Wednesday, October 29, 2014

If a tree falls in the forest...

There's an old conundrum that asks whether, when a tree falls in the forest, and know one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Millions of creators of social media must constantly ask themselves the same question. How many thousands of tweets, facebook posts, youtube videos, and blog entries pass through the ether, unheard, unread, and unknown.

In the words of Thomas Gray (Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard)

Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, /And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
 And so it is with social media. How many Ansel Addams' or Auguste Monet's are bound to rest, undisturbed and undiscovered, amidst the detritus of the communication explosion.

At Berkeley-Haas, the Dean's suite often coaxes a reluctant professoriate to embrace the age of social media, to interact with our students outside the classroom in these social spaces. We are advised that the millenials we teach are especially receptive to such bite-sized portions of wisdom, that, in fact, they prefer them to the more traditional long-form of the lecture hall or the textbook. We are advised to turn our classes upside-down, to engage in all possible ways for the ever elusive mindshare.

What we are not offered, however, is evidence. Does any of this flailing outside the classroom matter? Do the students even want it?

I conducted an A/B test to measure this. Before each of my last two Wednesday classes, I wrote a blog entry. I viewed the entries as similarly interesting to my class. If anything, the treatment entry is more interesting. The key treatment was announcing the presence of the entry in one case, and saying nothing in the other.

Here are the results of the experiment:

Blog entry with no announcement: +1, 0 comments, 14 views.
Blog entry with announcement, +1, 0 comments, 14 views.

It takes no statistics to see that awareness that a blog entry has been written makes no difference whatsoever.

What should we make of this experiment? My take is the following: All the hype about social is a bunch of hooey. Individuals want well-produced solid entertainment. There may, at one point, have been novelty value in the power of individuals to create content, but that point has long passed. What millenials want is the same thing that all previous generations want, solid amusement for their out of class hours. So far as I know, this is the first experiment to test the desires of MBA millenials to read the random thoughts of their blogging social professors. Regardless, it's a finding worthy of wider circulation. Simply put, calls to embrace social as an important information stream are, quite simply, nonsense.

It's a sad conclusion, and it won't stop me from writing since I derive joy from the process myself, but it suggests a refocus in pedagogy away from the "flavor of the month" and back toward the heart of the matter, which is providing great experiences for students in the classroom. 

A lovely blog/youtude/facebook/twitter steam is all well and good, but it should be seen for what it is, entirely peripheral and largely wasted motion, at least so far as my sample is representative.

1 comment:

JoeLukas said...

The extrapolation of this experiment to the broader impact of awareness on the effectiveness of social media seems...ambitious.

I would posit that the effect of 'awareness' on whether a student reads the blog depends importantly on the distance (physical and temporal) from an opportunity to view the blog. And as long as we're broadly characterizing millennials, I'd argue that as a group they (we) have a shorter attention spans than most - meaning that the impact of awareness on behavior is dramatically reduced even if the opportunity is only marginally separated from the awareness.

Additionally, just because increased awareness doesn't seem to juice readership, it doesn't mean that the effort is "entirely peripheral and largely wasted motion." Indeed, most 'niche' endeavors (e.g., video game streaming) would likely not gain from mere awareness. The audience in most cases is limited and self selected. Making non-gamers aware of the phenomenon is unlikely to make it mainstream alone.

That said, I don't disagree that "individuals want well-produced solid entertainment." For me, this qualifies.