Four things struck me in 2009. They are part of a bigger picture that means that public relations practice is about to undergo another change that will be as great this coming decade as it experienced during the last decade...
1. Web 2.0 participation
I dislike the 90:9:1 ratio of passives:occasionals:enthusiasts with respect to the "write" part of readwriteweb. In other words, 90% of people online don't contribute anything, they remain passive consumers. 9% contibute content and interact now and then, and 1% are passionate bloggers, video makers, photo takers, wiki updaters etc.
Perhaps this split isn't so accurate these days given the ease with which Facebook and Twitter can be updated, but it is representative of a shape of participation.
I'd love to see greater involvement; I think it would have warm benefits at both the societal and individual levels. I began to call this the 1:9:90 objective, but then I still felt upset about the 1! :-)
2. It's difficult to read meaning into Web 2.0 contributions
The second thing that struck me flowed from my work in social Web analytics and the conversations I've had with many of the vendors since my 2008 ebook about the difficulty of interpretting sentiment. Indeed, you could say that highly accurate, low cost, widely applicable sentiment analysis is a decade or more away, and sentiment is only part of "meaning".
Many services make no attempt to automate sentiment / tone analysis. But I much prefer that to those that puport to do so but do a crap job, sometimes to the point where their attempts are simply opaque and potentially misleading.
The most expensive and avant garde services today peak at around 65% accuracy for a narrow range of languages, which dismays any researcher clutching her normal distributions and statistical confidence formulae.
3. Web 3.0 has already made its first foray into social media
Web 3.0 is the name most often used to describe the Semantic Web. Web 2.0 is about community and content, and Web 3.0 is about the meaning of those community contributions and content. Literally, how can we augment the stuff so that the Web "understands it".
So far, XHTML Friends Network (XFN - a microformat) and Friend-Of-A-Friend (FOAF - a Resource Description Framework) are the most obvious manifestations. For example, when you maintain a blogroll on some blogging platforms, such as WordPress, you are asked to express the nature of your relationship with the subject of the link, not just provide the link alone. You give the link some meaning.
4. The need for consistent social media measures
The last of the four things that have struck me has become increasingly apparent to anyone involved in measurement and evaluation, and crystallised for me at the Influence Scorecard workshop I hosted in New York in December. The diagrammatic representation of the Influence Scorecard methodology highlighted the aching need for consistent social media measures to be plugged into business performance management approaches such as the Balanced Scorecard. To "close the loop."
The Semantic Web ontology for feelings about things
So I have started to wonder how social media participants could be equipped to meet the social Web analysts half way to the advantage of 'both sides', and whether the same 'equipment' might not facilitate more people to tell others what they think, potentially without have to write posts or record videos because, well, it's not their nature.
The Influence Scorecard group is now combining expertise therefore to develop the first "Semantic Web ontology for feelings about things". So far this has consisted of me posting the first couple of pages to a wiki, the first here that includes a link to the second.
The ontology is non-proprietary (subject to Creative Commons attribution-share alike 3.0) and developed collaboratively. Indeed, whilst a proprietary ontology isn't quite a contradiction in terms, even the ontologies being developed by and for the pharmaceutical and electronics industries, sectors renowned for patenting and copyrighting everything and anything that moves, are open.
By the way, the UK's biggest retailer, Tesco, responsible I believe for taking £1 in £5 of high street spending, has just started to mark-up the content on its websites to give it meaning when viewed / queried / indexed by other software and services.
So we are by no means leading such ontological developments, but this is the first stab at developing an ontology related to the public relations profession to our knowledge.
What happens when we have an ontology?
For the WWW's social media participants to be part of Web 3.0 as well as 2.0, they need a set of easy-to-understand and easy-to-use extensions / add-ons / plugins / apps to augment their current applications and services. The ontology informs the design and user experience of such apps and services, and we're developing the software openly under the most liberal licensing available, GPLv3.
And so what?
This means social media participants can make their contributions resonate more loudly around the water coolers and in the boardrooms of the organisations whose business and brands and related issues they are discussing. Many of these organisations have to rely on software and services, social Web analytics, to keep track of all the mentions, questions and verdicts out there, and such services will now find more meaning to work with than before. This is the C2B benefit.
There is also C2C (or person-to-person) benefit. Imagine that every time you make a social media contribution that you have the opportunity to quickly and easily reflect the meaning of your written / recorded content in the metadata. Today, when you write a blog post for example, the search bots can index it and pick up on key words and phrases, but they can't understand what you feel about the topics. What do you mean?
By adding metadata that communicates this meaning to other services, your post can be married and juxtaposed to other contributions of like and dislike attitude. A new social graph emerges, not one based on X knows Y knows Z, but one based on A feels like B feels like C, and A does not feel the same as D or E.
I feel that this initiative has real moral purpose. We're helping everyone to improve how they can express their feelings, and helping everyone better understand everyone else's feelings.
How can I / my company get involved?
This is a game of two halves:
By their very nature an ontology is never complete, or perfect, or finished. But we need to have developed something sufficiently meaty to get going. The work has just started, but the more public relations experts, both practitioners and academics, lending their insights the better. Come on over and register at the wiki or contact me.
I'm delighted that the WooThemes team is onboard; in fact their Adriaan Pienaar (aka Adii Rockstar) is heading up this side of things. If you don't know these guys, you might see that they come second only to wordpress.org in Google's search results for "Wordpress themes".
They are simply a very talented bunch!
We'd love more code-heads to get involved. So if you are a crack developer, or your consultancy has digital expertise and some awesome developers, I'd be delighted to discuss our programme with you. Again, please register at the wiki or contact me, particularly if you think your company might be interested in sponsoring this endeavour.
We are about to change the practice of public relations, again
Since the Cluetrain Manifesto first pointed the way in 1999, Web 2.0 has changed how we go about PR. Web 3.0 is a majorly significant part of why PR is about to change again, and just as radically.
I hope you'll come on board this train as we're about to pull out of the station!