Monday, February 6, 2012

Make your content legit: Four phases of "social proof"

I want to tell you about an extremely powerful principle for the production of quality content online, especially of the academic sort, but not limited to that. I call this principle "social proof."

 I see social proof as integral to producing the most legitimate content of whatever medium today. We now have the ability to obtain social proof at every stage of the creative and publishing processes; we must therefore integrate social proof into those stages (and be more critical of any content that ignores it).

This has come about in part due to my experiments in teaching online writing (see my recent post, "Competing Literacies and the 21st Century Research Paper" and the links provided by a former student, Jeff Swift, regarding recent national discussions about blogs vs. research papers).

I felt it was high time to try some hybrid pedagogy. This is why I've given an enhanced research paper assignment to one of my current Shakespeare courses. Those students will end up having created a traditional research paper of 8-10 pages. However, their process will be deeply mediated socially. During a three week period, I am requiring different stages of this "social proof." This is going to be the hardest, and the most rewarding, component of their research.

What is this "social proof" and how is it brought into the research and composition process? Simply put, my students must demonstrate at each stage of their research and writing that what they are doing is relevant to real audiences by finding and interacting with interested parties. So, below I explain four phases of social proof:
  1. finding people
  2. contacting people
  3. interacting and collaborating
  4. others' use of one's published content
Social Proof Phase 1: Finding People
My students explore who is working on similar texts or topics, where conversations on their topics are taking place, and what events or productions may relate to their area of inquiry. They are used to researching a topic, but they must change that thinking and be looking first for people associated with that topic. It's a big difference.

Finding such people comes first. If and when you find people who have been addressing the topic you're pursuing, you have gained an important, initial type of social proof. A topic is going to be more authentic, more viable, if you can show there exist people right now who show interest in it. When you gain that proof, when you are able to see that others are engaged in it currently, this gives you faith that your line of inquiry could actually matter, and it actually starts exposing you to the potential audience for the content you will be producing. So, finding people is a way to find a real audience, people who care. It's a way of marketing your topic to yourself, proving it is worthwhile, while at the same time paving the way for you to market your developing ideas to others.

What type of people are we looking for?Broadly speaking, I would identify four groups:

  • Homies
    Don't discount your spouse, roommate, or your mother. They know you and can see through your pretenses. They are also very likely to listen to anything you have to say because -- hey, they are your homies! Getting an initial read on your topic by floating it past close friends or classmates is a great idea. It's not enough, but it's not nothing.
  • Peers
    Students relate with students because they face similar challenges, assignments, and limits. Two people both involved in researching a common topic can be a great benefit to one another in sharing resources or giving informal critiques of topics and approaches. Peers are often of the same generation, and speak the same language with respect to popular culture and many other things. You are less likely to be afraid to pitch ideas or ask for help from peers. Of course, there are many peers or are yet unknown to you, but with whom you have a lot in common. It takes a bit more courage to reach out to them, but they are likely to respond if they recognize you as a peer.
  • Enthusiasts
    By this I mean non-professionals that have manifest strong interest in a specific topic -- especially if they have achieved a reputation online in their field of interest (as a reviewer, blogger, commenter, or perhaps as a curator or producer of content). Never underestimate the passion of the amateur or the fan. They are often more willing to help than professionals may be, and precisely because they may be amateurs they are not confined to traditional ways of thinking. They may have more zeal than knowledge, but often what you are looking for is someone with general knowledge in an area that could provide general feedback. Enthusiasts can do that.
  • Experts
    Here I mean authors, scholars, scientists, editors, or other professionals whose business it is to be informed or to publish about topics close to the ones you're researching. This is the most intimidating group to contact, but based on my own students' many efforts, they are surprisingly approachable. With the various online services they are increasingly accessible, and they generally enjoy sharing knowledge of their topic with those showing genuine interest.
I will say more about how to go about contacting each of these types of people in the phase two section, below.

Where can one do social discovery?You really have to think differently when doing this; you may start with topical searches, but your goal is not to find links or websites; you are hunting for people with whom you could potentially interact.
But what about Google?
Please note that none of my recommendations has included going straight to a general Google search -- not for social searching. That can work, but is a bit like playing roulette when gambling on sources isn't needed. Google Blog Search is better, as is Google Scholar Search (for finding experts, though these are not always living or reachable). Similarly, Wikipedia isn't that useful for social search; it is all topic oriented. One can comb through footnotes on a Wikipedia page, but I don't think that is the most direct route.

