I found out about this cool online tool yesterday – Singapore GE2011 Tracker – which allows anyone to study and dissect online conversations about the General Elections on a day-to-day basis.
Singapore General Elections 2011 Tracker is a visualisation project that reflects the true national agenda set by the social nature of online discussions and trends around Singapore’s 2011 General Elections. The goal of the project is to help the public follow the elections by separating the signals from the noise by trending the top topics being discussed and showcasing the top articles being shared. The project looks at news articles, blog posts, and Twitter data to identify the top mentioned keywords and the most shared content.
From this chart, I could see that my 25th April posting on “Nicole Seah and public opinion” was possibly the 6th most shared article in the local socialsphere. Wow, after six years, I’m finally getting some readers!
Then my ego got bashed immediately when I saw that it dropped out of the chart the very next day .
Well, such is the nature of Internet conversations during this critical period, where new topics and fodder for discussions appear just about every day.
Last weekend, Ms Seah was all the rage of town. Today, it’s Vivian Balakrishnan vs Vincent Wijeysingha on gay issues. Tomorrow, I hope someone talks about implementing minimum wage for the poor local cleaners at my district who earn a pittance yet work their hearts out from 6am every day.
Indeed, this tool provides all parties a remarkable insight onto what people “may be discussing” and sharing online. But for me it also raises other longstanding doubts I’ve had about online influence.
The Limits of Social Media Measurement
I say “may be discussing” because for all the graphical coolness and depth the GE Tracker provides, it is still unable to track Facebook conversations due to the privacy lockdowns. Facebook is still the social media network of choice for most people, given that Twitter is more utilized by a vocal minority and is hampered by its non-visual, 140-character limit.
From a rough estimation of the tracking data on this blog, less than 20% of referrals for the Nicole Seah article were from Twitter. Most of the visits actually came from Facebook referrals. Largely because I use a FB Like button and not a Retweet button (I personally don’t like, and don’t use Twitter very much, because my minimum thought length is longer than 140 characters).
Also, I suspect that less than 50% of the voting population is engaged online. They could be either those who are not online-savvy, or those too busy with work to care. So for these people, perhaps their key source of information is the mainstream media or coffeeshop talk.
Your choice of media inevitably taints your view of the elections. One friend said it best on his Facebook wall. “When I read ST I want to vote opposition; when I read The Online Citizen (especially the comments and its facebook page) I want to vote PAP.”
And for many, when they read Nicole Seah’s FB postings, they probably want her signature too.
A more sobering perspective : Although my article ranked among the top 10 stories of the day, till today, it’s seen about 10,000 unique visitors. That is a mere drop in the total voting population. So what people are actively sharing and reading online, is often unseen by the larger public.
But on the other hand, what should concern the Gahmen and the Opposition is that online opinion leaders tend to be offline influencers as well. And you have a good proportion of the intelligentsia and rabble rousers who make the most noise (Why do you think this site is called Empty Vessel?).
So take the example of Charlie Sheen – you may not follow him on Twitter, but you sure know he’s gone ballistic from what you’ve heard offline so far.
The bottomline is that one cannot afford to overstate or underestimate the impact of social media. Nicole Seah’s popularity online has forced the mainstream media to give her more coverage, despite obvious cues from SM Goh to move the limelight away.
Geek talk and social media porn aside, I ask…So How?
The Four Obvious Painful Things about this elections were stated out in my earlier post, and are all turning into horrible reality for the election candidates.
Now I can expound on Surviving The Social Media Elections, and this will apply to any PAP or Opposition candidate. Like it or not, people are sharing their voting decisions on the social media networks already.
There is the real world GE, paralleled by an online elections where people have already cast their vote on who they like, dislike, or vehemently hate to death.
Yet I believe you can turn the tide of opinion if you keep getting better at leveraging social media in a sincere and objective way. Everyone can smell insincerity on Facebook from a mile away (ok maybe not everyone).
And this is an ongoing virtual election which will continue way after the paper votes have been cast and locked away. If you want to convince people of your views, it’s an ongoing process of conversation and listening AND replying, not merely “please read my press release that was published in the newspapers.”
Hopefully some of the candidates (and their army of supporters and social media “experts”) will bother to read this lor, because it’s free social media consultation which many agencies will charge you an arm and a leg for. I put it here because what I say here is largely common sense.
And common sense is free of charge, no?
Let’s start with:
1. Don’t assume about your popularity (or unpopularity) rating
Let it be made clear that I don’t dislike the PAP. I don’t like them very much either. Probably more a resigned acceptance of who they are and what they do, with a measure of respect for their capabilities and brainpower. They do deserve credit for what Singapore is today but they are also responsible for the crowded trains that I squeeze in every day.
Now if I were a PAP minister during this elections, I’d be seriously alarmed at what’s happening when I start browsing the Internet. It seems that every major statement a senior politician makes is pounced upon with an unholy vengeance by hundreds of thousands on Twitter and Facebook. If you read my friends’ daily FB postings, you’d think that nobody likes the PAP at all.
As for the Opposition, apart from the key characters like Chen Show Mao, Nicole Seah, Low Thia Khiang et al, my FB friends don’t really care to share anything about the rest or their manifestos.
