The Sociology of the Internet Consumer (part 2)

Marketers need Sociologists. Actually, marketers should be Sociologists (or Sociologists should be marketers).

When I was getting my Masters in Sociology and Anthropology in the late 1990s, we took on some interesting studies regarding interactions between people in online forums. Online forums were in their infancy, but that was at the time the social networking activity of the day. One of the things that we noticed — long before it became common knowledge — was that when a user made a recommendation in a forum post, that product/cause/website/song/whatever got a lot of attention from the group. Today we know that users have the tendency to trust peer recommendations significantly more than advertisements for the same product. Personally, I think the “Like” button is overrated, but recommendations, in general, are not. We all find ourselves taking a closer look at products that have been recommended to us. We ignore the ads until they coincide with those recommendations. We trust our friends more than ad agencies.Sociology of the Internet

There’s no surprise there. However, keep in mind that Sociologists noticed this trend had economic significance in online circles long before the market did. People act online as they do offline, and Sociologists study people in both worlds. We are all social creatures (most of us, anyway), and we like to share our opinions. Sociologists, as social scientists who study how groups act, react, follow and lead, have tremendous insight as to why trends are happening, their theoretical background, where they may be going.

Sociologists can provide a perspective regarding preferences by gender, cross-cultural marketing, ageism in advertising, and even the economics of social networking. Studies have been conducted on many of these topics, and marketers tend to avoid reading them. Sociologists love them (most of us, anyway). Having a Sociologist examine marketing trends is something that has not been common practice among companies, but it really should be.

I will be the first to admit that academic studies can often be outdated when it comes to trends in technology. It takes a long time to complete these studies and by the time they are published, sometimes that technology has moved on (see studies on MySpace and Friendster). But if the study was of any value to begin with, it will point to human behaviour, and much of our behaviour hasn’t changed for thousands of years. And what has changed, can be understood and translated into economic value.

Do not misunderstand what I am saying here. Marketers read studies as well. They conduct them, albeit in a very different manner, stressing quantitative surveys over qualitative observation (that is just too time-consuming). However, their perspective is incomplete without the assistance of other disciplines (arguably, Psychology is no less important). So in a perfect world, the Sociologist will analyze the social trends, while the economist/marketer provides the economic and purchasing trend. Together your chance of increasing sales is greater.

As we build websites, a marketing tool in itself, we try to understand the users’ (as a group) behaviour and how our websites will influence the masses, because we want your product/cause/website/song/whatever to be recommended by as many people as possible. To do that, you need to understand people. And Sociologists can help.

The Sociology of the Internet Consumer (part 1)

For those of you who followed the SOPA / PIPA saga, know that, at least for now, the Internet has defeated the Congressional Hollywood lobbyists and the “public servants” they have in their deep pockets. It’s a good thing and we should all be proud. As a Sociologist I am well aware of the flaws of that statement, but it serves as a good introduction to what I really want to discuss, and that is the Internet Consumer — both the consumer of what the Internet has to offer, and the traditional consumer who basically uses the tools of the Internet to consume.


I need to start by discussing a modern creature that you, an Internet consumer (and I know your are by the fact that you are reading this), may not be aware exists. That creature is the Internetphobe*. The Internetphobe has developed over time, at first not using the then-new technology at all. Today, there are several kinds of Internetphobes, the most common, the one afraid to purchase anything over the net. The main reason for this fear is identity theft — granted legitimate angst, but in reality much less dangerous than giving your credit card to the waiter and not watching him actually swipe and return the card.

Do you remember the first time you saw someone at the supermarket talking on a cell with a significant other about what cereal to buy? I remember laughing and then calling someone to tell them about it. I also thought it was a great idea. Most of us have lost touch with the novelty of seeing someone do something exciting with phone technology. (How did we ever actually meet each other in public?) Not the technophobe/Internetphobe. They don’t miss a beat. And they are not going to be your target audience for your new online store … at least not yet.

I mention these people because they are a dying group that you need to understand when planning your site. You need to make sure that you are not like that (anymore). In order to create a successful online purchasing experience, you need to understand the Internet consumer and how she came to be. The Internetphobe (of which we now know there are several in Congress), will not understand, and not allow you to create this web presence. Keep that in mind as we move forward.

