Where do narcissists hang out online? And a free tool for analysing social media networks.

Two new social media studies, both from the United States, stood out this week, for different reasons.

The first, by researchers at High Point University involving hundreds of US college students and members of the public, examined narcissism among different groups of Twitter and Facebook users.

They found that (in contrast to earlier research) students who scored higher on narcissism (measured by the Narcissistic Personality Inventory) weren’t into showing off on Facebook. They were no more likely to post Facebook status updates, nor did they tend to have more Facebook friends, than those with lower scores.

By contrast, among the general public recruited online (average age 32, compared to the students’ 20), higher narcissism was linked with more use of Facebook, measured, in this case, by number of updates and friends.

As the British Psychological Research Digest says: “The researchers speculated that for young people who have grown up with Facebook, it’s common practice to use the social network regardless of one’s personality type. For older generations who did not grow up with Facebook, [the research team] said sending status updates was ‘not part of their social norms’ and may instead be driven by narcissistic motives.”

In other words, it’s easier to spot middle-aged narcissists on Facebook because they stand out from the crowd.

Among the students, higher narcissism was associated with more active usage of Twitter and with students’ motives for using the site. Those youngsters suffering from self-love were likely to admit that they posted updates to attract followers and to gain admiration on the site.

While this study had a large number of respondents, it’s not possible to say for sure if narcissism drives the Twitter updates, or if there’s another cause. Like boredom. But I find it interesting as another piece of the puzzle linking personality type with online behaviour.

From the self to the many, the Pew Research Internet Project, has published a fascinating study of the behaviour of Twitter crowds, based around a free Excel spreadsheet add-in for analysing social networks called NodeXL. (No, I hadn’t heard of it either and, yes, you can import social network data directly from Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and email).

After looking at hundreds of Twitter crowds, researchers shuffled them into six categories.

They include ‘polarised crowds’, who gather at different ends of a spectrum of any given topic. These groups “are not arguing. They are ignoring one another while pointing to different web resources and using different hashtags.”

This matters, says Pew, because it shows that partisan Twitter users rely on different information sources. And it matters to PR professionals, I would add, because if you are commenting or campaigning on an issue which induces polarised crowds and don’t want to ignore half of your key publics, then you need to be aware of the dichotomy.

‘Support network crowds’ are generated by customer complaints for a business handled by a Twitter service account, attempting to resolve and manage customer issues around products and services. As you can see from the Dell example, customer support streams of advice and feedback can be measured in terms of efficiency and reach using these social media network maps. While I’m not entirely sure whether it would be as useful for Twitter customer service accounts in smaller businesses, I am going to muck around with the free toy.

As an aside, this piece includes the caveat that Twitter users’ demographic profile is not reflective of the full population (in the UK as well as the US btw) and tweeters’ reactions to events are often at odds with overall public opinion. Always worth remembering.

Social media means… making mistakes

Last week, at a London conference for communications directors, I was asked to lead a small group discussing how organisations can best use social media to engage with what might loosely be termed ‘customers’.

As I posed the first question, a figure reclining on the couch declared:

“Don’t you think that, as this is a conversation, we should go round the group and introduce ourselves?”

Notwithstanding the fact that we were all wearing badges and sitting in close proximity to each other, she had a point, even if it was a rather jagged one. I should have helped break the ice. I made a mistake.

***

For a day commanded by conversations about social media it was striking how commonly delegates used that ‘m’ word. Communications heads from big brands in pharmacy, banking, retail and the third sector taking the podium and saying: “We messed up.” “We’d made a mistake.” “We tried this, it didn’t work, so we tried something else.”

I couldn’t help thinking back to another London communications conference dominated by digital, this time in 2006, a Don’t Panic ‘New PR’ event where speakers included Emily Bell, then Guardian director of digital content, the social media commentator and analyst Neville Hobson (by then already a prolific podcaster) and University of Sunderland’s Head of Journalism Chris Rushton.

I’ve tried to find a link to the original programme but can only find a Manchester version, posted by Chris’ then colleague Philip Young (who ran a fantastic study on ‘new media’ adoption in colleges for us when I worked at the Association of Colleges.)

That 2006 event felt like the meeting of a sect – a dark room, people speaking quietly, hands rising tentatively to ask questions, a confessional atmosphere. Some were experimenting – with podcasts to a handful of listeners, with (gasp) online newsrooms – often despite the organisation for whom they worked. The delegates might be blogging in a personal context, or monitoring what people were saying about their place of work on Facebook in their lunch hour. If they were making mistakes, they were doing so in secret.

Others like me were sat at the back, undergoing some form of conversion. And like a sect, it wasn’t entirely clear if we were heretical or simply an off-shoot of a larger body, at that point mostly spending its time taking journalists out to lunch.

So flash forward seven years, which is a very short amount of time in the grand scheme of things, and here we have global brands being searingly honest and public about the mistakes they had made online.

And while this feels a little odd, it is quite incredible that organisations haven’t made many more. Because here we have:

  • A medium which often strips out the helpful signals of visual and aural communications. Witness how well sarcasm works in social. Not.
  • Technologies that adapt or mutate with alarming regularity – whether they are Facebook algorithms or yet another image-sharing tool.
  • Monitoring that has always struggled to keep pace with the conversation, as if our ears were a little slower than our mouths.
  • A corresponding dearth of precedent – even now it often feels like an experiment.

Which is why communications professionals cling to eachother’s mistakes. Because in the era of social media, that’s often all we have to go on. If technologies and volumes of conversations and possibilities for talking to people are always changing, then we really are still experimenting and as such, more likely to stumble across what didn’t work for other people as what did.

It shouldn’t have taken a comms conference (or two) for me to work that out. The clue is in the name. If it’s social media then it’s destined to be defined by trial and error, just like any social interaction. We all make  social faux pas, some (like me) more regularly than others. We struggle to remember names. We talk too loudly, too softly. We forget to introduce people to each other.

The trick for communications practitioners is to persuade their organisations that the trial is worth the error. But that’s a conversation for another day.