Friday, October 24, 2008

Is Social Media blurring our Perceptions of Reality?

It's no secret; I am a big fan of the potential of the social media. The social media affords unprecedented levels of connectivity with one's customer; as such, interactivity the likes of which have never before been seen is possible. Good stuff. Recently though, I have been examining the more alarming aspects of social media adoption. As our activities are becoming increasingly digital, I fear that we may slowly be losing touch with reality...

Many of my recent posts have recognized the impact of the economy on the organization’s brand spend. Although I am convinced that social media will weather the current economic storm, it is undeniably that new revenue generation models are required. The traditional advertising model made popular by Google is not universally applicable, and many online startups are realising this to their detriment. One of the more innovative models to emerge in recent years involves the creation of revenue through the sale of digital goods. A recent article in Business Week placed the value of virtual good sales at $1 billion dollars annually; not bad considering that the price for replicating digital products is next to nothing. The demand for virtual products has risen as a corollary of the meteroic rise of virtual worlds, such as Second Life. Marketing teams are selling these virtual goods to users, who in turn incorporate the products into their electronic existence. Whether or not this strategy is likely to represent a viable long-term revenue source is yet to be seen.

A second recent event which has caught my attention is the case of the Japanese woman who was arrested following the 'murder' of a digital character. The article, which was covered by CNN, illustrates how events contained within virtual worlds are resulting in very real consequences. The women in question logged into a fellow 'citizen's' account to commit the crime; she now faces up to five years in prison, and a $5,000 fine. Although there is more to this story than simply 'virtual murder', the fact remains; what was once perceived an entertaining past-time now represents something far more serious.

The point which I am trying to reach is that our lives seem to be playing out increasingly in digital form. Of greater concern however, is the realisation that our digital actions are having an increasingly real impact on our everyday lives. As people spend more time in a digital environ, I fear that the more absorbing social media platforms may, ironically, be making us less social; a sentiment recently echoed by Danny Brown of PR Press Release.

For all the benefits that the social media affords, there remains a need for a clear distinction between the virtual and the actual. However, as the capabilities of such facilities as Second Life become increasingly engrossing, I fear that these distinctions may become increasingly blurred.

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Social Media: A Case of Lambs to the Slaughter?

I have been meaning to write this post for a while. The recent Wired article by Paul Boutin entitled Twitter, Flickr, Facebook make blogs look so 2004 seemed like a good opportunity to share.

I'm concerned... As someone with a true interest in the potential of social media, I follow the subject extensively, yet I find it alarming that the majority of views seem to be so similar. Invariably, a great number of the user-commentators that are creating the content will have read much of the same material; The Cluetrain Manifesto; Naked Conversations; Groundswell; Citizen Marketers; and Marketing to the Social Web to name but a few of my personal favourites. But how many people read these texts, recognise the points of view contained therein and then develop their own theories and ideas? I'm not so sure... I personally find the tendency for commentators to follow the herd en masse slightly alarming.

The Wired article referenced above has received almost total dismissal within the Blogosphere. Boutin's thoughts have been shredded by commentators arguing that the suggestions made therein are flawed, naive, or just absurd. Perhaps. On the contrary though, perhaps the article represents something quite unique; an author who is willing to break away from the pack to offer somewhat radical social media advice. Clearly, there is a generally agreed best practice approach to implementing social media; this is undeniable. Yet, in an age in which social media uptake is reaching unprecedented levels, is it not better to examine contrary points of view in an attempt to distinguish oneself and one's organisation from those around them? I myself wrote an article yesterday on my perceptions of the Future of the Social Network. In this post, I made the prediction that those organisations currently experiencing dominance within the market will be superceded by new, increasingly innovative organisations. Although the assumptions made are hardly radical, I am certain that many people reading the content would disagree with it.

