The Brave New Future of Social Data

“When the stuff of history is available in digital form, it makes it possible for mathematical analysis to very quickly and very conveniently read trends in our history and our culture.”  Jean-Baptiste Michel

I was listening to a Ted Talk the other day that featured the above quote. It was by a Harvard Data Scientist called Jean-Baptiste Michel, and in it he talked about how mathematical formulas and analysis can be applied to history and the humanities. I’ll use one of his examples as a quick explanation. For instance there is a clear mathematical trend between the deadliness of a major war and the frequency of their occurrence: If a War is 100 times deadlier, it is 10 times less likely to happen. He explains it a million times better than I can, but the point is; there are trends in historical data, they can be charted, but quite often the data isn’t that easily available. Check out the video here:

He concludes with the notion outlined in the opening quote; that as our world becomes increasingly digitised, it becomes increasingly open to statistical and mathematical analysis, and taking this a step further, more open to prediction.

This is where the earholes of the marketer prick up a bit – ‘Prediction’: The idea of being able to predict consumer patterns in interests, culture, tastes, and of course, purchasing habits. It is an unavoidable truth that increasingly this will become easier and easier to do as we power ever further into a social media/online/digital world.

Working in social media data analysis, you are exposed to high volumes of data every day, ridiculously high volumes; hundreds of pages of text conveying wildly different opinions, ideas, and the occasional picture of an Instagram’d street scene. It becomes ever more apparent that everything can be tracked, and anything that can’t yet, will most likely soon be digital enough so that it can.

Data is everywhere, all around us, in everything. I’ve always been obsessed with tracking my music plays. I used to keep lists of every cd I bought, making sure to give everything a score, then review the lists at the end of the year, checking aggregate scores, favourites, least favourites etc. all on a crumpled file page. Nowadays thanks to, Spotify, iTunes etc, and the fact that music, or at least our consumption of it, is more and more digital, all the data can be easily tracked. Throw in meta-tags, and now you can sit around throughout December every year, accurately figuring out things like who was your year’s ‘most popular songwriter within the rock genre but only factoring in songs over 4 minutes long with the word ‘baby’ in the lyrics’.  And you can find this all usually with only a few clicks of a mouse. The information is all there, it’s all digital and it’s all accurate, and it can be used and presented in myriad different ways.

Be it stamp-collecting, scrap-booking, keeping photo albums, or meticulously tracking analogue music preferences, we do it because it can be fascinating, because it is a clear and accurate representation of history, our personal history. It can give you a better understanding of who you are, what you like, what you’re like, why you like it, and why you’re like that? And this is exactly what social media does.

So turning this to social media, and considering the sheer volume of personal information all of us (somewhat unwittingly) share on an often hourly rate, we are in the process of building huge databases on ourselves, about everything we do, and everything we are. A hell of a lot of it is public, and it’s only going to get more in-depth.

This data is already invaluable to the brands that have been savvy enough to jump in headfirst. We are basically creating full digital blueprints of our preferences; what we want, what we don’t want and what we expect from the companies that provide us with products and services.

The idea of a company spending huge sums of money on focus groups, or surveys, or customer satisfaction feedback is going to become so completely irrelevant and a massively inefficient waste of money, because all the information is there anyway. It’s all there in so much more detail than most brands even realise, and it can all be tracked, analysed, trended, and increasingly more predictable as time goes by.

Imagine a fashion label being able to predict how consumer high-street fashion tastes will likely change in the next season, based on data of years of personal opinions, so they can adjust their strategy accordingly. Or a food chain being able to track and predict an entire region’s sentiment for certain types of cuisine, over a 10-year period, and planning in advance. There are endless possibilities, and endless opportunities

This is happening to a certain degree already of course, but the surface has barely been scratched, and it’s a gold rush that only a few brands have started getting ready to run. As with the ‘datafication’ of history alluded to in the Ted Talk, so the true value of all this social media data will reveal itself with the passing of time, like when the 12-year-old Twitter user turns 30 and has accrued 18 years of quantifiable opinions, ideas, thoughts, preferences, and of course, purchases.


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