Buzzkill: People are not bees
by Josh Bernoff
(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.
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.