Offline social searching
A special note here on non-online social searching. Never forget that there are usually people in close range who may be very willing to discuss topics, especially if one is near a university or library. Step away from the computer and go knock on someone's door or have a face-to-face conversation with a subject specialist at the library. You'd ve amazed.

I would recommend sampling among these finding methods, but not trying to use them all. The goal here is to get to the people very soon, and too much canvassing can delay that all-important connecting that is the goal here.

What does one do with social search results?
As with any web searching, it helps not to run with the very first thing you find, but to do some sorting and filtering. I would use several of the starting points listed above, keeping track of my findings using a social bookmarking service (like Diigo); or simply on a Google Document spreadsheet or a wiki page. It is better to publicly curate content; a list of people and why you think they matter to a topic could be as useful to others as a scholarly bibliography.

How my students will demonstrate this initial phase of social proof is through blogging. There, they discuss their process of finding these people and their rationales for deeming them to be interested parties or promising contacts for actual interaction.

This phase is important, but won't mean much at all unless students push on to phase 2.

Social Proof Phase 2: Contacting People
Contacting people can be very nerve-racking for those accustomed to doing research in isolation. But it's the core of this new way of developing ideas and quality content.

How one goes about contacting people will vary according to the audience and type of feedback being sought. In general, the more you know a group of people, the more general you can be in asking for feedback; the less you know individuals or groups, the more specific you must be when reaching out, and the more you should prepare for an appropriate kind of contact. When reaching out to homies or peers, you can be rather casual. When contacting enthusiasts you don't know, it's best to show appreciation for their work or express common interests. And when it comes to experts, you should not be afraid of them, but you need to do your homework if you want to be taken seriously. More on that in a bit.

As for the type of feedback you are seeking, remember that you don't need any direct feedback in order to get that first level of social proof mentioned above; you are simply confirming the relevance of your topic as you document all the people who have a stake in it. But the next level of social proof does require contacting others, because you are seeking a higher level of social proof: you are putting to the test your own ideas. Would they be interesting to those who are invested in the topic generally? You can find out either indirectly or more directly.

The Indirect Approach: Posting Queries
People who already know you (either closely, or perhaps as Facebook friends or followers on another social network) are more likely to respond to a general query. However, specific questions are more likely to get a response. You can post very specific questions to such places as Yahoo Answers or Quora. I have personally found these sites to be too broad in scope, attracting superficial or useless replies.

Posting queries can work extremely well if you find the right forum, email list, or social network devoted to your topic. In general, posting queries is less likely to work unless you have gotten to be part of an established online community or established a sort of personal learning network (not a bad idea, but not a starting point). Incidentally, if you have been a reliable content producer that people have enjoyed following, they love to reciprocate by helping you solve problems or answer questions that you pose publicly.

A good indirect way of posting a query is to use your customary social media channel simply to remark upon your growing interest in a topic. "Wow, people just don't want to let the Shakespeare authorship question die. Go figure" or "Shakespeare's impact was more in his language than in his plays? Not sure what I think of that! [link]." In this way, those in your established social graph who care about your topic may remark upon your micro-post. Even if this is just a Facebook "like" or a Google+ +1, this gives you modest social proof that your concept is interesting. And it can lead to more substantial responses or conversations.

Direct Approach: Email
Those in the expert category are often of the generation that is still primarily working with email for online communications. This allows you to get their direct attention (provided you can obtain their contact information), but with overcrowded email boxes and spam galore, contacting someone by email whom you don't know is a risk. However, that risk evaporates if you take the effort to get to know that person's expertise or published works, show some respect for that, and make a good-faith effort to link your query with their expertise. This is good for you, anyway, because it helps you decide whether it is worthwhile to contact someone by trying to make a case for connection to their work. And there is no better way to purchase the attention of an expert than through demonstrating that you have both understood and appreciated his or her work.

I receive a lot of email from my academic websites -- too much to answer. The way I make filtering decisions has a lot to do with how much those writing have made an effort to understand my work and to articulate it with their own. I get a lot of random queries -- blunt questions asking for me to apply my expertise in rhetoric. I generally ignore those. What am I, a fact-checking service? But what often appeals to me is when someone shows interest in and knowledge of my online publications, and a sincere desire to make use of my knowledge to help them. Incidentally, the more people who query me appear to me as interesting people, the more I am likely to answer their queries. Just a sentence or two placing them in their own social context makes them seem like the real human beings they are, and this influences my desire to respond.

