Shares - So. What Do These Numbers Really Mean?

Matt Locke goes behind the scenes of common audience terminologies

Hi again.

We’ve taken a bit longer than usual to reappear in your inbox, so thanks for your patience! This week we have a banger. Matt has chosen the audience metric of *shares*. Once a word that mostly meant you liked something enough that you wanted someone in your network to benefit from it, it can now mean any of a number of things - and that’s a problem, both for us as content creators/consumers, and brands/organisations as the originators of some of it.

Here’s Matt with a discourse into the behaviour of sharing online:

So. What Do These Numbers Really Mean?

As the saying goes, if you love something, set it free. Or at least, post it on your socials so your friends can see it and you can get some sweet sweet engagement. Sharing is the most sought after and valuable of all digital metrics, because it is really three things bound up in one action - attention, value, and social status. The Net Promoter Score - one of the most popular audience research survey tools - is based around a single question that has the same kernel of truth bound up in it - Would you recommend this to a friend? This is a powerful signal because when we share something with our friends, we’re staking some of our own social capital on it - we’re saying something about ourselves, and how we’d like others to see us.

Take sharing offline

1 - Why Should I Care?

If data is the new oil (although I’d argue that’s the wrong metaphor) then sharing is the pump that makes it flow. It’s the behaviour that keeps digital culture moving forward, taking and redistributing content from context to context. The last two decades have seen the power to shape culture shift from traditional gatekeepers (e.g TV commissioners, music label bosses or newspaper editors) to diverse and unruly digital networks driven by social sharing. But we might be on the cusp of another shift, as the organic behaviours of communities sharing content are atomised, analysed and then reconfigured by algorithms that obscure our ability to see who is sharing what. At the same time, we’re moving more social behaviour into private groups and spaces. The era of public sharing, and the participatory culture it generated, might be ending.

2 - What’s The Big Picture?

We always shared stories - sharing is a fundamental part of how culture spreads. Walter J. Ong’s classic book Orality and Literacy describes how culture changed from the era of orality - where culture is spread by vocal re-performance in a way that subtly changes it every time - to literacy - where writing and printing created identical cultural objects that could be shared at scale. In oral cultures, stories are structured around strong core narratives that encourage experimentation and playfulness depending on the needs of individual performers and their audiences. In literal cultures, the original voice of the author is preserved almost exactly as the text is copied technologically. Oral cultures are structured around myths and legends that are passed down through performance; literate cultures are structured around the figure of the author and the work, with more precise and technical language.

Social networks combined the two, giving us the opportunity to share perfect copies of culture, but also to give it a spin with our own comments, re-contextualisations or performances. We’ve always done this, of course, but before social networks these behaviours happened in bars, classrooms, our homes or the office. The rise of social networks meant that the hidden world of sharing hinted at by the Net Promoter Score question was now visible to all. Sharing became the key metric for impact - if someone shared your content, it meant they had not just seen it, but valued it enough to risk their social capital by sharing it with their friends. As academic Henry Jenkins said in his landmark series of essays on how ‘viral’ culture works - If It Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead.

3 - So What Does This All Mean?

The challenge of using sharing as a metric is that it strips the behaviour from the specific social context that gives it real value. We all share every day, in very different contexts, with very different intentions. We might share an article we disagree with to a group who shares our political or cultural worldview. We might share a funny video with our family or friends to give a bit of light relief. Or we might share a report or insight with work colleagues to assist on a project, or burnish our reputation as a thought leader. If you’re measuring shares for your organisation's content, how can you be sure you really understand the motivations behind sharing?

When I worked at the BBC in the early 2000s, my team commissioned some research on what drives people to physically participate in an event like a political march, or a fundraiser in the workplace. We started with the assumption that the cause, brand or celebrities involved in the call to action were most important in driving people to actually participate in something. Our research showed that, in every case we studied, the most important trigger was not any of these - it was whether participation presented an opportunity for our existing micro-social networks. For example - a woman running a Comic Relief event at her work was a big fan of the TV show, and believed strongly in the charity’s impact. But the trigger was much more local - they’d recently recruited new people to her team, and she saw the event as a way for them all to get to know each other.

This shows the risk of deriving meaning from sharing behaviours in aggregate, and designing campaigns that directly ask users to share content. Our motivations for sharing are never because of a brand’s call to action, but because we have seen something in a message that gives us an opportunity to create value for our immediate micro-community. This doesn’t mean that we don’t often have the same kinds of motivations for sharing, but it does mean that a company or brand ultimately has much less influence on sharing than we’d like to think. The best way to get people to share something is not with a direct and specific call to action, but by creating something a bit looser, so that users can find their own motivations and value in it.

4 - Tell Me Something I Don’t Know

Alexis Madrigal’s 2012 essay in the Atlantic, Dark Social, argued that we were looking at social sharing in completely the wrong way. This was the height of the first era of public social sharing, with Twitter, Facebook and Instagram rapidly growing around the world. This era of social sharing had seemed to bring social behaviours out from the relative privacy of Usenet groups and mailing lists into the broad daylight of our newsfeeds, and more importantly for publishers, into referral logs in analytics systems. Web analytics could tell you how people were finding your site and pages, and whether this came through search engines, referrals from other sites and social platforms, or ‘direct’ traffic. This last category included visits that didn’t seem to leave a preceding trail - e.g people typing in a URL directly or clicking a bookmark in the browser.

But Madrigal found a lot of direct traffic to articles that had long and complex URLs, meaning it was highly unlikely that users had typed them in or bookmarked them. His experience on pre-social web message boards told him that this was more likely to be from users sharing links in non-public networks that couldn’t be measured by their analytics tool, Chartbeat. Working with the team at Chartbeat, he found that this ‘Dark Social’ traffic was more than double the traffic they were getting from Facebook, and an average of 50% of referring traffic to articles, even for articles that had ‘gone viral’ on platforms like Twitter or Reddit, as this sample chart showed:

Looking across a broader selection of Chartbeat customers, they found that Dark Social represented 69% of referral traffic, even higher than The Atlantic’s numbers. The takeaway from this is that public social sharing is a form of publishing - it’s not just sharing with our micro-communities, but potentially with a large public audience as well. This has a radical effect on what we share on these platforms, especially over the last few years, as public social platforms have got more toxic. We actually share a lot more in private group spaces, where we can have more control over how we present and contextualize the content we’re sharing. So if you’re building a campaign based on social sharing, planning for Dark Social sharing is twice as important as public social sharing.

5 - Give Me Some Numbers

A 2011 New York Times Customer Insight Group report reinforces the importance of our micro-communities on our sharing behaviours. It found that 78% of people share content because it lets them stay connected to people they might otherwise not stay in touch with, and 73% of people said they share information because it helps them connect with others who share their interests. Sharing is about self-fulfillment - 69% said they shared because it allowed them to feel more involved in the world.

Sharing is rooted in deep emotional needs, and that is why we should never take it for granted. If we don’t do the work to create content that helps people show who they are, and feel connected to their friends, then we can’t expect people to share it.

6 - OK, I Want To Know More…

If you want to read one thing to understand sharing and the social web, then Henry Jenkins’ If It Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead is the place to go. It was written during a, shall we say, more optimistic era, but it’s still a hugely valuable primer into how social sharing drives participatory culture. It’s an eight-part series, but worth every second of your time.

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