It’s hard to walk into a shop or restaurant these days without getting hit in the face by a “Like Us on Facebook” or “Follow Us on Twitter” sign. Sometimes, they even like to put them out on the sidewalk so that the chalkboard reads something along the lines of “We have a happy hour, but you’ll need to send three tweets and do four Facebook status updates with the name of our establishment preceded by an @ sign to be eligible. You can find out what the happy hour specials are by posting a photo of our restaurant on Instagram and then repinning six pictures of our furniture on Pinterest. PS. Happy fall.” It’s annoying. Whatever happened to the old word of mouth method?
Some new data collected by Alexis Madrigal over at The Atlantic suggest that the world’s newfound obsession with sharing through social media sites is not actually as obsessive (or effective) as many people assume. Speaking more specifically about the traffic that finds its way to magazine sites like his own, Madrigal approaches the challenge of figuring out how people are finding their way to TheAtlantic.com. It’s easy if they’re coming from another website like, say, Facebook because there’s metadata attached to that visit that explicitly says it’s coming from Facebook. Same goes for Google, Twitter, Tumblr and StumbleUpon, and so forth.
Then, there’s another portion of traffic — quite a large one, it turns out — that comes from no specific place. It’s missing the metadata which usually means it was just a link copied out of the browser and pasted into an email or an instant message conversation. Madrigal calls this “dark social,” and it’s just like what you did in 1995, when you were staying up past your bedtime cruising GeoCities and chatting with some teenage girl in Iceland. (That was actually a middle aged man in Scranton, by the way.) For The Atlantic, dark social makes up well over half of the referrals to its site.
You must be wondering why this geeky analytics analysis matters to the everyday web user, e.g. you. To put it quite simply, it’s just proof that you don’t need social media sites to share things. And moreover, social media sites require a certain amount of sacrifice, e.g. your personal data, in order to share things. AIM doesn’t need to know your birthday to let you chat with your friends. Madrigal explains it well. “We’re not giving our personal data in exchange for the ability to share links with friends. Massive numbers of people — a larger set than exists on any social network — already do that outside the social networks,” he writes. “Rather, we’re exchanging our personal data in exchange for the ability to publish and archive a record of our sharing. That may be a transaction you want to make, but it might not be the one you’ve been told you made.”
But seriously, you must really be wondering what all this has to do with that chalkboard in front of a restaurant. It’s a metaphor, of course, for how it takes too much work to share things these days if only because we’re being told to share them in these new cumbersome ways. If you like a restaurant, try sending your friend who lives a few blocks away a text that says something along the lines of, “This place is great! Let’s eat here sometime!” And then next time you read a great article online, drop that link in a Gchat window. Everybody’s doing it, and you don’t even have to sacrifice your privacy to be in the club!"