Direct Approach: In person
It's hard to turn people away in person. If someone makes the effort to seek me out face to face, I am unlikely not to help them. The same rules apply here as with the direct email approach: if the person shows knowledge of and interest in my expertise, I'm much more willing to try to help them with their research projects.

Students shouldn't be afraid of approaching professors. We got into this profession because we enjoy ideas and sharing them. Just use the right approach.

Semi-Direct Approach: Social Mentions
On Twitter, Facebook, and on Google+ (perhaps also on LinkedIn -- I have not used it there), there are ways to mention someone so that they actually receive a notice of the mention or at least so it is more likely someone's post or tweet will come to the attention of that person (we are all vain, and are far more likely to read updates or tweets that mention us by name than those that do not). On Twitter, if you know that person's Twitter name, you put an @ sign in front of it within your tweet ("Another amazing post about open textbooks from @opencontent") On Facebook, the same convention is used but with people's real names. On Google+, you use a + sign in front of someone's name. If you end up starting an interesting conversation that builds off of a reference you made to someone in this semi-direct approach, they are more likely to appreciate you and want to respond to you through more direct approaches.

Whatever approach is attempted, the important thing is to get others to provide interim feedback on your developing ideas. If you have an overly broad idea ("I'm thinking of writing about Shakespeare adapted to film. Anyone have any ideas where to start?") people may not think answering is worth their time (though I admit sometimes to be surprised by people being more willing to answer such questions than I would have believed). On the other hand, if you have a more specific idea -- especially one that is sharpened by a claim -- you are more likely to get a response: "Right now my hypothesis is that the Shakespeare industry really didn't start until the 18th century" or "Shakespeare performances set in the modern day are easier to pull off with the comedies and less with the histories" -- these are more likely to get a response.

How do you know if your idea has social proof? If people you contact respond with interest, even if they disagree. The more people that do respond, the more proof that you have. However, keep in mind that a lot of what you are after is an affirmation or validation of your direction. You are looking to get social reasons to continue your research and writing. This is not soliciting a formal peer review. It's mostly about getting you excited to continue -- in part, because you now have faith that audiences truly exist that would appreciate what you have to say.

The next phase takes social proof to a higher level: interaction and collaboration.

Social Proof Phase 3: Interacting and Collaborating
Once you've gained social proof of your research idea by finding and then contacting others (homies, peers, enthusiasts, and especially experts), this can very naturally lead to conversations in which you express and refine your ideas based on the feedback that you get. This is an informal type of peer review, an in-process kind of evaluation that can be very casual, yet very consequential.

I once wrote a post about the problems with contemporary peer review. This led to a strong disagreement with a reader about the topic. I was very grateful for his standing up to me, and this tempered my later approach to the topic.

In another instane, one of my students posted a long comment on the blog of an expert. Her comment was substantial, and he responded by making that comment the basis of a later blog post. He also commented on my student's blog. During this exchange, they developed a rapport that was valuable for each party. This is how we refine ideas in the digital age -- going from a fairly informal mode of commentary to back-and-forth exchanges that bring out more judgment and support.

From casual interaction to substantial discussion
Interaction might take the form of a set of emails that get exchanged, or tweets and retweets, or blog posts and comments. I don't really consider it interaction unless each party has addressed the other more than once, and there is some sign of ideas being clarified, defended, or developed. What I am looking for is not a simple "thanks for commenting" or "I agree with you" or "Good luck on your paper!" -- no, I'm looking for dialogue that develops thought, that moves from the casual and the informal to more substantial discussion. Substantial discussion usually includes reasoned arguments, reference to supporting sources, and the making of claims. All of that could happen in the length of a tweet, though a solid paragraph or two is more likely.

You can see that this is a more substantial variety of social proof. If someone will take the time to critique your ideas respectfully or to engage you on a topic that you've started, it deepens the authenticity of your argument or line of inquiry. Again, you are more likely to take your own topic seriously when others take the trouble to discuss this or even dispute this with you.

While I do not require this of my students, I want them to be aware of and alert to the possibility of collaborative work developing through these online interactions. That takes social proof to its highest level: if people are willing to rely upon you for some common cause, this means they are taking both your topic and you very seriously.

