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March 13, 2008

Buzzkill: People are not bees

by Josh Bernoff

Bee_books(Cross-posted from our blog at harvardbusiness.org.)

People are not insects. So why is it so popular, in analyzing the surge of social activity online, to compare them to bees?

Here you see the covers of two recent books about social technologies, Barry Libert and Jon Spector's We Are Smarter Than Me and Larry Weber's Marketing to the Social Web. Both appear to be more hive than Web.

It doesn't stop there. Online contributions are typically referred to, in the aggregate, as buzz. There are dozens of companies in the buzz-monitoring business. Two of the prominent ones are Nielsen BuzzMetrics and BuzzLogic, which has got bees all over its site. Or, if you'd prefer to hire people to buzz about your product, you can always go to BzzAgents, which has got an angry (determined?) looking bee as its logo.

Buzz_vendors_2 Language matters (see my rant against "users" which stirred up a hornet's nest . . . oops!). These books are pretty good and pretty interesting, and these companies are all successful at what they do. But from their covers and Web sites, you would think that all those contributors to the groundswell are diligent, interchangeable workers. This is the wrong image, folks. The groundswell is as heterogeneous as humanity itself. You're part of it. Are you an interchangeable part?

The fact is, the groundswell is made of people. Some of them are strident and vocal, some are quiet. Some like to gather in social networks, others in online forums. Their contributions are thoughtful, insipid, polemical, balanced, respectful, blasphemous, adoring, hateful, and any other adjective you can muster. You can use companies like BuzzMetrics to get a general idea of what's happening, or you can use companies like BuzzLogic and Visible Technologies to identify the influencers in your market, which could be far more important.

I think these bee images recur because they're easier to understand. Yeah, it's a lot of people out there contributing and interacting (We Are Smarter explicitly harks back to The Wisdom of Crowds in its marketing) but by thinking of them as bees in a hive, we become comfortable with their activity. Like all those busy little workers building Wikipedia. Ok, says the corporate strategist, I get that.

In fact, online activity is messy. It's characterized by flareups often driven by a single person with a creative idea, which never happens in beehives (lots of great instances are in Groundswell and in Citizen Marketers, for example). You can join it, influence it, deal with it, become a part of it. But no matter how much smoke you pump into it, it won't calm down as a beehive does. And that's because it's made of unique individuals, not worker bees.


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Daan Jansonius

Another example, the biggest Dutch social network is called Hyves!

Paul Caplan

Being a bit of a "language matters" man myself, I agree. The Prisoner's "I am not a number I am a free man" became "I am not a demographic" and is now "I'm not an character". It's almost as though we can't accept the fact that we are talking 'people'. It's not difficult. Why do we need metaphors? Because we can't accept the fact that this stuff isn't rocket science or consultancy fodder (not you or me obviously!) it's just people talking. You don't need metaphors and PowerPoint flow diagrams to understand it. the problem comes in accepting it and then doing it.

Julie Katz

I'm not sure that using the image of a bee connotes that social media participants are "interchangeable workers." In fact, bees have quite a complex social structure and language - a dance not their buzzing. An individual bee's dance, I believe, can alert the rest of the bees in the hive to a fruitful new food source, thus stirring up an insect groundswell of sorts.

Aaron Strout

Josh - great post with a clever title. I would have to agree with Paul though - just because there are bees on the cover (our company/CEO was behind the We Are Smarter book and I run the site) doesn't mean that we view people as interchangeable. In fact, the reason we personally chose the bee motif is because bees are the most communal animal in nature:

1) bees work together for to share directions to the best pollen/flowers
2) they build the honeycomb collaboratively
3) they ultimately all work together to serve the queen who is responsible for the propagation of the hive

Very much looking forward to reading Groundswell!

Aaron (@astrout)

Shiv Singh

Josh, great post. I like how you are giving primacy to us as people. Increasingly, more and more research is telling us that it is the regular social web through which information is shared the most. When a relatively random link in the chain is broken the information stops flowing. It is indeed messy and human - mimicking our physical worlds more and more. Human Agency is central and any social program needs to start with that premise.

Josh Bernoff

@astrout I like the cover of your proposed second book more.

Blake Cahill


Enjoyed your posted. I think the challenge for marketing folks is to find actionable insight from the "buzz" and the plethora of conversation occurring. Our clients are actively engaged in getting to a deeper level of understanding by measuring the direction and sentiment of conversations, author or commenter influence (or not), and determining whether "the buzz" is naturally occurring or systematically being created or hyped. One needs to get a deeper level of insight to measure the impacts, directions, and outcome of the conversations. We have some interesting stats we will be sharing with the market in coming weeks around this subject.

Blake Cahill
Visible Technologies

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