The Internet consumer is a fickle creature. They will see a web site, hope to be able to navigate it, find an item, read it, share it, or purchase it. Some with that ever-present angst, and some with the exhilaration of a skydive. Some are addicted and some are thrifty. Some are critical, others haven’t a clue. There are groves more web pages than people on this planet, and if you are going to hold Internet consumers for more than a click, you need to have something they want. You need to present it correctly, and you need to allow them to get at it quickly and easily.

If you are selling something, and the consumer happens to wander over to your site, make sure you close the deal. In order to do that you need a well-built site with the important items out front. Think of the average clothing store in the mall. You have your attractive items out front, more complex ones inside, and your sales team pushes the customer toward the goal of purchasing as much as possible. On your website, it isn’t that different. If you have many items, get your Internet customer to browse easily and find what he wants. If you have one item that is key, just go to Apple and see how they do it. Need I say more.

So many organizations spend fortunes on SEO and then lose their customers in a labyrinth of taxonomy, featured products, navigation buttons to nowhere, and search results that really don’t help. It’s simple: Ask yourself what you really want your Internet consumer to do, and push her there from the start.

Even an Internetphobe will tell you that when you don’t do that you’re hurting your chances of getting him past his fears.

* Other terms that have been used: Interphobe, Online Technophobe, Neo-Luddite.

Why My Mother Loves the Internet

A few years back I did something that had serious ramifications for my family. There were unexpected consequences, some serendipitous, others just scary. It started as simple fun but then became increasingly intense. There were moments I thought we would lose control. But then things plateaued and leveled out. But for a minute there…

What did I do? I opened a Facebook account for my mother.

My Mother and Facebook

You’d think a woman over 70 would just befriend a few people here and there, track news from the grandkids, look at pictures, etc. But in this case, it became much more than just a medium for family updates. My mother, like so many before her, was sucked into Facebook like a star into a black hole. When she came for visits (and keep in mind that this is a once-a-year event as we live on different continents), she would spend many an hour online reading updates, and in the beginning, replying freely. Just like my daughter.

So why would Facebook, or other social media, be so attractive to grandmas and grandkids alike? Sociologists have been examining this for years. Universities and research centres have reams of data, studies and papers on the subject. From all that data many conclusions can be derived. Among other things, people use Facebook for communication, to keep in touch and to be involved: “I want to see you.” On the other hand, they use it as a means of public display and recognition: “I want to be seen.”

What’s important to understand here while you’re getting online and creating your web presence is what a powerful tool this is. When millions of people get Facebook accounts to see or be seen, they are in dire need of other subjects and objects. Your web presence is crucial to their virtual survival. The digital generation, a generation of activists, consumers, students and what-have-you, is looking for what you are offering, and many of them are looking within the social media world.

Therefore, you must understand the holistic approach to creating your web presence. Today, IMHO, too much emphasis is put on Search Engine Optimization. Yes, it is an important step in getting people to your website by chance (because if they are looking for you, you’ll be found as long as the site is built half right), but SEO is just one of many stages in a successful web presence. SEO may help get people to your site, but it won’t get them there if the people you need aren’t using search engines. (And don’t get me started on how so many people ignore what happens once they get there — see previous blog entries.)

If your clientele is 70-year-old stay-at-home grandmothers, you should know that they are using social media and that you can reach them by building a Facebook identity, updating your LinkedIn profile, Tweeting intelligently, blogging and building the right website.

My mother loves the Internet because it keeps her connected, involved and empowered, just like it does for her 15-year-old granddaughter. Your organization’s web identity must include social media to engage your clients.

Contact us for more information on the Sociology of the Internet

5 Top Ways to Piss Off your Website Programmer

If you’ve ever contracted a programmer, whether it be through a company or a freelancer, you’ve likely encountered some rather frustrating responses to your requests. Programmers aren’t always right, but for the most part, the ones I know are honest and have the goals of the client in mind. In general, you don’t want to upset him — it’s simply not in your best interest.

Here are five of the top ways to piss off your programmer.

