May 12, 2011
Q&A with Marc A. Smith, sociologist and chief social scientist at Connected Action Consulting Group
While researching our May report on FOMO, we interviewed sociologist Marc A. Smith, who specializes in the social organization of online communities and computer-mediated interaction. He founded and managed the Community Technologies Group at Microsoft Research and led the development of social media reporting and analysis tools for Telligent Systems. Now Smith leads the Connected Action Consulting Group in Silicon Valley, which analyzes social media usage using social science methods. He’s also a co-founder of the Social Media Research Foundation—dedicated to open tools, open data and open scholarship related to social media—and contributes to its NodeXL project, which adds social network analysis features to the Excel spreadsheet.
In addition to talking about his work as a sociologist, we discussed the link between FOMO and relative deprivation and why FOMO impacts younger people the most.
Fears of missing out have been around for some time, wouldn’t you say? How does the FOMO of today differ from the FOMO of yesteryear?
Maybe there’s a growing sense of the reality that those who used to dine behind thick stone walls and had caviar now do so, Tweet about it and can be seen by those sitting down to dinner at Chipotle. So [there is] the chance for consumption to happen in public. Obviously conspicuous consumption has been a feature of wealth and class in the United States for a little while—but now they’re doing it and we hear about it at the resolution of one Tweet and as a resolution of, you know, each shoe dropping, each moment of their “Oh, I saw so and so,” “Oh, I just had the best this” or “Oh, the lines at Davos are so long, I’m so complaining.”
That kind of stuff gets annoying because you’re learning it drip by drip by drip. It used to be that it would be a Rolling Stone article six, seven, eight weeks later that said, “Oh, well, you wouldn’t believe… .”.
Things move faster, and there’s more even more transparency for wealthy people engaged in consumption.
And it’s all in real time.
And it’s in real time. And it’s also, I would argue, in some ways commingled with otherwise very intimate communications. So the Tweet from Starlet 23 is right next to [a message] from mom, your boss and your significant other.
All kinds of worlds completely blurred; what do you make of that?
I think it’s a real problem for our society because it’s as if we moved into an apartment complex designed by computer scientists, and these computer scientists got degrees without ever taking a single class in the social sciences.
And so think about the core aspiration of Mr. [Mark] Zuckerberg’s product, which is that everyone will share everything with everybody. And contrast this with the core concepts in sociology related to roles and role strain. Role is a way you behave typically toward some other person. So roles only happen in relationships. Roles are not always compatible with one another, and there’s a notion of role strain. So imagine you’re the undergraduate freshman, you’ve just moved into the dorm, and your goal is to present yourself to your floor mates as a really cool person. And mom has arrived. And your goal now is to be the daughter or the son who is worth the $24,000 a year it’s costing to keep you there. It’s hard to be both people at the same time. The Internet assures that you must be all people to all people at all times.
Who do you believe FOMO most affects?
FOMO affects all people at all ages who have any sense of insecurity—all of us—and are exposed to information that brings on relative deprivation.
In our survey we found that young people suffer from FOMO the most. Why do you think this is?
Note that younger people are more engaged in identity formation than older people. They may be more open to the experience of FOMO because they are engaged in relative deprivation. Younger people have fewer resources to consume identity-forming products and experiences while simultaneously having the most time and desire for them.
How would you explain your NodeXL tool?
NodeXL is based on the idea that graphs matter and that social media graphs matter a great deal, which is to say that the collections of people that form online and the way they’re connected to each other, that’s important now. So we’re in a position to say, “Looking at the shape of the crowd in social media is as important as, let’s say, those pictures that they always take when a big crowd gathers at the Lincoln Memorial.” So this crowd theme is important.
NodeXL says those graphs are going to matter and you really shouldn’t have to be a programmer or software developer, an engineer or a mathematician to be able to do the basic things with a graph. And so for free in open code you can download NodeXL, run it on any machine with a recent copy of Windows and Office, and it will connect you to Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and email and the World Wide Web and wikis and blogs and other data structures that are sources of graphs, sources of networks.
What defines a crowd in social media, and what is the shape of a crowd—what does it look like?
A social media crowd is a population defined by a shared use of a term, service or repository. These crowds have shapes defined by the pattern of interconnections among the people in the population. Connections form, for example, when people link, like, rate, review, reply, friend, follow, contact, comment, connect, tag, forward or edit social media content and other users. These shapes vary from small, scattered, disconnected groups to dense, large hierarchies.
Many populations have several key people who occupy strategic locations in the network. These specially positioned people are often thought of as influencers—people with disproportionate ability to shape the activity of others.
So considering that there is a center and there’s a periphery to these crowds in social media, what position would you assign someone experiencing FOMO? Are they completely on the periphery?
I suspect the FOMO victim is someone near enough to the center of the graph to be aware of the hierarchy in the population—they are familiar with the names of the “big” people—but not close enough to be a member of the inner circle. Completely peripheral people lack enough awareness of the pecking order to be impressed and jealous of the people at the center. And so it’s only the people who are relatively connected enough to know who’s important to be able to care enough that somebody important is saying something.
What kind of social media ties within these crowds are most likely to result in FOMO?
Populations with larger socioeconomic status diversity—for example, groups that attract wealthy jetsetters or high-end hobbyists along with less affluent people with aspirations to engage in the target lifestyle.
Do you believe FOMO thwarts people from engaging in the here and now?
FOMO is the opposite of “Be here now” and can be a pathological condition. I mean, if you’d always rather be somewhere that you’re not, you’re never where you want to be.
What kind of marketing/advertising opportunities does FOMO present?
Marketing that leverages people’s insecurities is the core of most effective calls to action. Consumption is presented as a solution to FOMO: “Buy this product and avoid FOMO” is the value proposition of many offers.
How do you think brands can utilize NodeXL? What would be your elevator pitch to brands that might be interested in using it?
Find out who occupies key locations by creating these maps, engage them, measure your impact.
You map the crowd, find influencers, engage them, measure your engagement. So I think that networks allow you to measure things like the density of the network without regard to the size of the network. In other words, you could say that the goal for a small product with hardcore users is to keep that core dense because it’s not likely to be a broadly appealing product, versus broadly appealing products where [the goal is] bringing in a lot of what I call innocent bystanders.
What’s on your own things to watch list?
Social media tools that give individuals the tools to collect, protect and understand their social media activity.
Photo credit: Marc A. Smith