How Search And Social Media Are The Same

There’s a lot of debate about Twitter being the Facebook killer and Facebook being the Google killer and Google being the Microsoft killer and so on. There’s been some back and forth between the media and the blogosphere and people like Eric Schmidt about the true business worth of all these companies and whether Schmidt  was right to pooh-pooh the idea of buying Twitter or some other social media service.

It got me thinking about what social media and search are, and I came to the Friedmanesque conclusion, the kind of conclusion you come to somewhere closer to the start of my thinking rather than at its conclusion, that social media and search are in fact the same thing!

Whoa, I know that’s gotten a lot of you really confused. We have been hearing so much about how these two are opposed to each other that it seems just heretical, or at best an attention-getting tactic, to suggest otherwise, but I assure you, there is good reasoning behind my equation here.

The biggest mistake people make when they think of search as being separate from social media is to conceive of search as a one-way street: the user searches and gets results out of a vast pool of text that has been indexed by the search engine. The search engine takes the query as input and returns the search results as output, without the intervention of any “social group” or community.

This is not the true case, however, because there is a community involved in not just the search engine as a whole, but in fact in every search.  It’s a virtual community and so it’s invisible — it’s the group of publishers of the content that is returned as the search result, along with the searcher, that makes up this transient, virtual, invisible community.

Search is the process by which we connect members of this community in extremely brief rendezvous. And beyond the search results, the magic of Google’s smart business model is that your queries connect you with actual people who are interested in what you are searching for (rather than publishers who tend to be split between those who publish for the sake of being noticed on Google, and those that don’t but get noticed anyway) — and these are the vendors who buy ads on AdWords. They are also part of the social media that is presented to you as a result of your initiating a query.

Conversely, look at what happens when you are connecting with social media — you are either explicitly searching for content in the “traditional” way by typing in a query, or you do a ‘periodic search,’ where instead of searching for content by name, you are searching for people by name. What else are you doing when you get up in the morning, and with a cup of coffee in one hand, you scroll through your friends’ updates with the other? You are saying to yourself, let me search through the world of people for those people that I count as friends, or that I am interested in. In fact, when you choose one service over the other, you are doing an ‘advanced search,’ something you probably don’t even do on Google! You are adding ‘filters’ to your search, like a filter on source or a filter on your friend circles, or on your favorite flavor of Reddit, or however you organize your information.

There’s another thing about social networks that also equates to search: when you find something a friend recommends, you’ve just been the recipient of a personalized search result! You had this search in mind obviously, that is, you’ve wanted whatever it is that your friend recommended, otherwise you wouldn’t have found the recommendation useful. So what a social network does is to satisfy latent searches.

It’s a wonder that Google hasn’t already built a search engine that encompasses all these sources and provides these search capabilities for you. Wouldn’t it be great if you could just go to one search engine and type in ‘pizza’ and find all your friends who ate pizza yesterday and see what they thought about it?

Well, Google could do this in principle, but in practice, it cannot because of one word: privacy. Google has built its brand on the premise that it will not store personal information about you and if it can’t do that, then it can’t figure out what your personal network is, in order to merge your search and social activities into one big, seamless, interaction.

Some might say that you cannot make these two interaction live as one: the virtual community created within each search is too invisible to count, and the real communities  outside of ‘traditional’ search are too fragmented and produce content that is too desultory in nature to really be valuable as search results. In other words, when you search for pizza, you want your pizza delivery guy’s phone number, not his friendship, and if you search your friends’ updates for ‘pizza,’ you are going to get random posts about how someone has a pizza face, rather than relevant results about pizza in the neighborhood or pizza recipes.

While these are good observations, they miss the point that understanding the principles that align search and social media is key to figuring out how to transpose business models from one to the other, and how to bring real value to customers. How we introduce a collaborative or communal aspect to search, or go the other way round, is merely a matter of technology and or business tactics. But at the core, there is a tightly-integrated cycle here between the two activities that has, as yet, been largely unexploited.

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2 Responses to “How Search And Social Media Are The Same”

  1. lindamargaretbroughton Says:

    Very sound observations, however, I don’t think that search and social media are quite the same. They are definitely linked, driving each other in certain areas, but we go to social for experts or, better, as experts looking to enhance our knowledge and network. We turn to search in “search” (haha) of new knowledge.

  2. drunkenfilosofer Says:

    Linda,

    I appreciate the comment. Yes, differentiating social media and search in terms of looking for experts vs. exploring new knowledge is a good distinction.

    My thoughts in this post are still a little unformed, so it’s great to get feedback. I think searching for experts can also be a form of exploration — how do you know what the experts are going to tell you? You don’t!

    Also, when you search for new knowledge via “search,” you are still consulting experts except that you don’t know who these experts are. But everything written out there has been written by some other human being and they are the “temporary experts” whose knowledge you are benefiting from.

    Please watch this space, there will definitely be more on this subject, I think I can foresee that! 🙂

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