I'm in the process of reading a book called 'Cult of the Amateur' by a chap called Andrew Keen. Most of the content of that book is pretty radical for anyone with any knowledge of the benefits of the social media, and Keen has been accused of being elitist for his views. Yet I read this material to get an alternative perspective, simply because I find it refreshing to get more than one point of view. It is only through the examination of several points of view that we are able to develop an appropriate solution to a problem, and to craft a response accordingly. I am reminded of a comment I once saw on a poster for HSBC bank: 'A different point of view is simply the view from somewhere you are not'. Whilst it is good to offer one's opinion, an ability to recognise the views of others is equally important.

Suggestions and recommendations such as those made in the article need to be examined in context. Remember, Boutin is not discounting social media in its entirety. Yes he suggests that blogs are outdated, but within the same piece he advocates microblogging. To me, the article simply represents an attempt to convey an opinion. Whether or not Boutin is proved correct is yet to be seen, however I think that as a social collective we need to be more open to new ideas, instead of shutting them out in their entirety.

In times when more and more people are jumping onto the Social Media bandwagon, why not distinguish yourself from the crowd?

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Future of Social Networking; What Future...?

I'll make my position clear; I am and always have been sceptical about the position of the Social Networks. Sure, contemporary society is embracing social networks such as Facebook on an unprecedented scale, but is Facebook as a business truly sustainable? As we are already seeing, the social networks are already stuggling to prevent outward migration of users; as soon as a site slips up, it seems that ten new ones appear to address the deficiencies highlighted. I posted recently about comments made by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg which defined the organisation's business model as growth orientated, yet there was little mention of revenue generation. It seems that more and more social media platforms are creating a business first and worrying about revenue later. Although this has worked well in some cases (consider the case of Google), whether or not this strategy will be sustainable in a time of economic crisis is yet to be seen.

Don't get me wrong, I would suggest that social networks will continue to remain an important element of the social media; let's face it, the social desire to connect is unlikely to dissipate any time soon. I do believe however that the dominant network will be cyclically replaced over the coming years. As we have seen with the case of Facebook, users generally do not like change, yet they constantly demand up to date applications and tools. These two demands seem to contradict each other somewhat. It is my guess that both imposing change upon the end user and failing to provide adequate facilities will drive the customer away. This cycle is likely to continue for several years to come, perhaps until some new social platform replaces the social network in its entirety.

The Social Network's current inability to generate revenue is likely to be its eventual undoing. Growth must be funded. I imagine that as investors become disillusioned with the perceived benefits of the platform, investments will become increasingly scarce. Remember, there are other, more sustainable social media platforms that represent a far more viable option for business success. Without funding, expanding the business becomes increasingly difficult. Failure to innovate will cause the product to become stale, and will invariably result in the outward migration of users similar to that described above.

Is there a future for the Social Networks of today? Who knows. One thing is for certain though; unless social networks identify a viable revenue model, selling the benefits of the platform is going to become increasingly difficult.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Great Britain: A Nation of Innovation?

Last month, I posted the following comment on the blog of Andy Pryce, the First Secretary for Public Affairs in Washington:

"I've been wondering recently just how web savvy and innovative we truly are... Organisations wishing to invest in the UK should recognise where British web stregths lie. The question remains though; are us Brits truly as web savvy as those from other nations?"

The comment, which was made in response to a post that describes the UK as 'web savvy and innovation orientated', challenged Pryce. I was convinced that Great Britain lags behind other countries in the innovation stakes, and at the time I was keen to express my position. Maybe I was wrong...

I have no problem with admitting when I am wrong; it's character building. In this particular instance, the reason for my change of heart came after I read an article detailing government plans to provide children from deprived families with computer equipment. The initiative, which was originally proposed in January 2007, has finally been recognised, and is currently being piloted in Suffolk and Oldham, England. What truly surprised me though, were the comments made by the school's minister, Jim Knight, in response to the Government's proposal. Knight claimed that:

"There has to be a culture where families see home access is as important as making sure their children have pen, paper and calculator at school... The bottom line is that having home access to the internet or a computer is no longer an optional extra for school work it is fast becoming essential"

Strong comments indeed, but in an environment where technology is everywhere, hardly unjustified. I was surprised that these comments came from someone within the government; a stuffy, Bureaucratic organisation that clings rigidly to the traditions upon which it was founded. Many would argue that government and innovation are polar opposites. Perhaps not. The government's specific intention in employing this strategy is to leverage the educational benefits afforded by IT. Whether or not the scheme will prove to be successful is yet to be seen.

