Pessimists might say that monitoring social media is just another step towards the dreaded realisation of the Big Brother nightmare. In a world wrought with mistrust, misinformation and misguided intentions, that pessimism may be well placed, but there is another view which states that monitoring social media activity informs and reinforces the power of choice.

In practice, listening in to the entire online conversation on all channels is something that only happens at government level, driven by the haunting menace of terrorism. It is alleged that UK intelligence and security agency GCHQ collects over 100 billion metadata records per day, compiling web user profiles in the search for criminal behaviour and potential threats to national security.

Big Brother at work? Yes, but as long as extremists are intent on putting bombs on planes and sourcing funds to do it, we had all better get used to the shadow of scrutiny descending as we surf the web.

So, who else is listening in? Why? And is it okay to eavesdrop on social media chatter?

The who is an easy answer; business. The social media world is an obvious place to look for customers. It comes down to simple maths – the larger the audience, the more probable you are to connect with people who want what you’re selling. Of course, you’ll need to refine your search, narrow the field, and target those most likely to buy the goods and services you have on offer.

Psychologically, people who post on social media platforms are already open to conversation. The act of creating a post, no matter if it’s a proclamation of joy, a nugget of information or a negative statement, is akin to saying “I’m here, let’s talk”, which means the first, and usually most awkward part of any conversation is overcome.

From a business perspective, this offers a wealth of potential opportunities. However, until recently, the how business listens in to social media has been a more difficult subject. As the social media world has developed and matured, so the means to interact with it has needed to change and offer ever more sophisticated functionality. Marketing departments require thorough search capabilities, but increasingly the focus is on measuring sentiment, from which interaction can flow. The process is becoming more organic, and dare I say ‘human’.

Though some companies claim to measure sentiment, at present hardly any come close to an automated human response programme. The problem lies in identifying the nuances of ‘mood’ – is someone’s emotional state sad, trusting, angry, joyous, surprised, disgusted, fearful or full of anticipation?

Merely selecting ‘positive’, ‘negative’ or ‘neutral’ misses the intricacies of human communication. Though an approximation can sometimes be enough, it’s not very scientific, and leaves gaps in the conversational process in which doubt can arise, and doubt in a marketing situation is a black hole into which it is all too easy to fall, often taking far more than bruised pride with it into the void.

However, correctly identifying ‘mood’ through a complex algorithm can foster trust and ultimately lead to a connection.

The subtleties of language define a conversation, and deciding at what the point a meeting of opinions is reached in the dialogue is the key to sales. Can a machine do this, and, indeed should we trust a machine to do this? That brings us to the final question - is eavesdropping on social media acceptable?

The answer has to be ‘yes’. Social media isn’t a closed club; its very nature is open. Why shouldn’t we be offered information on products and services, when we can listen in to someone ranting about the economy, enthusing about the lyrics of their favourite song, or what they got up to after work? As soon as you opt in to social media, you have a choice – take a look or turn your back.

The idea of a non-human conversing with you may jar at your sensibilities, but think about it this way – do you mind if your car ‘decides’ to use ABS to stop you having an accident? Is it irritating when your smartphone advises you to get to that meeting you simply can’t miss? Our lives are ordered and enhanced by software, so let’s embrace the fact… it doesn’t mean you lose your power of choice.


By Professor Paul Morrissey, technology entrepreneur and non-exec Chairman of Sociosciences. 

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