Universal Truth


What’s the biggest social network in the world? Careful, it’s a trick question.

I started asking it about three years ago when I learned the answer from Tynt, a start-up that had stumbled upon a method for tracking what content is so important to us that we share it with others or keep it for ourselves. By tracking what we physically copy and paste from one digital medium to another -- text, images, video, links, various forms of code -- Tynt discovered that Facebook is not the social network. In fact, Facebook, Google+, Twitter and every other social networking site or app combined don’t even come close to the No. 1 way we share stuff: email is, by a margin of more than two-to-one.

That statistic -- that email represents more than 70% of all digital social interactions -- surprises even some of the most sophisticated pros in the media business. But it shouldn’t, because what Tynt actually discovered wasn’t just a method for tracking what people copy and paste. It discovered another way of looking at the media universe. And what it found was that just like the physical universe, most of it is made up of stuff we cannot see or hear, and know very little about. And just as astrophysicists use the term “dark matter” to describe that concept in the physical universe, people are beginning to use the term “dark social” to describe it in the social media universe.

That, more than anything else, explains to me why Facebook acquired WhatsApp for $19 billion last week, and it is the reason I believe you are going to see a race by Facebook and others to increase their share of dark social. Because the only way to really be the social network is to control all the networks people use to interact with each other.

Media physicists have been trying to put dimensions on the media universe as long as people have been measuring media. In fact, defining what the universe is is a crucial component to assigning value -- or at the very least, relative share -- in any media universe. Without accurate estimates for the size of the “television universe,” Nielsen’s ratings wouldn’t mean anything. And it is the reason why you sometimes see tussles when Nielsen changes the way it defines TV’s universe. That’s what’s going on right now, as it begins to integrate broadband-only households -- homes that are connected to the Internet, but do not receive a conventional TV signal -- into its TV ratings sample. Because even tiny changes in the size of the TV universe can influence billions of dollars in advertising spending.

That’s one of the reasons why the National Association of Broadcasters recently called on Nielsen to delay the integration of broadband-only households into its local TV ratings samples, and it is the reason Nielsen bowed to the pressure of its biggest local ratings customers. Not because incorporating broadband-only homes isn’t the right thing to do -- it is, and Nielsen is continuing to integrate them in its national ratings sample -- but because it could have such a significant effect on the ratings local TV stations use as the basis of doing business with advertisers and agencies.

The good thing about defining a media universe is it enables the marketplace to establish value for everything included in it. The bad news is that it ignores the value of everything outside of it. And while many people may not realize it, that actually occurs in the ad industry’s biggest marketplace today -- television. As sophisticated as Nielsen’s ratings may be, they also have their dark side. Let’s call it “dark television.” Something like 15% to 20% of all TV viewing goes to sources of programming -- so-called “long-tail” digital tier networks -- that Nielsen doesn’t even measure. It is one of the reasons why a cottage industry has emerged within the TV ratings business to turn other sources of data -- data from digital set-top devices, etc. -- into new forms of TV measurement, to account for things that aren’t currently being measured by Nielsen. To get a better picture of the size, shape and weight of the actual TV universe.

The same thing is going on with almost every other part of the media universe, whether we think of it that way or not. And it is the definitions and meaning we place on what we include -- and perhaps most importantly, what we exclude -- that define it. It is, if you’ll pardon the expression, what gives us universal truth.

I first started thinking this way about 20 years ago, when I was covering the O.J. Simpson murder trial for Advertising Age. Don’t ask me why I had that beat at a trade publication focused on advertising and media-buying, but one day a guy named Mark Weiner called me up and asked me if I wanted to know what the media value of the Sony monitors in Judge Ito’s courtroom were worth. I said, “Sure, but how would you know that?”

“That’s what we do,” said Weiner, who was then CEO of Medialink Public Relations Research and is now CEO of Prime Research Americas. He then began explaining to me a side of the media universe that had been completely dark to me during more than a decade of covering media -- PR measurement. It wasn’t as sophisticated as many of the tools being used by Madison Avenue to account for media and advertising spending, but it used a lot of data science and business logic that I was completely unaware of, as were many of the ad industry people I was writing for.

Over the next few years, Weiner and I began collaborating on various ways of putting dimensions around the PR universe to give it meaning to people who worked in the advertising universe, and we even developed something that was a precursor for modern-day social media analytics: a way of using signals gleaned from PR measurement -- what people were writing about and saying in news media outlets -- as a signal of intent in the ad industry’s measured media universe. It was interesting, but aside from columns and stories, we never did anything material with it. But over the past decade, as I’ve watched a gold rush of research and analytics firms attempting to quantify the size, shape and weight of the social media universe, I’ve often felt that the more they pushed to define it, the more they were actually distorting our sense of what it really is, constraining its proportions to what they could actually measure -- or even worse, what they could practically sell.