In any case, what the above does illustrate is that the British Government has made addressing the 'digital divide' one of its top priorities. By implementing various social media tools which include blogs and Twitter profiles, the government is demonstrating that they are perhaps more in touch with technological innovation than I have previously given them credit. Hopefully, their efforts will continue to prove people like me wrong, whilst successfully addressing the digital divide. I also hope that initiatives such as those described above facilitate Britain in retaining its position as a technologically aware nation.

I know one thing is for certain; I owe Andy Pryce, and the 'web savvy and innovation orientated' nation of Great Britain, an apology...

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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Encouraging Community Action through Social Media

I was reading earlier today about a social initiative which is being run through Twitter. The initiative, which is linked to this post, is attempting to achieve its goal of providing between 200 and 1200 cups of coffee to participants in the Austin Texas Heart Walk through Twitter. I found this premise fascinating; instead of attempting to achieve a particular goal within a local, physical community, why not present the problem to a far greater electronic community. Clearly, the greater the number of information recipients, the greater the likelihood that a collective solution will be achieved.

Herein lies one of the greatest benefits of the social media. As the communities constructed are ever increasing in size, the potential reach of content placed therein is similarly extended. These extensive networks represent a fantastic collaborative resource from which to mould a solution to a given problem. As in the case described above, not-for-profit ventures can convey their message to the community, identifying their targets accordingly. These goals are far more likely to be achieved collectively than through the efforts of a single event organiser. For-profit organisations can leverage these networks to achieve similar outcomes. Clearly, the theory of Network Effects as identified by Metcalfe still holds value within the Age of Social Media.

Organisations that recognise the value of the network will be the organisations that succeed in an environment driven by social media. This is not a new premise; as mentioned above, Metcalfe identified that the value of a network was proportionate to the square of the number of users therein back in the 1990's. Organisations must create powerful social networks and leverage the capabilities afforded thereby to achieve success. Collaborative goals are achieved far easier than goals tackled individually.

It will be interesting to see whether or not the initiative above collaboratively achieves its goal by leveraging the network effects of Twitter.

read more digg story

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Monday, October 13, 2008

To Regulate or not to Regulate? That is the Question...

Having read an article on Digg which, funnily enough, condemned the application for the recent banning of several users, I thought that I would clarify my position on regulating user generated content on the Internet. As you may have noticed, I am a keen advocate of limiting regulation of the above; personally, I find most forms of content regulation obtrusive. By constricting the user's ability to freely express themselves, organizations are creating a significant deterant to contributions. In most cases, if you do regulate user contributions, there will be a competitor that won't. In such cases, the negative content will eventually appear. The downside in my opinion, is that the detering organisation will lack the capacity to effectively engage in the ensuing discussion, thus eliminating their ability to convey themselves as in touch with the user.

I agree that certain regulations are required. For example, regulations to exclude coarse language, socially unacceptable topics, and identification of trade secrets are but a few examples of areas which naturally require some degree of regulation. These 'limitations' represent obvious exclusions that should be respected by the application user, and hold recognisable similarities with real world examples. Content which contains elements of any such topics should be addressed to ensure that the detrimental effects thereof are contained within reason.

The process of generating content involves two parties; the organisation offering the community, and the user members that represent it. Each party must be held equally accountable for any actions that may affect the position of the other. Remember that, to a degree, neither the application, nor the application-specific community can exist without the other. Although the application providers rely far more upon their community, particularly in the presence of an abundance of alternative product offerings, common sense should direct users to only post content that is appropriate for the forum into which it is being offered. Unfortunately, we all know that in practice, common sense does not always prevail; someone will always ruin things for everyone else. Even in these cases though, moderation software which relies upon human determination of appropriateness is available to sort the relevant material from the rubbish. If anything, it is these human moderators that should be regulated to ensure that they suitably understand the material that should and shouldn't be displayed. If implemented effectively, such content sifting need not represent regulation.

