Preening in Social Media



A few weeks back in rainy NY, I had a great conversation with my friend Tom Levin. Tom is a Professor at Princeton University, where he teaches media theory in the German department. Tom suggested that the roots of today’s bloggers and twitters can be traced back to the Flaneurs and Dandys who strolled the streets of Baudelaire’s 19th Century Paris. I wondered if there was a underlying behavior that connected these dots. Tom suggested the term self fashioning, which I thought was perfect.  (credit to Stephen Greenblatt for the term).  


Think about the most successful social media mavens in our community as it relates to the act of self fashioning: Calacanis saunters like a Dandy in LA with his bulldogs Taurus and Fondue; Fred unconsciously invokes the image of the Flaneur with his latest tweet from Paris. We are all establishing our identities by fashioning ourselves out of the communication tools, profile updates, and other services we have available to us. 


In an attempt to leverage this self fashioning behavior on behalf of marketers, we have been working on a new product at It’s called a WOMI, short for Word Of Mouth Impression.Instead of being an ad about a thing, it’s an ad about a person- a person you know, a friend. It tells a short story. It might be that “Jonas gets his Swagger from his scent” or “Marilyn uses Olay every week to moisturize.” These messages are created on the fly by our social ad server, which harvests interactions across our network, filters them through a social graph, and amplifies them in “traditional” banners. 


Though simplistic, this format is an early step in the evolution of social advertising. 


First: find a hand-raiser / evangelist / advocate willing to voice his opinion to his friends: 

opt-in impression 


Then, share his opinion with his friends: 



It is a form of store-and-forward communications that is as old as the original Darpa Internet. It seems novel only because banner ads have not changed much since they were invented 15 years ago.  


When I showed him some recent examples of these social ads, Tom was skeptical: why would somebody choose to share their opinion about a brand with their friends? What motivates somebody to want to interact with an advertiser when all they really seem to want to do is communicate with their friends? This of course is the fundamental dilemma for advertisers wishing to leverage social media:

“How can I make somebody care so much about my {soap, candy, beverage} product that they advocate on my behalf to their friends?”          



The problem with formulating the dilemma this way is that it focuses too much on the (in)capability of the brand to persuade, and not enough on the expressiveness of the advocate.  All social media environments depend on active communities; however not all community members are equally active. Usually, a small group of “producers” is disproportionately expressive relative to a much larger population of “consumers”. 


This begs a number of questions:

  • is there a set ratio between producers and consumers of social media?
  • is the difference between these two types purely situational (certain people are opinionated about certain subjects)
  • or is there a deeper, biological difference between producers and consumers?


Most birds have a preen gland, which secretes an oil that they rub onto their feathers. It is a basic form of self fashioning.


I wonder if people have similar glands, which compels them to share information.

Bird Preening 

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