5. Be long-winded and wordy. Long, over-explicit explanations about something needed on the site usually does more harm than good. Programmers don’t need too much information. They need short, concise, descriptive explanations, not novels. Use bullets and make sure you’re not talking about something the programmer either hasn’t heard before or couldn’t know about because it’s using internal company jargon. More is not better. I once received a seven paragraph explanation that was basically saying, make the links on the site red.

4. Badger him. If you ask every other day what’s with the site, what’s new, what’s taking so long, you’ll likely piss off your programmer. You can ask for weekly updates if they aren’t supplied on their own. Don’t be impatient, it usually doesn’t help. Unless you have something stated in the agreement that keeps the work open-ended (a bad idea), there should already be a timeline for the site and it will likely be adhered to barring any unexpected changes. I had a client who called me every morning as soon as he saw I was online for a month, until I basically created a mini-blog for him with daily updates on the project management site. It’s your right to know what’s happening but give some space.

3. Be slow to respond. This is the opposite of the previous way to piss off your programmer. When you get a question, answer it to the best of your knowledge, promptly. These questions could sometimes be the difference between finishing a project on time or not. Also, if you promised to supply material — content, images, configurations — make sure they get to the programmers on time. I had a project delayed for three weeks because the client never sent me the final design.

2. Withhold payment. You may think that this would be the number one way to piss off your programmer. Yes, it’s bad and can really frustrate the people who depend on that payment, but there’s worse. Maybe I think that because it hasn’t happened to me, but I know programmers who have experienced it. Withholding payment is a poor punishment, is rarely effective, will likely keep the job from being completed, could land you in court and should only be used as a last resort. If there is something going on and the programmers are not holding their end of the bargain, talk it out. Always return to the agreement you made to make sure that something has blatantly been breached before taking a step like that. And make sure it’s not just a matter of interpretation. Payments are their livelihood and keep in mind that both you and the programmer want to complete the project.

1. Make late additions. “It’s just a minor change,” you say. “It’ll take just a minute.” That’s what you think. Programmers follow a program. Most, like architects, build according to a blueprint — a site program or characterization, which is different than a list of requests. Most price quotes are based on this program. Problems arise when you try to change or add things in mid-stream. Some late additions are really simple and most programmers will implement them without making a big deal about it. But others can be very time-consuming. Let the programmer decide and try as much as possible to stick to the plan. I actually can’t remember a project where this didn’t happen at least once. But if a well-written agreement and plan are handy, 99.9% of the issues are resolved quickly. Not sticking to the plan will really piss off your programmer.

I’ve written before in Pitfalls in Communication with Developers about the need for a good site development plan. Many of the items can be avoided if you together write a good plan and follow it to the end. A well-built website will always have the ability to make additions after the project is complete.

The Sociology of the Forum and How to Prevent Freedom of Speech Tragedies

Long ago, about 252,288,000 seconds ago in programming time, Clay Shirky gave a speech called A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy. In it, among other things, he talks about how group members’ (users’) behaviour can wreak havoc on an open social entity of any kind (open being the key term here). He talks about the need to control members of any group by having clear rules to keep order. He also says that people end up learning from their mistakes, instead of learning from other people’s mistakes, a much smarter approach.

So I will now try to help you learn from others’ mistakes when it comes to opening up your web site to the public — with comments, a forum, or any user-generated content (UGC). But first, two more concepts to contemplate.

Shirky’s article reminded me of a theory in social-psychology called “groupthink,” coined by Irving Janis in 1972. Janis’ groupthink is a complex theory, but suffice to say that groupthink causes groups to make poor decisions under certain circumstances (pressure, cohesiveness, etc.). Solutions to groupthink include rules and roles. In addition, being aware of the potential problem can (sometimes) help avoid it.

Fallacy of Composition

The third concept I will introduce you to before I get going is from macro economics: The Fallacy of Composition. Simply put, just because something is true for each individual of any group, doesn’t necessarily mean it is true (or good) for the group as a whole. A good example of this is at a sporting event when something exciting happens, everyone stands up to see better. But because everyone is standing, no one sees better. And if you sit down and you’re the only one to site down, the best way for everyone to see, you lose out, unless everyone follows your lead (at least everyone in front of you).

