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It’s About Time for Social Media to Buzz Off

Listening to consumer sentiment is getting easier, but that’s a mixed blessing

So what’s the latest buzz on … well, buzz?

The funny thing about this thing we call “buzz” — the prevailing sentiment among consumers toward the objects they consume — is the certitude with which so many in Hollywood talk about it, despite the lack of any quantifiable source for the information. The buzz on something is either good or bad largely dependent on what the last three people you spoke with said, which is not quite as broad and diverse a sample as a scientist might require.

Never is the absurdity of buzz more evident than during Oscar season, when the prospects of films and actors winning awards is the source of endless pontification.

Everybody talks about it, yet no one knows what they’re talking about. Still, it’s gobbled up like gospel.

But as pervasive as this nonsense is, buzz is rapidly becoming quantifiable through a growing cottage industry of businesses that have made a specialty of filtering the noise on social-media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. There isn’t a media company out there that doesn’t partake of this kind of tracking in some shape or form to get a read on how consumers anticipate and receive their products. No wonder social analytics companies are becoming the must-have accessory to any self-respecting technology firm: Bluefin Labs was acquired by Twitter, SocialGuide went to Nielsen and, most recently and unexpectedly, Topsy rolled to Apple.

What better way to understand your customers than to pay close attention to what they are saying publicly about you. But what’s going to have to become a crucial yet complicated sub-specialty of this corner of big data is figuring out what to do when you don’t like what they’re saying about you.

There is bad buzz, and then there is backlash. That’s when mere isolated examples of grumbling graduate to rumblings — and therein lies the problem social media presents.

Think of Twitter in particular as a snow-packed slope, where even the slightest flake will roll downhill and attach itself to other particles. Before you know it, there is an avalanche of negativity coming your way.

It wasn’t like this until social-media platforms achieved their massive scale. Now what was once a lone voice or two of dissent that had to do their damndest to be heard have a built-in amplifier that makes dissemination — and reverb — all too easy. There’s no grass-roots campaign that doesn’t become a wildfire, and social media provides the accelerant.

To some degree, it’s swell that social media has such power. All it takes is one vote of confidence to inspire others to champion truly worthy causes, and there have been some incredible examples of that, like the KONY 2012 campaign that vaulted a fugitive African warlord from obscurity to the harsh light of global headlines.

But in the realm of pop culture, social media seems to have become more a force of distortion than anything else. Twitter and Facebook don’t provide any sense of proportion to a debate; no matter how lopsided a difference of opinion is, the minority can speak as loudly as the majority.

Just look at the events of the past week. Would Lorne Michaels have made such public efforts to add an African-American woman to the cast of “Saturday Night Live” were it not for criticism that probably was nowhere near groundswell levels? Would Warner Bros. have withheld screenings from the press of a high-frame-rate version of “The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug” if it didn’t fear the niche outcry that greeted the most recent film to have been so screened?

The media business is getting to a place where there’s no complaint too small to heed and respond to, in fear of the kind of public-relations nightmare best exemplified by the outrage that has all but swallowed the Washington Redskins organization over its choice of team name (or recently, quarterback).

There are no molehills in social media, only mountains.

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