A Whisper Is A Stronger Social Signal Than A Public Shout

Yesterday was a surprisingly interesting news day, given how close we are to celebrating the holidays. Facebook struck while the iron was hot and released a brand new standalone iOS app called “Poke”, leveraging a feature that has been around since the early days of the product, as well as a shot across the bow of Snapchat, who it reportedly attempted to acquire.

At first glance, it’s a competitive move, and also a whimsical one. The idea of sending someone a message that self-destructs is kind of “cute”, in the way that passing notes in class was when you were younger. But make no mistake about it, Facebook’s Poke is meant as a means to strengthen its social graph, as well as to crib signals from your daily lives and activities to make itself a better company. I’m not saying that anything is wrong with that, but these are the obvious facts.

Let’s discuss the idea of a social signal first, though. When you tweet something, and someone responds, that’s a signal that the person is interested in what you have to say. One could also infer that this person “likes” you, or has an affinity for you or what you just said. This could all be torn down as bullshit though, since we all know that sometimes we respond to people to simply get their attention.

The Facebook Poke is an interesting historical feature, one that hasn’t really been documented. It was Mark Zuckerberg’s baby, as Facebook was and is, but not much is known about it, only assumed. During yesterday’s ferver about this new Poke app, a phrase was repeated by outlets over and over again, here’s one from CNN:

The poke, which is still around but rarely used, is a minimalistic form of communication — the digital equivalent of a head nod or wink.

I take issue with the notion that it’s “rarely used”, because we simply do not have data to back that statement or sentiment up, Facebook has never made it public. I would challenge that it’s not public data because it’s quite important. Whispering to someone is way more interesting than speaking to ten people in a crowd.

Your closest friends

facebook-poke-screenshotWhen you’re at a bar and you look around at the people there, are you interested in what a group of fifteen people are talking about, or what the two folks in the corner are speaking about directly? You could infer that they’re having an intimate conversation, perhaps a closely connected moment. If it’s a guy and a girl, you might wonder if they’re dating, married or are about to “hook up”. The group of fifteen, however, are simply blowing off steam and having a good time. But for a company like Facebook, the connection in the corner is more valuable to them as a company, and you as a user.

Facebook has attempted to help you connect to the people who matter most by automatically and algorithmically creating a “Closest Friends” group on the service. This is probably based on a number of factors, although none of us who aren’t working at Facebook are sure. It’s probably a mix of how often you message them directly, how often you comment or like their status updates, how often you message them directly or even how often you visit their profile. All of the actions are “data points” and “social signals” to Facebook. All of this data then gets analyzed by people and algorithms to try and display the best experience possible for you on Facebook.

The Best Experience Possible

When I say that Facebook is trying to make it a better experience for you, I mean that it wants you to stay there and never leave. That should be the goal for every company with a social product. When you see content on your News Feed that is interesting, and you feel the need and want to engage, that’s a huge score for Facebook and eventually it’s advertisers.

Spending more time on Facebook, be it on the desktop or on mobile, is always the goal. You don’t go to a restaurant that you hate and spend a lot of money there, do you? Of course not. Great restaurants figure out a way to make you feel at home, more comfortable, call you by your first name all in the hopes that you’ll return and tell your friends to come too. It’s just good business.

Facebook is a business, don’t forget that. As is Twitter, Google, Microsoft, Snapchat, Instagram, Yahoo! and every other company that you use products from, for free.

Business and Social

(10) FacebookPeople get up in arms when business and social interconnect. Why? Well, showing us ads on Facebook is like being a part of that fifteen person conversation in a bar, and then a Coca-Cola rep jumping in the middle and saying “Hey! Becky loves Coke, you should too! BYE!” Sounds obnoxious, doesn’t it? But that’s business, it happens every single day. There are Bud-Light signs in bars to attract you to the product, it’s just how it works.

What Facebook is doing with Poke is trying to figure out who you interact with privately the most. If they know that, then they know what ads will work better on you. If I Poke Josh Constine a lot, then they know that an ad with his face or content on it might just work on me. That’s pretty smart. It also creeps some people out. Get used to it, though, it’s the present and the future.

Your whispers, while they aren’t technically being “read, watched or listened to” are being tracked as serious social signals. That’s why the app exists, it’s not because Zuckerberg was bored and wanted to code, don’t think that for a second.

The value of a whisper

2076184001_335e79ff9b_zGoogle doesn’t “read” your email, just like Facebook won’t “look at” your Pokes. They don’t have time for that, they don’t care, and well, it’s illegal. But what these companies are doing is watching how you use their services so that they can tune them better to fit yours, and everyone else’s, needs.

This is how Facebook is going to attract the rest of the world’s population that aren’t using Facebook. It needs your data to survive. If you’re not OK with that, you have a choice to not use it. You can leave the Internet entirely. But what you can’t do is complain about it over and over. It’s life, it’s business and you are the product. Period.

While Facebook does feel like it has, and will continue to, change the world, it is a company with business models and now shareholders. The same goes for Google. Don’t be a cynic and think that Facebook or Google is evil. They’re not, they’re people just like you. But do go in with your eyes wide open.

Your whisper is more valuable than a public shout, say a comment on someone’s public status update about how cute their dog or child is. You could be commenting on the update to remind them that you’re there, or to show off in front of others. Facebook can’t know that. Nobody can.

But know this, Facebook is interested in your conversation, winks, hugs and kisses with that guy or girl in the bar, way back in the corner by the jukebox. Especially if you’re in a demographic that it doesn’t have a hold on. Like, younger crowds that Snapchat has the attention of.


[Photo credit: Flickr and Flickr]