In the case of the article described above, it reads more like a case of 'sour-grapes'; a term taken from one of the comments made by one member of the Digg community in response to the report. Yes, social communities such as Digg have an obligation to their community. Similarly, the community has a responsiblity to respect the rules governing the use of the application. If these are not upheld, then action should indeed be taken to limit the detrimental impacts of their actions in the community at large. If the offence is adequately significant, then of course exclusion will represent a viable course of action.

This debate is likely to continue for as long as social communities remain popular, but these are my thoughts. I would love to hear your views on the matter.

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

It's all about Growth... Or is it?

Mark Zuckerberg recently made comments in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung detailing Facebook's strategy for the next few years. The focus; growth. Zuckerberg's plans revolve around efforts to grow the organisation over the next three years. Whilst growth represents a major strategy for retaining competitive advantage in a time of economic instability, attention must be paid to how ventures will be funded. Even the most innovative of organizations will only succeed if they have the capital to fund their expansions.

Many social media organizations seem to be neglecting the importance of generating capital at present. Whilst organizations such as Facebook and Digg clearly hold contemporary competitive advantage acheived through critical mass, such advantages are only likely to be sustainable in the presence of ongoing revenue generation. Larger organizations, such as Microsoft and Google, have a significant warchest from which to draw funds. These established organizations have time and again proven their dominance in those fields which they choose to enter. As such, firms with a proven track record in revenue generation are likely to prove a very real threat to the contemporary social application provider.

If I were Zuckerberg, I would seriously reassess my situation, and exploit today's competitive advantage to tomorrow's benefit.

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Social Media and the Economy

In case you hadn't noticed, the economy isn't too strong at the moment. With organizations already beginning to make large scale redundancies to cut ever increasing costs, much recent speculation has queried whether or not the social media is likely to remain a viable marketing tool in the years to come. My response; unquestionably.

Despite the need for organizations to justify every expense incurred against ROI, it should be acknowledged that social media marketing can be free. If implemented effectively, an organisation's workforce can be impassioned to truly represent their employers online. By empowering the workforce and creating a culture of creativity, the employees will feel a far greater connection with the organisation. Under such circumstances, the workforce is far more likely to convey their passion for the organisation online. This allows the organisation to convey a more human aspect to its business. Such actions are only likely to result as a corollary of an absense of regulation. Whilst minimal monitoring of employee participation in the social media is necessary, for example to exclude the presence of obscenities and trade secrets, I passionately believe that overly regulating the process will result in mechanistic perceptions. This will without doubt be recognized by the communities into which the content is received, and any social media marketing efforts will be rejected.

I recognize that in times of economic instability, justification of all expenses is an important requirement. Abandoning social media though is likely to represent a mistake. I truly believe that those organizations that remain focused on the social media will retain a competitive advantage over those that supposedly 'streamline' their operations. It is my opinion that it will be the firms which retain this social media created advantage that will succeed when we emerge from the current economic crisis.

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Friday, October 10, 2008

The CEO and the Cesspool; Consumer Created Misinformation in an Age of Social Media

Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently referred to the internet as a 'cesspool' of misinformation. These comments are likely to come as a shock; after all, Google have taken firm position as the main information gatekeeper since its creation ten years ago. Schmidt made the comments at a conference for magazine executives; an ironic twist when considering that Google has profited more than most from shifting media consuption away from traditional towards the new media. The comments are likely to once again spark debate as to whether or not user generated content represents quality or dross.

Although the social media has facilitated the consumer's ability to create new and original content, these platforms have simultaneously opened the floodgates of opinion. As such, information available online is becoming ever more voluminous as anyone with an opinion inextricably records it online. Whether or not this is detrimental to public knowledge is likely to remain a topic of debate for the next few years. In my opinion though, access to a far wider pool of information can never be a bad thing. Whilst information has historically been a corollary of traditional establishments, such as the major press organisations, there are limitation to the scope that these organisations can achieve. As I have frequently said before, 'We' can achieve significantly more than 'I'; more often than not in a fraction of the time, and at a fraction of the cost.

