The Ambient Nature of Facebook

It must be something in the water. Every time I encounter ‘business’ writing that makes sense  I invariably discover the writer is a Brit. Since I’m by no stretch an Anglophile that makes it all the more puzzling. So  something else must be happening. More likely than not whatever’s at hand serves  as a sane middle ground between the hyperkinetic American style and the  ramblings of Bernard Henri-Lévy disciples that seem to thrive on the Continent.

That brings me to my latest find, a post by Bryan Urbick, founder of Consumer Knowledge Centre, a London-based market research firm, over on one of the blogs at Quirk’s Marketing Research Review. Urbick takes as his subject Facebook and what he calls the ‘F’ factor, which he defines as “how friends, fans and followers impact what brands are about.” I’m not going to recap his post here but I want to use it as a jumping off point and may refer back to it.

My friend, the singer-songwriter Marc Fare, has taken to calling Facebook relationships ‘ambient friendships.’ He might be having an Eno moment. Or he just might be on to something. Look up ambient in the dictionary (okay, online allowed) and it says encompassing. For me a better connotation is enveloping, at least when I think of temperature or sound, and that’s certainly true of channels that can be accessed from an ever-present smartphone.

So Facebook, and therefore our friends, might be with us all the time like air and sound. And that might suggest friendship is as  vaporous as the ether and the noise it conveys. There’s certainly a vaporous air to Eno’s ambient music and there’s certainly something missing from the not terribly deep connections facilitated by Facebook.

“Real friendships,” says Urbick, “require depth, a personal understanding of each other’s needs and the desire to continue the relationship.” He goes on to suggest that ‘acquaintance’ might better describe many Facebook relationships. I can see that, especially for people like one 20-year old of my acquaintance who has 953 friends in her network.

I’m unsure what it means if as marketers we think we gain something by an endorsement–especially one as weak as a like–from the 953rd friend in someone’s network . We can come back to the maths of social networks at a later date but commonsense says racking up big numbers is meaningless. Humans evolved in small groups and bands. Modern social units confuse the issue. Think (or read) about families and bands and tribes and clans. That 953 looks mighty large compared to those traditional human groupings.

Urbick, I think, more or less winds up in the same place by a slightly different route. He notes that people may already have stronger relationships with brands or products than they do with others in their online social networks. On a gut level that makes sense to me; more formally stated, the proposition has face validity.

As a response marketer my concerns are somewhat different from those of a pure brand marketer (although I’m not sure any of us benefits from too much purity).  Because I believe that media are just a tool that helps people create their social reality I don’t  know where Facebook will ultimately end up. Right now some marketers seem to think that there’s  value in that 953rd endorsement. The practical person in me wants to see how close we can get to making 953 sales.

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