So how are rules, roles, groupthink and the fallacy of composition relevant to your website? User-generated content (UGC again) creates groups. If you are allowing conversations to exist on your site (and I highly recommend it), you are creating groups. If these conversations begin to make participants feel like they belong to something, they will start acting like members of a group. Their behaviour could, if not controlled, and especially if decisions are being made, cause groupthink make come into play.

User’s want to enable their right to free speech on your site. If you do not allow that, you may lose them. However, what may be best for any one individual, may not be good for the group as a whole, and eventually, they will work together to effect change on your site, whether you like it or not. This can manifest itself in several ways. They will complain when something goes wrong as if it was their property. They will act as if it their constitutional right to say what they want and how they want. And they will eventually vote by never returning.

When you create your site with the intent of having the common folk stroll in and leave their mark, remember that they may leave a black and blue mark. So you need to consider the following:


  • The Internet is the ultimate Democracy: People will express themselves, albeit they will also police themselves.
  • Spam is not meat: If there is a way for spammers to spam your site, they will. Do not leave everything open for all anonymous users.
  • “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Yes, I’m quoting Janis Joplin.
  • Three words: Moderate, moderate, moderate.
  • Have a great anti-spam program installed. In Drupal, that’s easy.
  • Have a system to easily remove unwanted trash, I mean users.

Running a Democracy doesn’t look so easy now does it?

Your Really Long Password is Your Friend

I know that people have been writing about passwords, password management, password memory techniques, and password encryption forever, but I’m not done.

Long passwords are your friend

Let me start with a few facts:
1) Our memories are limited.
2) Passwords are hard to remember.
3) Long passwords drive most people nuts.
4) Hackers want your password.

It seems the more people are connected to each other electronically, the longer passwords seem to get. Today it is estimated that a 8 digit password of numbers and letters without caps would take 29.02 seconds to crack assuming one hundred billion guesses per second (very possible today). Change one letter to a capital and it reaches 36 minutes — better, but not there yet. The more complex the password, the longer it takes to type (and we type a lot of passwords), and the harder it is to remember. Add to that the fact that you should not use the same password over multiple sites, and you’re mind will melt.

So here are some quick tips.

Use sentences or personal catch phrases: Capitalize at least one word and add a number or two at the end. Sentences are easy to remember. Taking that same 8 character password and adding 6 more characters, even without caps makes the crack time jump to 2,000 years. Capitalize a letter, 4,000,000 years. So how do you remember a 14 character password? Since at that length it really doesn’t matter if there are actual words inside, just pick a catch phrase: “Mydogiscool212” or “Havesomehoney1.” Not too hard right?

Use multiple passwords: So how do you avoid using the same password on each site while remembering the 1500 passwords you have? With the same catch phrase, just one letter change can solve that problem — but I’d change two. Just take two letters from the site name and stick it somewhere in your password. So if you were to log into Facebook: “Myfadogiscool2” and Twitter: “Mytwdogiscool2.” So even if your password is discovered on one site, it can’t be used on another (most passwords are encrypted, so the actual characters aren’t usually seen by hackers).

Long passwords are your friend: You can and should make your password sentence as long as possible. Today, most sites won’t limit you to 14 characters, but some do. If you encounter a site that limits to less than that, firstly, find their contact page and let them know they’re endangering the Internet. Then I always have an alternative simple password with caps, numbers and symbols for those sites.

Make it type-able : Another issue we need to take into account when coming up with the safe password is mobile devices. Typing in mobile devices is significantly more difficult than on a keyboard (except for teenagers for some reason). That’s why I only capitalize the first letter — makes it just a bit easier on a mobile device and has the same security value.

And now a test. Which is a safer password?
a) B…..2…..b…..
b) rw#F5g2sv

That’s right, a) is far better, and really not hard to remember.

The Most Important Question When Creating Your Website

I have created or been involved in scores of websites in my 15 years as a web programmer, and one of the hardest tasks is convincing clients that they’re missing the point. By the point, I mean the point of having a web site at all. What usually happens is that I ask them one question, and after that, sometimes, they get it (and sometimes they don’t).