Whether or not regulation of the social media is a requirement for sifting the accurate information from the misinformation is another question. My personal opinion is that if social media is regulated, a large proportion of those that engage in the conversation willingly are likely to be detered from doing so. As such, the conversation is likely to become hideously directed. If users are unable to accurately convey their opinions then social media is not accurately meeting its potential.

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A case of do what I say, not as I do? The Position of Social Media and PR Firms

So the Social Media is real buzzword at the moment. Many people are advocating its use as the future of marketing (myself included), but are the people that really push the benefits of social media truly aware of what it is that they are selling? I myself have been plugging the benefits of blogging for almost a year now, but it was not until two weeks ago that I actually sat down and thought it appropriate to practice what I preach. According to the attached article, i'm not alone.

Numerous PR firms are raving of the possibilities afforded by blogging, Search Engine Optimisation and social networking, yet according to Andrew Smith, the author of the attached blog, many firms fail to recognise these principles within their own organisations. Unless PR firms can be specifically identified as professional social media purveyors, it is unlikely that potential clients will approach them; or as the article suggests, even be aware of their existence. It would appear to me that the best way to demonstrate one's marketing abilities would be to incorporate every relevant lessons into my business practices. In doing so, the client has tangible evidence of the organisation's expertise; a particular asset given the current economic climate and the resultant reluctance to outsource.

As has been discussed in recent posts, the importance of influence online has become instrumental for success in the current economic climate. Influence is only possible through visibility. Although said visibility need not necessarily be achieved digitally, the reach of electronic word of mouth easily exceeds the abilities of individuals to convey their thoughts in the physical words. The level of visibility achievable through the social media is one of the core benefits thereof. Clearly, by acknowledging the social media as a means of increasing visibility, PR firms are not only influencing potential client decisions, but simultaneously demonstrating an ability to implement the new media to the organisation's advantage. This is an advantage which clients will want to replicate.

As talks of influence tracking software becomes more common place, PR firms must realise that unless they too employ the social media into their businesses, their visibility and hence their influence will decrease. They will lose ground to those who they advise, particularly as their clients create their own networks and become experts in their own rights. Although PR firms clearly have a lot of insight to offer, standing apart from the social media will cause them to be left behind.
read more digg story

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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Another Example of Consumer Power!

So the plan was to post this two days ago. Unfortunately, i'm working hard to revise for an exam on AdWords that I have next week, so blogging has taken a back seat for the past few days. Sorry if this is old news now!

To briefly highlight, PayPal recently gave in to demands to change the rules for refunding eBay buyers affected by fraud. Reading through the article, it would appear that the central reason for the change of heart was consumer power. Hate sites created against PayPal managed to make the organisation reassess their position on consumer refunds.

In this instance, I would suggest that PayPal made the correct decision to listen to the views of the parody websites. Many organisations are still of the impression that hate sites represent a threat exclusively. This opinion is naive. More often than not, these sites are established by those with an interest in the organisation's offerings. As such, these sites are likely to identify important points that the organisation should consider. Simply buying the domain names is unlikely to resolve the inherent problem. Further, were the issue to cause a second individual to establish such a site, the organisation would find itself back at square one. It makes far more sense to actually listen to the consumer and resolve their problems as they arise.

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Is Social Network Search the Way of the Future?

I doubt it, but this article intrigued me. Are social networks really likely to become a viable threat to such search behemoths as Google, Yahoo! and MSN Live Search? Who knows. In my opinion though, it seems far more likely that the large search engines will instead venture further into social network territory.

To date, very few social media applications have succesfully made the transition from one platform to another. The latest strategy involves simply incorporating a number of external technologies into one's business model, as is most obvious within those social networks that offer optional applications that can be added by users at will. With search though, a number of the social networks are incorporating their own offerings; a risky strategy given the power of the existing search facilities.

