What’s Missing from Social Data

social data what is missing big boulderLast week, I was fortunate enough to score an invitation to the inaugural Big Boulder conference, sponsored by the good folks at Gnip. They’re a social data startup in Boulder and set out to accomplish a pretty audacious task: gather their customers to discuss what’s happening, missing, and the future of the world of analytics behind the words that fly on the plethora of social sites. I’m not particularly a conference-goer per course, but this one had me jazzed. Essentially, I’m just a giant geek with a penchant for clothing by BCBG. I dig data. But even more than numbers themselves, I dig getting down to why those numbers are those numbers. More on that in a moment.

The lineup of speakers was impressive — and composed entirely of folks from Gnip’s client base. Should they decide to go for Year 2 of this conference, I would recommend opening that up to avoid the inevitable criticism that panels begin to sound like commercials for the speakers’ respective companies.

My initial feedback on the conference was:

  • Execution: Simply flawless. I have never before attended a conference so well orchestrated outside of those put on by Entrepreneur Magazine at which I’m fortunate enough to be invited to speak. Electrical outlets were in abundant supply, the location (the lovely St. Julien Hotel in Boulder) was exceptional, the food and refreshments were great (and included at no charge), and I never felt rushed. Flawless.
  • Content: It all sounded like a giant commercial for Gnip’s clients and I didn’t really glean anything from the sessions that I couldn’t have read in TechCrunch, Mashable, or ReadWriteWeb on any given Sunday. Social data is a new science and there are a multitude of people trying to understand it, professing to be experts (at this stage? really?), and hey – numbers don’t lie. There are many “I don’t knows” and “that’s in development” and “we’re working on thats.” I expected vaguery, but could have done without the softball questions and well-worn mitts at the ready to catch them. I wanted bare hands. Contrast. Disagreements. Didn’t feel as if any of that came through.

So I went home on Friday, had a glorious weekend of biking, and had some time to think about the two days I’d spent in the company of great minds. I figured out what I really got out of the conference — and that’s what’s missing in social data.

The First Fantastic Takeaway

I’d known this all along, but the people at conferences like this are always the real win. I finally got to meet the guys behind Disqus (if you haven’t noticed, that’s who powers the comments here) — friendly, genuine, and pretty damn funny. After 3.5 years of being only 30 miles away from one another, I got to shake Brad Feld’s hand and hear his voice OUTSIDE of YouTube. I met people from all across the country, each with their take on the social data scene and look forward to continuing several conversations still in their adolescent stages. As a geek, I can also tend to be an recluse, so being in public and meeting anyone is the start of something beautiful. I can only hope others walked away with some fantastic contacts — seemed impossible not to with the group Gnip assembled.

The Second Fantastic Takeaway

What’s missing from social data? The soft data. The human beings using social tech. For the love of god, I have heard enough numbers and seen enough charts and graphs from the people gathering it. What do those data sets mean without the humans?

I wanted to see a panel pairing up the folks from the numerous community forum and blog commenting engines with the community leaders and bloggers using their tech. I wanted to hear from brands, agencies, and content marketers who rely on Facebook Insights and abandon Twitter’s native web interface in favor of third-party tools that offer them analytics (since Twitter doesn’t – at least for the average human). I wanted that kind of contrast. I wanted to see Klout pitted against heavy Perks earners and those who, like me, have deleted their Klout profiles. I wanted to hear someone start the conversation that’s been enduring online for ages that Klout isn’t a measurement of online influence – it’s a loyalty rewards program for Twitter (this is coming from a gal who gamed Klout for well over a year — mostly to see if it was possible. Asked and answered.).

I’m confident that, in a room filled with startups developing social data technologies and businesses that rely on the data they get from them, this would be incredibly valuable information.

It’s about busting down the walls of the echo chamber.

We get wrapped-up in our (as Wendy Lea from Get Satisfaction would call it) jar-gon. When you point your ship towards what you feel is a sea of change and you’re faced with tides of real-time analytics, engagement, overarching ideas, semantic data, firehose … you start to tune out. You stop listening because the words don’t mean anything anymore. I don’t even know what “real-time” means anymore, because the moment something is now it’s instantly then. I got real-timed-out last week and what I really wanted was to listen, hear, and have questions.

What I Love

I love that Gnip started this conversation. I love even more that it’s a conversation started by a company in my own backyard. I love that a room filled with 250 professionals who want to understand what’s happening in social data converged for two days in hot-as-balls heat (and yes, there were even some guys playing with their balls out in the hallway between sessions).

I love that I can write a post about social data and bring up guys playing with their balls.