That question is: What do you want your users to do when they get to your site?

That’s not necessarily the same as what are the goals of your site, but of course, it could be. Site statistics have a term called “bounce rate.” A bounce rate is the percentage of people who visit one page on your site and then leave. Often, they had searched for a term and your site happened to have popped up so they took a look, leaving after realizing that it was the other “Canuck” they were looking for. A high bounce rate can mean a number of things, but one of the reasons bounce rates jump is because users who happen to reach your site have no idea where to go from the landing page (the page they entered on — usually from a search site). Another big reason is that you have great keywords and search terms if you take them out of context, but that’s a different issue.

You can characterize a site before development by asking a variation on that key question for every element on the site:
What should the user do when he sees this page, this block, this image, etc? And why? The answer to that question will tell you exactly where to put what on the site. Do you need specific landing pages for specific types of users? What should be on the home page, and more importantly, how do you direct your users to what you really want them to do from EVERY page on the site. Chances are, your “chance” users are going to land somewhere in the middle of the site and not on the home page because they found something on Google. Keep that in mind.

Another problem when dealing with clients (and this one I encountered already 15 years ago) is that organizations tend to mirror their internal organizational structure on the site, not realizing that nobody understands that structure outside of their 37 walls. That’s great for Intranet, but the Internet is for outsiders (hence the “Inter”). If your site is geared toward outsiders, think the way you may think when visiting a “foreign” website. Don’t divide the site into sections the same way your HR department does. Divide it according to the different users who you want to attract.

And when in doubt, test. Usability testing can show you how wrong you were in thinking that everyone is going to understand that clicking “Checkout” will get them to “check out” your product catalogue.

Maybe later I’ll talk about that “Like” button showing up everywhere.

How Blogging Improves Social Media

When I created this website, I really wasn’t going to start a blog here. I swear. But then I read a friend’s Facebook update, or should I say updates. It started with one sentence about a morning on the beach. Ten individual entries later and three screens on my TweetDeck and I felt like I needed a shower to get the sand out of my hair. I now knew what she ate, wore, saw , did (and it wasn’t that interesting) and smelled.

Is that what Facebook updates were made for? Really?

social meadia vs the blog

So how did that little story get me to start blogging? I wanted to tell everyone just that — Facebook updates are not for telling stories — blogs are. But in order to tell all I have to tell about why I believe that is true, I need a place to write it, and Facebook didn’t seem like the right place (of course I will create a Facebook update with a link to this blog). So here we are.

My main message here is that we are not efficient. We often use our various media outlets incorrectly. We send emails with one word: “Thanks” when no reply would make the recipient waste less time opening an almost blank email (Please, please, start using EOM in the subject [End of Message] and save us that extra click). We build web sites with thousands of distractions when all we really want is for the user to buy the product, or make a phone call or read the blog. We find ways to circumvent a 140 character limitation on Twitter by using tiny URLs to link to pages that actually say what we want to say in many more characters (okay, granted, that’s efficient) — but we write 10 tweets to complete the thought, and we use our Facebook updates to tell the story of how we went to the beach and ate watermelon and got sunburn and walked our dog.

Some people have told me they think that Facebook has lost its charm, or at least it’s cracked in places. This self-inflicted Facebook Spam has taken it’s toll. Yes, you can always remove or block the people who bore you, but that’s just another task on your plate. Facebook is a forum for communication and it should be used wisely. Same with Twitter. If Tweets were meant to be 140 characters X 10, then they would be 1400 characters. Like a blog.

All I’m saying is find the right medium for the right message. And think about your audience. Google + allows you to easily send updates to circles — meaning that people who care that you ate watermelon can get one update, while people who don’t will never know and will be just a tad better off because of it. Facebook doesn’t have to be tedious and neither does Twitter (I love Twitter, by the way [bmeadan]).

When you want to say something, say it in the right place. If you need to do it in a blog and you don’t have one, let us know, we’ll see what we can do to help you improve social media by blogging. And in the immortal words of Tommy Chong, “Pick your venue, man.”

