for being there? E.g. a lot of people try to engage with us because our social managers are fun. We have people calling us asking us to order them pizza. Occasionally the fun culture gets in the way of the work.

A: Make sure you have that vision of what the community is about. Your community leaders need to know and practice that first and foremost.

Q: Do you see agility as more becoming apart of the culture or apart of the execution to get people involved in a community of social engagement?

A: It's important to have a balance between operations going quickly and a culture that is agile. The fusion of the two is the challenge and the reward, and that is where business is going. Agility is a necessity, not a source of competitive advantage.