Engagement: A Philosophical Problem in the Age of Social Media

First, let me say this. My enthusiasm for writing about tech waned a bit when a piece of garbage killed two innocent people and made me watch it, unwittingly, live on Twitter. So I stopped posting.

Maybe I’m back. Maybe I’m not.

I’ve been thinking, though. 

We have a problem with “engagement,” in an epistemological sense.

The only metrics we have to measure this ephemeral concept in the face of the imponderable information glut known as the Internet are clicks and page views. But those don’t give any insight into the process of constructing meaning, the incorporation of information and platforms into our daily lives. They are mindless, meaningless measurements. The fascination with big data seems willfully oblivious to the fact that “data” fails to capture the ultimate fact that real people are actually living their lives inside social media.

This is not trivial. How then can we come at the issue of measuring meaningful engagement in such a way as to render actionable insight?

Consider this example. Let’s say I have 400 followers on Twitter. 20 of them are close friends with whom I share a history of inside jokes, one of which involves a reference to Lumburg from the movie “Office Space.” I post a meme to Twitter with Lumburg saying, “That would be great.” Only those 20 close friends would get the reference is specifically about my boss.

With me so far?

Ok, that leaves 380 other followers who might potentially see the tweet. Of those, many are likely to have seen the movie, and they might enjoy the meme on its own humorous terms; they know the movie and think it is funny. The remaining followers who haven’t seen the movie don’t get anything of value from the tweet: they don’t know the inside joke, nor the broader funny reference to the movie.

Now let’s look at the numbers. After I post the tweet with the meme, I check the “engagement” numbers and see that the post has been viewed 10 times after an hour.

What impact have I had? What meaning have I imparted?

It is possible that all 10 views were the intended audience, my close friends, and they all laughed and had a gay ol’ time. On the other hand, it is entirely possible that those 10 views were people who hadn’t even seen the movie and were left scratching their heads for two seconds before moving on to the next confusing string of 140 characters.

The problem is the undifferentiated nature of these engagements.

In turn, this leads to a back door discussion of content creation, which, on Twitter, often takes the form of a reply tweet. If one of my friends replies to my tweet and says, “You killed it, bro! Grandin Republic, you are the funniest human being I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing,” well then, I can fairly accurately gauge the impact of my post. Retweets are less helpful, and a Like even less so, but they nevertheless imbue the engagement with some modicum of value in the form of feedback; I know the tweet was more than merely seen, I know it was appreciated (somehow…but how, exactly) and by whom.

But again, that is a sidebar. There is obvious content in a conversation. Yet so little of the social media chatter announces itself in such a helpful way means that such an example is not instructive.

No, the issue is not learning when you’ve properly engaged your audience, but rather if you even have at all.

This is the nature of all communication, and it’s corollary, miscommunication. Yet social media clouds the issue, obfuscating the nature of understanding with cloak of “engagement.” WE CAN ALLOW OURSELVES TO BELIEVE WE ARE CONNECTING EVEN WHEN WE ARE NOT.

This is true for interpersonal communication, but my point here is that it is also true for our local start-up community. The risk of self-delusion is high.

And so let’s talk about self-delusion in our next installment, shall we? I’m tired of typing on my dang phone (pardon any typos), plus it is 4:20, so…you know that means…

Almost time for Xpo Wednesday, y’all.

1 Comment

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One response to “Engagement: A Philosophical Problem in the Age of Social Media

  1. i definitely see what you mean. most interactions on social media — likes, retweets and shares — are very ambiguous. even when someone replies with a well thought out comment, their meaning and intention isn’t conveyed as accurately as it would had they spoke to you IRL.

    i’m hoping that technology becomes more human over the next few years, as VR/AR start taking off. they will provide a social medium that conveys vastly more information when you interact with someone. at least, i hope so.


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