Moral Panics and Facebook

When I wrote TranceNational AlienNation, my thesis that researches Trance Music culture in Israel and discusses the moral panic that ensues and targets the global trance community, I was surprised to find how easily people are whipped into a frenzy of panic by seemingly innocent events. Raves, drugs, youth culture in general, have all been targets of moral panics. This is not the place to analyze these phenomena, for that you can read the book, but rather discuss the place of Facebook in an ever panicking virtual world.

The Internet (like there’s really just one Internet — let’s just call it God) has often come under fire in a fever of blame and anxiety surrounding children and the endless threats that open information and communication pose to them. They say, “fear your friends,” or at least those that befriend you — if they’re strangers. “Search with filters,” as to avoid having a 15-year-old boy stumble upon breasts. Oh, the humanity! “Post with care,” you never know what will come back to haunt you in a job interview when you’re an adult (like teens never did anything stupid in the ’80s). It’s all moral panics and like most moral panics, it mostly unfounded fear. Yes, there are dangers out there. But there are far greater dangers in the real world. Open communication and endless data just make the world a bit smaller –for better and for worse.

And then there’s Facebook. I don’t know why I like to write about Facebook so much — I rarely use it, except to answer others who do and as a necessary marketing tool. But you can’t avoid using the most popular form of communication since the town crier. And that’s where I join the panic. Facebook is slowly becoming a threat to privacy. Okay, that’s a strong statement. But I don’t take it back. Cnet’s Molly Wood recently wrote how she’s “afraid to click on any links on Facebook these days” (How Facebook is ruining sharing). I’ve been afraid for a while now, ever since I wrote a reply to a comment thinking it was a private message. Granted, I was stupid and not thinking, but still, why do I have to think so much on Facebook?

Facebook privacy issues are still far from being a full-blown moral panic, but they’re doing a good job approaching it. It used to be that clicking Reply to All was the biggest fear you had disclosing something that wasn’t meant for everyone’s ears. Now, with Facebook’s Open Graph you may as well email everything you do on the Internet to that town crier because sooner or later it’s going to appear on someone’s wall.

So let’s start by never, really, never, accepting to load, download, install or approve anything that we don’t fully understand, particularly anything on Facebook that calls itself an app. Apps are programs, and just as we’ve learned not to install programs sent by email (remember the good ole days when we were sent viruses in the form of Anna Kournikova pics?), we need to learn that the seemingly innocent social scape of Facebook has its own type of viruses.

It’s been said that humans are the worst viruses on the planet (“The Matrix” 1999). So many of the spam-like emails forwarded to “everyone you know” are just that kind of human-proliferated virus. But here, Facebook has a golden opportunity to catch us where we’re most vulnerable — to use us to spread our own crap all over their world — in our blind trust that a company as big and successful as Facebook can be trusted to look out for our best interest.

So to paraphrase “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”: Panic! It’s in your best interest.

How Yahoo! is Losing One of Its Biggest Fans

I am a Yahoo! holdout. I have been using MyYahoo as a source of news feeds (RSS) for years — over a decade, I believe. It was easy, comfortable, and their news site was (and still is) extremely user friendly. I often preferred Yahoo Sports to ESPN or SI. It was even my home page for a while, before having one home page became obsolete — now I have multiple home pages, and it’s not one of them.

Hulu and Yahoo hate me

However, they are losing me. They are losing me because of video. I can’t watch video via Yahoo, and video, if they haven’t heard, is important these days. But Yahoo has decided to boycott me when I am not in the United States. I’m usually not in the U.S., so that’s quite often.

I am not alone. Many Americans (I hear) travel, and if Yahoo News was a news source at home when they’re travelling, they will have to forgo the video. It’s a good thing Yahoo isn’t an important player out there anymore. I guess we can now see why.

Yahoo decided to block anyone outside the U.S. from viewing video. I’m not talking about commercial TV, I’m talking about news clips. You see they use Hulu. Hulu just makes me angry because of that insane policy, and I am looking forward to the day they disappear. Now it’s Yahoo’s turn to piss me off.

Alienation of certain markets is usually not a good business strategy, particularly for a global Internet player struggling to survive. Someone should explain the reasoning behind this policy. Maybe once they do, I’ll get it and come back. For now, I may have to use iGoogle. Ugh.