Social Media and The Black Swan Theory

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his book The Black Swan, talks of large, unpredictable events, and how these events are ones that have the most consequence on the world around us. Events of consequence are almost impossible to identify in advance, seemingly obvious only in retrospect. If events that have the most impact are almost impossible to identify in advance, they become impossible to plan for. Check Wikipedia for a better introduction to the subject.

It’s interesting in terms of communication, because so often the success or otherwise of a campaign is due to means beyond our control, particularly in pure digital, where unexpected coverage from other media can boost success. Our most-visited site a few years ago was one for Crime Stoppers, which benefitted rather heavily from a front page story in The Sun. It was a great site, but the event that made its success was its unexpected, unpredictable appearance on the front cover of a paper with a circulation of 3m+. That site was one of the ones reviewed and voted for when Reading Room was voted Digital Marketing Agency of the Year for 2007 (Impact Awards). It’s not that I think we don’t deserve it, but it’s interesting how success in this case (and I’m sure many others) was, to an extent, outside of our control.

The book goes on to talk about how to profit best from these Black Swans, and, if you’ll excuse the gross over-generalisation, for the most part this is down to preparation. Be ready for when you are witness to a Black Swan, and you can better take advantage of it. And I think social media provides us with a toolkit to do just this.

Let’s look at an example. Let’s think of something remarkably unlikely to happen. Say, a plane landing on the Hudson river, New York. Fairly outlandish idea. At least it was until the 15th January this year, when a US Airways Airbus A380 did exactly that (apparently due to another large aquatic bird, the Canadian Goose).

Janice Krums, on holiday from Florida, happened to be on a ferry in the area that went out to rescue the survivors of the crash. He was there well ahead of the mainstream media, and he happened to have an iPhone and a Twitter account, with TwitPic, which allowed him to share photos via Twitter. This was his photo

It was almost certainly the first picture of the scene. I think it’s a fantastic photo. 30 minutes after posting this picture, Mr Krums was being interviewed by MSNBC. The photo of TwitPic has almost 360,000 views. He’s now followed by 3,940 people on Twitter (I have read that pre-photo, he was followed by 200). People are, at least for now, interested in what he has to say. The Black Swan event has led to his popularity increasing, and his influence growing.

But of course, this is only possible because he had the right toolkit to get his photograph and thoughts to the rest of the world. There was more than one person on that ferry. Janice Krums was just the only one with access to the right tools.

So if we want to try and take advantage of our proximity to Black Swans, what do we need? When Alex Iskold wrote about the Attention Economy, a key part of this was the relevancy of the information you were broadcasting. People are interested in you and your thoughts/pictures/ideas whilst they are relevant, and when they no longer are, don’t expect them to stick around.

In this example, relevancy is about speed. You as an individual with your camera phone are relevant only until the mainstream media gets to the event, so to stay relevant, you need to be able to act quickly. And of course, this is what digital lets us do – write, photograph, publish and broadcast quickly.

My initial ideas are below, but I welcome thoughts for things I’ve no doubt forgotten.

1) A device to capture the event. A camera phone is clearly best for this, as it’s something you’ll likely always have on your person. Most phones now have a camera of reasonable quality, and many also provide video capacity too. Small, easy-to-use video cameras (such as The Flip) would be suitable too, although that don’t also provide internet access, which brings us to …

2) A device to get the event online. No point having a great photo that no-one else will see until you get home. The great joy of modern mobile phones is of course they’re always connected to the internet. For iPhones, Blackberrys and other smartphones, internet connectivity is part of the package. A small netbook with 3G card would suffice, but really the mobile phone gives you both the speed and ease of having a single device that can both capture and communicate the event.

3) Somewhere to broadcast to. There are so many sites out there that are possibilities here, from YouTube to Flickr to Facebook, but I actually think that Twitter is perfect. Twitter is built around short, regular communications, and it is the fact that they are regular that makes it perfect. If people regularly update Twitter, then people are more likely to regularly check Twitter. Twitter also has the largest sets of alarms and notifications to update you when someone you’re following sends a new tweet. In short, it’s great because people check it a lot. They’re more likely to find your event whilst it’s still relevant.

Of course, offering users a choice of where they can consume your content is only a good thing, and most mobile devices offer uploads to a variety of social media sites, and uploading to Facebook and Flickr is only going to increase the visibility of what you’re talking about.

Linking mobile devices with internet publishing creates an army of citizen journalists to report on these events. But it does more than that – the ability to react quickly around unexpected events is almost certainly one of benefit to the individual. And the digital world has given us a set of tools to help us do just this.

It’s interesting to think whether or not brands can benefit from this – either from being the “individual” with the tools, allowing them to communicate rare events to their consumers at greater speed, or from being the monitors of these events. Does monitoring social media for publication of Black Swan events aid the brand? Can they identify new trends or ideas quicker than competitors in this way?