What I’d love more is to see the conversations that erupt between content producers and the technologies that purport to measure that content. Some ideas for content producers and technology pairings I’d love to see:

  • Danny Brown & Gini Dietrich + Livefyre
  • Fred Wilson & FAKEGRIMLOCK + Disqus
  • MarketingProfs & Copyblogger + Facebook, Twitter, AND WordPress (we really need to hear from WordPress as a social platform, as it truly IS one of the leaders enabling content generation)
  • A whole horde of startups and bigger brands + Get Satisfaction & UserVoice
  • Community managers + Quora & LinkedIn Answers folk
  • Both a blogger panel AND a panel of agencies & the brands they serve + SproutSocial, ArgyleSocial, HootSuite and other social management dashboards

Just some ideas — I’m sure you have your own.

And what I really hope is that Gnip gives Year 2 of Big Boulder a shot. Aside from the fact that I’ll be able to ride my bike to the conference (as I become an official Boulder resident on Monday, July 2) should I be fortunate enough to score an invite, I think this could be a paid event with a significant draw. There was much hubub in my circles when folks heard I was attending — the demand was high. And if the conference can elevate to the next level — bringing together both sides of the social data equation and pairing-up content producers with those measuring their efforts — the results could be mind-blowing, business model-changing, and start dialing-in some much-needed, non-buzzword-laden standards the sector craves.

Thanks to Gnip for having me, and especially to Elaine Ellis for responding to a, “Hey…ummm…I noticed you were having a conference and maybe I could come?” email from a redhead down here in Denver. In retrospect, it was two days well spent.

Mike Steele
Mike Steele

Nce post, Erika. I'm an academic/educational researcher, and I've become interested recently in what we in education can learn from social data and marketing research. Our current debates right now in education mirror the soft data issue that you mention - schools are moving to measures of teaching and teacher quality that quantify everything, which is great for large-scale comparisons, but it loses important nuances about who the teachers and students are. For example, one might inherit a class of Algebra I students who, the year prior, had a sub for half the year and didn't come into class as thoughtful about the math concepts as we might like. I've now started working with my teachers to tell the story of their data alongside the numbers that come out of their state assessments and evaluations from administrators. It's too early to tell what will happen, but my thinking is that it will give everyone a clearer picture of the landscape.

Abdallah Al-Hakim
Abdallah Al-Hakim

nice post Erika. One way to follow conversations on the different social networks is through Engagio. I have been using it for past few months and it has substantially increased my discovery rate of interesting conversations especially on different commenting platforms. For instance, I can easily keep up with Fred Wilson and Fake Grimlock comments and more over I discover other interesting ongoing conversations. Give it a try - I think is a great addition to social media tools currently available

Elaine Ellis
Elaine Ellis

Erika, thanks for the feedback. This is great timing as we're about to send out a survey so we can get across the board feedback. Every conference can always be improved upon. One quick note, WordPress was part of the social gestures panel. Definitely agree that they're an important part of the conversation. 

Larry S. Evans II
Larry S. Evans II

I'd love to hear about technology based on something other than vaporous buzzwords that provides some insight (not just the Facebook kind) in a simple, direct, manner for small single user operations. Of course there's little to no money to be made on those, so I guess we're shit out of luck. 

Christine de la Garza
Christine de la Garza

Erika, I've been meaning to comment or write you some time to say thank you, you red-headed bitch! And you just about made me bust a gut with all your references to hot balls (or somesuch) for God's sake! Anyway, wish I could have been there. And bravo to Gnip. We need many more knights of the round table and kumbaya meetings of the mind in our industry. I'm hopeful that things are shifting in that direction. Write on you crazy diamond, write on!

Stacy Lukasavitz
Stacy Lukasavitz

Too bad I didn't know about this conference, I would have loved to attend. Technically my job title is Social Data Analyst at a small appliance company you may or may not have heard of. I'm glad you were there as a "stunt double," of sorts, because I was just making an argument this morning in a conference call that although the hard numbers are great and all, without the anecdotal evidence, it has no affect on the people receiving said data. People are affected by stories of people they can relate to, but they make decisions based on emotion with a facade of data backing it up. Period. More power to ya, Erika. If, by any chance, they send out the decks from this conference, could you fwd me on a link? I'd greatly appreciate it. Meanwhile, I was in Chicago at TechWeek, and my sentiment echoes yours about conferences in general. I enjoyed the conf for the people more than anything. It's all about who you meet and what makes stuff awesome.  Hopefully one of these days our paths will cross and that rip in the time/space continuum will happen!! 

William Sterling
William Sterling

Count me down as an interested conference-goer. As a former Boulder resident and current Denver resident, it's refreshing to hear about the currents of change in our own backyard. Why not allow the dialog to happen here rather than SF?


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