Of course, this is just a small sampling of the larger audience. My friends would share many of the political leanings and have similar educational backgrounds. My network is NOT indicative of what people think, and they should remember the same for themselves too. Birds of a feather flock together mah.
So what do people really think of the PAP and Opposition in general?
Well, nobody really knows.
- The mainstream media don’t dare to do any public polls on specific parties or candidates, for fear of appearing partisan or engaging in “crusading journalism”. Or perhaps there aren’t many interns available during this season to do straw polls.
- Online sites like The Online Citizen and Temasek Review attract the most vehement views (and the worst abuse of grammar).
- Bloggers are generally unhappy with something before they post about it, and you don’t see anyone blogging to praise the Gahmen for the good things they’ve done. (Just to buck the trend, I’d like to thank the Bishan-Toa Payoh team for the nice upgrading being done to my estate for the past decade, but it would be great if you could also give us a few years of peaceful tranquility instead of constant hammering and drilling and dust.)
The GE Tracker is pretty cool in tracking topics, but like I said, they have limited view of what people are actually saying. Sampling Twitter conversations will not give you the same extrapolation for Facebook discussions. So 5,000 Twitterers could hate Politician X, but it could be 500,000 Facebookers who hate the guy instead. Or they might just like him.
And can you judge the popularity of a person by the number of FB fans that he has? Maybe, but like I said, online popularity may not correlate to offline popularity.
One last bit: most people are cowardly and will not dare to approach politicians directly with their grouses for fear of being identified or “blacklisted”. So when Wong Kan Seng claims few people have approached him on the Mas Selamat issue, it doesn’t mean people aren’t unhappy about it. I’ll remember to bring up the topic if I ever get to see him.
This will lead you to say “Again, so how lah?”. Well….
2. Don’t lock your Facebook Wall. And you shouldn’t have made it open in the first place. So maybe you should just lock it anyway.
I noticed a few key characters locking up their Facebook walls when they were assaulted by the online community. Vivian Balakrishnan’s public FB page received many nasty wall postings (re the Wijeysingha issue) until the admins locked those out, allowing only comments on his actual postings. You can see a screenshot of the Before scenario here and the act of doing so is just making people even more angry.
Not that it’s stopping commentators from whacking him in his older postings.
To begin with, I don’t recommend any public page be open to free wall postings. Nicole Seah’s page has so many happy posters that her actual postings are being drowned out. If she decides to curate her page now by disallowing fan postings, she might appear to be shutting off her audience, when she might just want to focus her communications.
So if your wall is open, keep it open. Or at least explain to people when you prepare to shut it off.
3. Continue posting updates, even when being mauled to death. And make the postings count.
Tin Pei Ling’s FB page seems to have gone pretty quiet since Saturday, an eternity in this short and furious elections period. Who knows what’s going on in her head now, having turned into a target board for so many voters. But hey, if I were TPL, I’d continue posting updates and my personal thoughts to let people know what I’ve been doing in the meantime.
Silence can mean you’re either really busy on the ground, or admitting defeat in the online space. Why, damned if you do, damned if you don’t. But the minute you start a Facebook public profile page, you are committed to updating it in real time and very frequently, so don’t forget that.
Mah Bow Tan did an interesting thing and posted a professionally edited YouTube video on his site to defend his “HDB housing is affordable” stance, around the same time that he locked horns with WP on the housing issue.
Unfortunately, not many people are interested in “liking” him, with only 1,237 likes to date – most of them PAP members (See Point 1). And the video has only seen 345 views on Youtube, quite dismal by any count but hey I watched it!
Well, at least he’s trying.
But what could help is an attempt at generating and continuing a discussion online. Eg. taking a real world HDB buying example from a FB fan and breaking down the numbers to explain why housing is really that affordable. Solid data is unsexy to bring up, but it makes or break one’s case. That’s what he has yet to do in his media speeches and online engagement.
Also, when I say make the postings count, I mean “post something interesting, for goodness sake.” I’ve done blogging and FBing for a long time, so I make it a point not to post anything boring.
But many of these candidates put up such boring posts I want to scream. Why would anyone bother to stay on your page?
4. Do not take the name of Facebook in vain.
It’s not so simple to leverage on Facebook’s branding. Like this physical banner put up by some earnest supporters of MP Irene Ng. I’m sure FB has some branding guidelines and corporate use policy right?
That aside, I took a look at Ms Ng’s page and I think she’s doing a good job of communicating to her audience. She used to be a journalist so that helps plenty.
Ultimately, people have to remember that in this strange new world, one has to lead double, parallel lives in both the real physical world and in cyberspace. Reputations are built in both simultaneously, and it requires enormous effort for one to maintain consistency across both platforms. It’s easy to say “I’m engaged with social media”, and like I mentioned, it’s another thing to actually do it.
Politicians and candidates who think they are doing well on the Internet, vis-a-vis their daily walkabouts, ought to think hard about what “doing well” really means in the virtual space.
What is really sad, is that so many of them refuse to engage the audience one on one in the comments space, preferring to assume that there’s no point arguing against The Horde. Their silence just makes the crowd even more upset, leading to the perception that “They don’t care about what we think.”
Just let us know you mean what you say, and that you’re willing to discuss it and persuade us. That is the simple essence of leadership and influence.
And it does help to be liked – the traditional way, or the Facebook way.