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Word of (wash your) Mouth (out)

June 5, 2007

I sometimes wonder how much we over-estimate the quality of what's thought and written on the web. [Yes – take it as read that I'm commiting all sorts of precisely the same assumption, and betraying various prejudices, when I use the term "we". Who do I think "we" are then? I won't go there – but be assured that I'm aware.]

But here's what I meant.

Lots of research companies, software companies, various arms of marketing, are now keen to uncover the 'buzz', the word of mouth reputation of a given product, brand or idea. Of course a key part of that enterprise is filtering and discrimination – via a combination of applications to do the heavy lifting and increasingly expert people to do the nuancing and the tough semantics/semiotics.

But my default reflex is to visualise this as the trawling of a set of largely articulate, well meaning and discerning discussion. After a while I congratulate myself on getting down from that elitist high horse and say, 'No – it's also about a kind of relaxed, trivial, half focussed chit-chat, the purpose of which is not consciously to critique anything, but just to socialise, hang out, help friends and family and all that.' In fact – that's the sort of discourse that's really going to help provide insights into consumer/citizen values and semi-conscious influences, and so on.

Even then, what I'm not prepared for is drivel – and foul-mouthed drivel at that – where even the sheer lack of structure or style in the use of obscenity itself is part of what makes it drivel. I've got no problem with stylish, well-formed swearing. It's bad language as punctuation that gets me – but also the level of invective that it seems to be portraying in reaction to really inappropriate things.

Example:

I have a friend who wants to get a new mobile. His sight isn't as good as it was – so he wants bigger buttons. I thought maybe a touch screen phone would help. I remembered that, iPhone aside, there was an LG touch screen phone – Prada branded. I read some online reviews. Then I found a couple of demo clips on YouTube. Then I glanced down at the comments. YouTube comments clearly are part of the "social web's" totality of sentiment. Page after page of invective, foul language, seemingly mindless or just incomplete and unsubstantiated crticism. Innumerable pointless comparison with the iPhone – "the iPhone will own it"  "the iPhone will kick its ass" – and then much more that's nowhere as mild and repeatable as that. To what end? Should I be coming away with some grassroots revelation that the language of custom car (macho competitive) comparison has come to phones? Or should I be regarding this as just as disconnected and minority an activity as elite bloggers discussing the effect of the elite blogosphere, and complicated new apps, on the future of citizen journalism?

Setting aside my irritation at myself, for always defaulting to a sort of utopian reflex about what web2.0 can and will do, the point is that we know little or nothing about the people making these utterances – or about their assumptions of audience etc – compared to more specialised forums and communities dealing with, in this case, mobile handsets. They may say very little in their YouTube profile.

So I have two questions.

The first is not 'can we filter in all sorts of ways for utterances which have little or no intrinsic worth and no background?' but 'should we?' If so, on what basis – given that you have to do some filtering just to make material manageable, even enough to form the basis of some hypothetical segmentations? Who is out there making those sorts of decisions and explorations right now? For every one of them I bet there's a hundred who choose (not just out of my wishful kind of lapsing) to generalise about social networking as a positive revolutionary force. It's much easier…

The second, more personal, more heartfelt question, is "how can it be possible that a demo video of a touch screen mobile handset seems to stir up levels of passion, anger and conflict that I would normally associate with much bigger and more visceral issues and prejudices?" Or am I misreading the language from the wrong social milieu? If so – then the very last question is – what language (and 'language' is what we are trawling the web for) is there left over to indicate real extremes of response? 

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