The art of building software: Online Social Fetishes

Friday, May 13, 2011

Online Social Fetishes

A Zuni Fetish
A fetish happens when someone ascribes more value to an object or concept than it intrinsicly has.  As I researched fetishes for this article, I found them to be a surprisingly deep area of inquiry with multiple meanings and applications.  As usual, Wikipedia has a number of excellent articles on the topic that will most likely give you (as it did me) a much deeper understanding of fetishes, and in this article I will use the word "fetish" as described in Wikipedia.

In the online world, we have a "social fetish" when we ascribe more value to an online social experience than it intrinsicly has.  Some examples to give you an idea of what I mean:
  • You need a Facebook account to stay well connected with your friends and family
  • You need a LinkedIn account to find a job
  • You need a dating web site  to find a better mate
  • You need a mobile device to survive and thrive in this modern world

I'm going to get uncharacteristically personal for a moment and let you in on a little secret that I suppose will no longer be a secret now.  After leaving a Principal Development Manager role at the mobile phone division of a major software company, I spent about a year without owning or using a mobile phone.  It was quite an eye opener for me.  I certainly noticed the large number of broken, decaying pay phones scattered around our country.  People suddenly didn't know how to meet me somewhere on time.  And I would get on a train and see nearly everyone interacting with their mobile devices.  I think this experience served to make me more sensitive to online social fetishes.
Advertising encourages the fetish-izing of the product or service being promoted by associating things we already take as valuable - for example healthy, sexy looking people - with the thing they're advertising.  How else, for example, could we Americans be convinced to pay up to 10,000 times more for a gallon of bottled water than we pay for a gallon of tap water?  How many of us have taken the time to see whether bottled water is actually any cleaner than tap water?  Most people don't know about this study that found bottled water often exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's level for heavy metals, or this study which showed that bacterial contaminants in bottled water exceeded that found in tap water, or this study which found no difference in water quality between tap and bottled.  The online social world is no exception.

We've been convinced we need to invest time and money in using online social tools in order to be successful in our personal or business lives.  But how many of us that have used dating sites have actually checked the statistics to see if getting matched on a dating site works out any better (or worse!) in the end than getting matched not-on-line?  (Update in February 2012: Online dating survey suggests it's no better than meeting at a bar.)  [Update in February 2013: Online Dating Study Determines Users Have Only .03% Chance of Finding Lasting Love]  Good hard data is surprisingly hard to find, and you would think that sites like eHarmony would feature such data front and center on their web site if they had it, but they don't - try to find it on their web site.  Disclaimer: I could have spent more time trying to find this data so it may well be out there, I just couldn't find it.  If you find it, post a comment here and let me know!

Interestingly enough, with the advent of viral marketing techniques, we now do the advertising for social web sites when we bring new people into our network.  LinkedIn doesn't need to show you an ad during the Superbowl because their users are actively recruiting new users into the nework while the superbowl is actually going on!

The reason we're worth so much to Facebook is that while we're sitting for 11.5 minutes per day in front of Facebook interacting with our network, Facebook is pushing ads to us based on all the personal stuff we've entered into Facebook, and enough of us are clicking through on those ads that Facebook is making many hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising revenue per year.

Another way to look at the fetishizing of social web sites is to look at the market value of companies like LinkedIn.  LinkedIn is valued at approximately $3B.  With approximately 100M users, that means each user is worth about $30, even though the net revenue per user per year is only $2.40.  Facebook is worth $50B divided by 500M active users makes each user worth about $100, and again the net revenue per user per year is much lower.  The reason these companies are valued at such a multiple of their earnings or revenue, is that those of us valuating online social businesses also have an online social fetish.

I'll give an example to show how all these levels of fetishes work together.  Think back to the first time you registered with Facebook or LinkedIn.  Did someone invite you?  If so, that was viral marketing.  Did someone tell you about it?  If so, that was word of mouth marketing.  Read about it online?  That would be online marketing.  Now that you suspect that there's value there, you invest time and perhaps some money in building your profile, network, and content, and you begin to believe that you need this magical social account in order to stay connected with your network.  Enter your online social fetish, and then perhaps even add some level of addiction for some of us.  Then you spend your 11.5 minutes per day in front of facebook, and while you're doing that, you occasionally click on an ad, and ka-ching Facebook's coffers fill up.  All the people in the finance world and wall street who put the official value on companies are using Facebook themselves, and so they too are caught up in the same personal fetish.  So they attribute a significant value to Facebook far in excess of its earnings.

Karl Marx
Some argue that one of the reasons Karl Marx used the word "fetish" when he coined the phrase "Commodity fetishism" is that he was trying to show that the same force that drives so-called "primitive" cultures to, for example, believe in the power of voodoo dolls, also drives so-called "civilized" cultures to believe that, for example, a $100 bill is actually worth $100 when in reality it is a nearly worthless piece of paper, or that an online dating web site can actually improve your chances of having a successful relationship even though there is no data to that effect.  I'm making a similar comparison here.  Look for hard data before and after all these social tools, in each domain which they claim dominance: Family, friends, jobs, dating, etc.  Is the quality of relationships we're seeing now better than it was before these tools were around?  If so, where's the data?  If not, why do we invest so much time and money in these online social services?  Is it an online social fetish?

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