Social Impact on Big Data

Social Impact on Big Data

By Phillip Topham

Social Marketers have it wrong. They have only just begun to uncover what “social” really means. It is not about you; it is about us.

It’s NOT all about “You” the ant:

It’s hard to believe but just three years ago, social exploded across the big screen.  In October 2010 “The Social Network” movie brought the Facebook story front and center. Today the social phenomena is everywhere – social websites, social coupons, social encyclopedias, etc…

Initially companies were slow to embrace this new media. But now marketers know Internet customers are traceable. Their buying behaviors can be tracked and analyzed. Predictive models can increase the odds a person will buy. Amazon’s purchasing suggestion, “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought,” is held up as a gold standard for showing how big data can be used to drive sales.

Marketers are focusing on you. They are focusing on individuals. Their approach is akin to studying an ant colony. By watching a single ant, they quickly learn that to get the ant to consume more, they only need to put the sugar directly in front of the ant. The stupid ant doesn’t need to do anything but trip over the food and carry it back to the nest.  That perfect ad placement and suggested item purchase are focused on the individual.

The conversion Pyramid

People are not ants, but it sure feels that way. Marketers place “you” at the center of the world, devising ways to understand “your” behavior and how to get “you” to buy more.

It’s all about “Us” the colony:

Let’s expand on this ant analogy. Consider that if you studied a single ant. You watched it walk to and from the nest foraging for food. You would end up with a very good understanding of an ant. You could learn it follows a pheromone trail left by other ants.  You’d discover that it sometimes gathers water and other times it gathers food.

But for all the time you spent studying the single ant you’d never understand the entire colony. You’d never understand how millions of ants live and work.   With crowd sourcing the Internet is shifting from individuals to groups, but by in large it’s about getting you the ant to buy more.

The “Connected” Us:

People are not ants.  With ants you can simply dig up the colony to see how all the tunnels connect.  With people you cannot dig up the city. Instead as we add devices and sensors to nearly everything we create and interact with we are creating a virtual colony that we can dig up using big data techniques.



Sociologists have long been using algorithms to study virtual colonies.  Nickolas Christakis and James Fowler, in their book “Connected: The Surprising Power of Social Networks” share their ground breaking work

Imagine your wife, Mary had a lunch meeting with Pat, Mary’s close and dear friend.  Pat is distraught. Pat’s friend, Susan’s husband, is dying of cancer and has less than a year to live. As your wife Mary describes to you her fears and concerns about cancer; you empathize. You are now a little bit more worried yourself, because someone you and your wife never met is dying of cancer.

Wow! My friends’ friend’s friend (three degrees away) can impact my life! We are connected.

Social Big Data:

Social Big Data

Imagine we could intervene before and anticipate the spread of sadness, or disease, or poverty.  Imagine we could track the rise and fall of cities; and predict what factors would ensure colony survival and success.



Today those are not possible. Many cities have tried to re-create Silicon Valley’s startup innovation ecosystem but failed.

But the trends are clear; it will be possible to re-shape our world. BIG DATA is getting BIGGER and BETTER.  Our SOCIAL awareness is following the same trajectory sociologists followed. We are shifting from understanding INDIVIDUALS to GROUPS to CITIES and beyond. We are shifting from counting things and individual behaviors to understanding connections across large groups.

Someday we will truly understand social and manage our organizations, cities and collaborations, like an artist creating with unbounded potential.

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