Collaboration need not be something that requires a heavy commitment or great expertise (such as co-authoring a book). It might mean someone requesting that flesh out part of a wiki, or that you do a guest post on their blog. It might mean that you invite an expert to do a formal interview that others will witness or read. Of course, today collaboration is taking on all sorts of forms with remix culture and popular culture. Sometimes such projects can give more currency to a topic than a more traditional academic product. Collaboration requires solid communication, an understanding of roles, project management, and skill at composing or producing content.

Sharing Process
For all three levels of social proof that I've discussed here, it is always best if you can narrate your progress and document your process. As often as possible, mention others genuinely and generously. This shows you as someone who pays his or her intellectual debts and is a solid citizen of the participatory web. Sharing your process of social proof adds another layer of social proof, since others will see you as more legitimate and may refer to you or contact you because you are demonstrating these kinds of generous habits. It is a virtuous cycle, one that can take place on casual levels but becomes strongest when others share your more finished work. This is the last phase of social proof, what I call "secondary publishing."

Social Proof Phase 4: Others Use of One's Published Content

This is when others show you and your ideas great respect by making use of what you have formally published to the world. That's amazing social proof. You feel legit, because someone is using what you have contributed to make things or make things happen in their world. Your stuff has become a commodity, a utility, a resource that is not just of potential use but is applied to a present purpose.

You know, within the print paradigm, too often value has been attached to something just by virtue of it being published. And while passing muster with peer reviewers or editors at a journal or publisher can indeed be an achievement, it is far more gratifying to have authored something that garners social proof, not just a publisher's imprimatur.

This, the highest phase of social proof, requires three steps:
  1. Formal publication
    By this, I do not mean getting a book contract with a publisher. I mean that content which you have produced has moved from an open development phase through a finishing process of some sort. That finishing process might include formal review, but it will certainly include being designed for public consumption.
  2. Launch into broad circulation
    This means that the work you have done is made available through open, common channels or through restricted channels of notable reputation. Essentially, what you do has to be made widely accessible. Typically, this means without cost or very low cost, in digital form, and with licensing that does not keep it from freely circulating. Sometimes, this requires some publicity efforts.
  3. Use
    When you have finished ideas and launched them to the world, those ideas are not finished, not fully legitimate until social proof validates these through use. 
Use can range from published responses, reviews, or commentary to documented utilization or even an actual purchase. It must be evident that people are buying in (literally or figuratively) to the content that you put out there to be consumed. It is evident, especially, when others (especially those unknown to you) remark upon, review, tweet about, or otherwise draw attention to your finished work. This is a vital layer of social proof. If people are evangelizing your content because they find it valuable enough to share, that's strong social proof. Audiences need not be large to provide such proof. They simply need to demonstrate taking your work seriously enough to comment upon it or share it with others. The optimal scenario is that your work, published with creative commons licensing or in the public domain, is incorporated into others' work. And of course, any invitations to incorporate your work or for you to speak or otherwise participate because of what you have published add more layers of legitimacy and social proof.

Now, this highest phase of social proof can develop quite naturally when one has been active at all the preceding levels of social proof I've described. When you are finding, contacting, and interacting with people throughout the development of your content, you are naturally building an audience because you have assured yourself and others all along the way that what you are doing is meaningful. There really is no surprise at this point. Those who know about your project in process will then be delighted to be more formal consumers and advocates of your content. It has had social proof for them, as well as you. In a sense, social proof pre-markets finished work within the unfinished stage.


All of these phases of social proof take bravery. We have to trust that our ideas actually have audiences and that those audiences won't at first demand highly finished content. We have to believe there are mechanisms and cultural habits that encourage constructive response and dialogue. We must have faith we will not embarrass ourselves by venturing out with our ideas as they are developing, and that we truly have valuable stuff to offer. We must do our best to reciprocate when others contribute their opinions or critiques of our interim stages. There are serendipitous connections and energizing friendships awaiting in the wings, but to obtain these we have to be willing to seek out (and provide) social proof for our own ideas and for those of others.


Bri... only she said...

This post is just what I was looking for in the way of having steps to follow for social proof! And I started already, terrifying as that was! I fleshed out my paper ideas with my sister and emailed a blogger with my current thesis.

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