The worst part of that, if you ask me, is that it has also distorted our perceptions of the role social media is playing in our society, and especially in our business. It has given it way too much importance. Don’t get me wrong -- I’m not saying social media isn’t important. It is very important. It always has been. But you have to truly understand what its universe actually is. And the truth is, I think PR people understand it better than most other communications industry pros do, because they’ve been working at it longer than anyone. They have always understood that the most powerful social medium isn’t social media, news media, or any other form of media. They have understood more than most pros that the most powerful social medium is people. And that the job of any communicator is to tap into that, whether you call it “word of mouth,” “buzz,” “social,” “the zeitgeist,” or anything else. How you do it, is the art and science -- the craft of communications -- but you cannot even begin to be scientific about it if you don’t actually understand the science behind the universe you are looking at.

That’s why I think the PR industry, ironically, leapfrogged the ad industry to become the leaders in the high-growth areas of the craft: social analytics, social activation, content marketing, and yes, even “native.” They simply understand it better, because they have always understood that -- even in this era of ubiquitous social media platforms -- the universal truth is that people are the media universe. And they use different media at different times to influence each other, sometimes even their own voices.

Last universal anecdote, for now, and only because I think it is equally instructive for thinking about the media universe. A few years ago, when Brian Monahan (now head of marketing at Walmart.com, but then head of the IPG Lab) was guest editing MEDIA magazine, he got us an interview with Stefan Weitz, who was director of Microsoft’s Bing search engine. I asked Weitz what I thought was a simple question -- whether, for all intent and purposes, if information wasn’t available via online search, does it exist for most people anymore. “Oh, you mean the ‘dark Web,’” he replied, which was the first time I heard the shady term ever used in a media context.

When I asked Weitz to explain what it was, he said it was all the information that the search gods at Microsoft, Google and others hadn’t yet indexed, and began to describe things like “filing cabinets,” “scrapbooks,” and “libraries.” In response, I quipped, “Oh, you mean all the knowledge of human existence?” He said, “yes.”

It’s the next exchange that’s perhaps most important for understanding the dimensions of the media universe, because I asked him if he knew how much the search engines had actually indexed. Weitz didn’t skip a beat, and matter-of-factly blurted, “7%.”

That number has haunted me ever since -- for so many reasons -- but mainly because the only way to know what the percentage of something is, is to know how big its universe is. And the only way to know how big something is, is to put some constraints around what it is you are trying to measure. And as of October 2011, Weitz was telling me that all the information in the human universe was only about 14 times greater than what the search giants have organized.

A couple of years later, I followed up and interviewed Weitz again, because I was curious how much more of our universe the search engines had indexed. To my surprise, he said the percentage had actually gone down -- that it was now more like “6.8%.” When I asked him why, he said it was because so much new, “unstructured” data had been generated two years later, that search engines were having a difficult time keeping up with it. What was all that new, unstructured data? All the chatter -- posts, tweets, pins, etc. -- that were expanding the social media universe.

And when Facebook announced its acquisition of WhatsApp, my first reaction wasn’t why, or even what impact it would have on Facebook’s business model, share value, or any other practical business matter. It was what a powerful signal it was sending about how Facebook was thinking about the size, weight and dimensions of the social media universe.

So I immediately contacted Eric Wheeler, the CEO of 33Across, which acquired Tynt a couple of years ago, and incorporated it into a new analytics and targeting system -- the “Intent Signal Platform” -- that it unveiled late last week. I asked Wheeler if he knew whether there had been any substantive change in the digital media people use to share content since I first began following Tynt, and whether Tynt had also been tracking things like SMS, WhatsApp and other direct messaging platforms. He said Tynt did have the ability to track copy-and-pasting via text messaging and was going to run the numbers for us, which we will report back on shortly. But his initial impression was that not much had changed since we last reported on the way people share things with each other -- that lighted social media platforms represent only about 30% of such behavior -- and that most of it was coming from dark social: email, text messaging, etc.

On that note, and only because this is MediaPost’s Weekend edition, I’d like to leave you with a thought paraphrasing John Lennon:

Text is flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup. It slithers wildly as it slips away across the media universe.

Jai guru deva om.


(images contained in the graphic above courtesy of NASA and Shutterstock.)

