It's time to start the backlash against…backlash.
To read the media and technology press this week, the big story out of London is the backlash NBC is facing for its tape-delayed coverage. But this notion begs a deeper analysis, one that has to consider the vehicle where backlash gets funneled: social media.
When you look at the TV ratings, it's hard to square the undeniable success NBC has had over the first three days–35.8 million viewer average makes London the most watched Summer Olympics to date–with all the supposed dissatisfaction out there.
Is it not reasonable to deduce that: a) if more people are watching the Olympics than ever, then… b) more people are happy with the Olympics than ever… c) doesn't that make the disproportionate amount of coverage about those who are unhappy unwarranted?
That's to be expected given its the media's natural inclination to seek out stories framed as conflict–the conventional wisdom has always been that tension makes for the most compelling journalism. It certainly makes for a more interesting read than a headline like "Millions of Fans Pleased With Olympics Coverage."
So here's a deceptively simple question: What is "backlash" exactly? What portion of a population needs to vocalize its discontent to qualify as backlash, a majority or a minority? If it's a minority, does it need to be a significant minority? Or even if just one person complains, is that enough to frame a story as a backlash?
Argue if you will that even a small minority constitutes a backlash. But then what should we make of situations where there is a majority expressing discontent; do we call that a backlash, too? Do we do a disservice to something that gets a truly broadly pervasive backlash when we give that label to something much smaller?
That just seems wrong.
What seems to be happening here is that a vocal minority of naysayers are drowning out a largely satisfied but silent majority. And for that we have social media to thank, specifically Twitter.
Social media is an incredible tool for getting the word out whether you support or disdain something. But that's also the problem here. Show me something people are talking about on Twitter that doesn't have its detractors. And if everything has detractors, what is backlash really if everything invites somedegree of backlash?
That doesn't mean there is something inherently wrong with Twitter. The blame really resides with the journalists who mistake the mirror-walled echo chamber formed by the Twitter accounts they follow for the larger public. Perhaps they are parroting the groupthink of a congenitally disgrunted, hypercritical lot rather than feeding off a greater diversity of opinion.
And even if every single human with a Twitter account in the U.S. did disdain NBC's Olympics coverage–a population of 140 million by a recent estimate–there's still a majority of Americans whose thoughts on the Olympics aren't being heard.
So the bad news is that social media seems to be distorting any sense of scale in gauging real-time grass-roots reaction. But here's the good news: there's a cottage industry of companies out there engaging in the nascent science of sentiment analysis. They're capable of quantifying who is saying what and in what volume.
Consequently, stories that claim to convey some sense of consumer reaction should require data that supports otherwise wildly unsupportable conclusions. Maybe it's high time journalists looking to gin up a good story put some refined definition to a slippery concept like backlash.
Implicit or explicit in many of these backlash articles is the notion that NBC is deaf/dumb/blind to the backlash because they haven't responded in any demonstrable fashion to this supposed flood of anger coming their way. But isn't it possible that NBC is indeed listening and quantifying feedback from the audience and its lack of a response is proof positive that the scale of the #NBCfail lobby isn't of a significant size.
There's no easy answers here. It's not like if we had the most finely tuned Sentiment-o-meter at our disposal, it would offer hard and fast answers. Is there some magic number that marks "backlash" level? But this is a question of profound importance to media companies who live and die on public perception of their products. If news organizations are going to be the ones raising those questions, maybe it's time we step up our own game in this arena.