As I see it, social networks have two options for the incorporation of search. Firstly, they could attempt to create their own search facility which is then made available to users within the social network. Clearly, the strongest benefit of such a strategy would revolve around the organisation's access to a wealth of user generated content. Search engines would kill for this information; in fact, one of my recent posts examined the patenting of influence ranking software by Google. The software, which allows the gauging of influence through analysis of social network rankings, has the potential to redefine targeted social media advertising. Such software will only be possible if the search facility is able to gain access to content from numerous social network providers. At present, this seems unlikely. Conversely, the organisation could effectively outsource search. By allowing large search facility providers access to the data contained within the network, social networks could profit by demanding a percentage of the income afforded by enhanced targeting abilities. This seems like one of the more viable solutions considering the present difficulties social network providers face in achieving profitability.

Attempts to expand a personalised search facility beyond the boundaries of the network require cataloging of the vast swaths of information; information which is already accessible through the established search providers. This seems like a considerable effort when recognising that collaboration may in fact allow both parties to prosper.

As always, thoughts would be greatly appreciated.

read more digg story

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Friday, October 3, 2008

A Demonstration of the real Power of Citizen Journalism..

Consumers are becoming increasingly more powerful through the social media. Even the most powerful of organisations can be affected by the acts of a single citizen journalist. The attached article recognises a recent report raised on CNN's iReport. The article concerned, which has since been removed from the site, details reports of Apple CEO Steve Jobs suffering a heart attack. The effects of the article? Apple's stock reportedly dropped ten points. This is a major hit; particularly when considering that the article was eventually disproven.

The ability of a single consumer to create a ten point drop in an organisation's stock value is very real. The individual responsible may have created the article as a means of exploring her 'consumer power'. Conversely, she may have experienced service failings in the past that led to her become suitably dissatisfied with the brand to warrant such action. Although the reasons for the 'attack' are unclear, one thing is certain; organisations must wake up to the threat that consumers pose in an increasingly connected society. If Apple is susceptible to damage through user generated content, then other smaller organisations are equally vulenerable to citizen marketer brand attacks.

I am dubious as to whether the report achieved increased credibility because of its position on CNN, as was suggested in the article. It is my opinion that the location of such information is likely to prove trivial in gauging the credibility of report content. More often than not, the electronic communities of such social platforms as Digg and Twitter represent a collection of the greatest investigative minds on the net. Any stories that contain factual inaccuracies will invariably be identified by the community and exposed as fraudulent.

In any case, the report illustrates a clear power shift. The organisation must recognise that control of the brand is no longer in their hands. Remember, a brand is what the consumer makes of it. As we become increasingly more connected, consumers represent those brand which they interact with on a daily basis.

The organisation had better make sure it keeps the consumer on its side.

read more digg story

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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

How Influential are you? Not sure? Well Google might just have the Answer

Having recently read about a patent pending within Google which facilitates the effective ranking of an individual's influence, I was intrigued by the possibilities that such a technology might offer. Clearly there will be numerous debates settled as to who in the office holds the most influence, but it may also be applied far more profitably. Clearly, influence tracking software allows significantly more targetted advertising. By identifying the most influencial members of a given community, in this instance those most likely to influence their 'followers', the assumption can be made that advertisements contained within these profile pages are likely to be most visibile. Similarly, if community members recognise these organisations as being endorsed by the influencial individual, they may feel more inclined to connect with the placed content.

Google's software is reported to consider a number of factors when establishing an individual's influence. The total influence, which is obtained through analysis of social network software, is thought to include examination of how many friends the individual has, how many friends these friends have, how frequently posts are placed on one's page, and how often the individual successfully encourages other users to interact with posted content. Clearly, this software will once again spark debate with regards to privacy concerns, yet it should be recognised that social networks comprise information willingly submitted by the individual to which the data concerns. As such, social networks represent a source of market information, the likes of which would be difficult to replicate in a laboratory environment. It is too early to suggest whether such software represents a solution for recognising social network profitability.

Perhaps more worrying from an organisational perspective however, is the threat of rejection by these influencial communities. Should these influencers resent that the social network platform is profiting from their position and status within the community, mass social action against the products or services illustrated therein may be encouraged. The threat of potential consumer boycotts instigated by influencial community members should be acknowledged, and appropriate strategies should be proactively devised for addressing any consumer backlashes that may arise.

read more digg story

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