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9 comments about "Universal Truth".
  1. Mike Bloxham from Frank N. Magid Associates , February 23, 2014 at 11:17 a.m.
    Great piece Joe - the extent of the true media universe is defined by human behavior and interaction, not by what we measure and trade. But to extend the analogy I guess there's an obvious argument to be made that the measurable, tradeable particles of the whole media universe represent the breathable, livable atmosphere in which we can thrive commercially - though personally I don't think it holds up as there's plenty of money to be made in email and at least some of the other ares of "dark media"
  2. Tom Cotton from Progatonist LLC , February 23, 2014 at 12:29 p.m.
    Love this analysis, Joe. And it confirms my view that Google's vast lead as the "dark lord" is as ever-expanding as the universe: Gmail ubiquity...G-search dominance...capture of the written (doc-scanning) and physical (mapping/photos) worlds...these are the pillars of the dark world (email, search, reference, directions) and will enable next-gen technological leadership (e.g., driverless cars) in a way no one will be able to touch.
  3. Steve Schildwachter from rVue , February 23, 2014 at 12:31 p.m.
    Joe, this is a fantastic article. No, it's no surprise to me that email is #1. But in an era when we're all swimming in new social media platforms, someone's got to stop and express the obvious truths. You did so with style, as we get a bonus phrase: "Media physicists". Great job.
  4. Daniel Ambrose from ambro.com, corp. , February 23, 2014 at 1:25 p.m.
    Joe, do you ever stop working? Great story! I recall writing a column for your Publishing Insider related to his a couple of years ago when a Wall Street Journal reporter stated that Social would eclipse email. Here is the story: http://www.mediapost.com/publications/article/116411/is-email-strategic-or-dead.html The added twist you have made me understand is that the nature of "social" is also partly private. Hence people whisper at parties. Because the private, whispered, conversation are often the most valuable, the email medium will never be abandoned. And because Metcalf's law says that the value of the network increases by the spare of the nodes on the network, it email with the largest number of nodes will remain the most valuable social network.
  5. Joe Mandese from MediaPost , February 23, 2014 at 2:10 p.m.
    @Dan Ambrose: That was a great column and I should have cited it here, as well. I encourage everyone interested in learning more about the true size and dimensions of the media universe to read it too: http://bit.ly/1lcffCe ... regarding your other question, it's only work if you don't love what you're doing.
  6. Warren Whitlock from http://WarrenWhitlock.com , February 23, 2014 at 2:57 p.m.
    This is the best piece I've ever seen on the motivation behind my 2008 book about Twitter. I saw what would be an opportunity for real time data from our customers. In our research, we started my radio show. One episode on data had a discussion where I heard the line "all of social media together is a fraction of 1 percent of SMS messaging" As we discussed whether text data was being crunched by telcos, email content data, chat and more.. I had an epiphany: MOST of human conversation will never be indexed. What I say to other in the room while watching Superbowl ads, whether there are people in the room, the turning up and down volume and dozing off when there now hope for Denver are data points that are not being collected or even talked about. You can put out the best content, ads that test through the roof and record setting ratings and it's all thrown away if my brother stops by and says "I tried that product, it sucks" Most of the universe is dark matter, but it's all data. I think Zuckerberg gets this. His interviews in "The Facebook Effect" and Kirkpatrick commentary at the end of the book and in interviews that came with the audiobook spelled this out. Zukerberber is not out to build the biggest web site. He's building a social graph and that will dwarf what we see as Facebook.com today.
  7. Dave Morgan from Simulmedia , February 23, 2014 at 3:34 p.m.
    Great piece Joe. Very appropriate and perfect timing to delve into the issues raised by the "ring-fencing" of media's sphere's. The industry needs to realize that these definitions - or fences - are propping up massive amounts of advertising expenditures based on the delivery of "intermediate" metrics - GRP's, Rating Points, Page Views, Likes, Clicks, Shares. If the industry ever shifts to holistic, "ultimate" metrics, like "cost per business objective," a lot of folks will see a lot of their revenue shift away very quickly.
  8. Kilah Rolle from Quebecor , February 25, 2014 at 4:27 p.m.
    Spot-on. I emailed myself a copy.
  9. Michael Draznin from Draznin Consulting , February 25, 2014 at 6:38 p.m.
    Joe - This is one of the most insightful pieces I've read related to our industry - ever. Rereading it, I feel like I've just watched an entirely new element of communications leapfrog to the forefront. This is some great thinking and I hope to see more very soon.