Dark social is the new black


Back in the days before the Internet really caught on, I used to work in broadcast television. At the time, audience feedback options were a little cumbersome: People could give the TV station a phone call or send a physical letter through the postal service. The effort to look up the phone number or address of the station, to sit down and pen a letter, and then to pay for a long-distance call or a postage stamp and carry a letter to the mailbox was quite considerable. Accordingly, only viewers who were majorly disgruntled by a programme item – or, conversely, enjoyed it to an almost pathological extent – could be bothered to react. Since I worked in programming, many of the messages received in such a way came to my attention, and what I learned in the process could be summarised in the following sentence: The satisfied audience remains silent.

In broadcast television, a mass medium that by definition thrives on averageness, receiving a lot of audience responses unfailingly meant that we had made a huge mistake. If a programme was met with a high amount of either harsh criticism or ardent enthusiasm, we could be certain that it was too narrowly targeted, i.e., that only a highly specialised fraction of the potential audience would engage with it. Stimulating high levels of minority engagement, positive or negative alike, was a sure-fire indicator that the majority of the audience would just switch the channel and forget about it. On the other hand, the programmes where hardly anybody could be bothered to write in were usually doing just fine. It appeared that people watched them contentedly and even recommended them to others in water cooler conversations. One thing they did not know yet was that they were engaging in “dark social”.

“Dark social” with a wink

Half in earnest and half in jest, The Atlantic journalist, Alexis C. Madrigal, in autumn 2012 coined the term “dark social”. While his article in part plays on the wide-eyed excitement that often accompanies new tech gadgets and geeky innovations, it is at the same time an entirely serious reminder to maintain a sense of proportion when it comes to widely accepted online hypes. Madrigals discovery – or should I rather say: realisation – is that over the din of social media marketing we tend to overlook that perhaps the greatest amount of what we have been taught to call “sharing” (i.e., pointing someone else to an interesting fact, event, or publication) still happens outside of the likes of Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Alexis Madrigal came to this conclusion by looking at the traffic statistics of The Atlantic‘s website. Measurement tools offered by organisations and companies such as Piwik, ComScore, Chartbeat, or Google Analytics, identify from which third-party websites the visitors to your own site originated. If you follow a link you saw on Twitter – or a link on karstens.eu, for that matter –, it will show on the website you are going to by way of a so-called referer. On the other hand, if you receive a link in your email, in a chat, a word processor or PDF document, or start out from a secure page, it may be hard or even impossible to trace your path.

In the case of The Atlantic, it turned out that more than half of all traffic that did not originate from search or manually typed URLs came without referers, and on a wider, more varied selection of websites, this “dark social” component even made up for close to 70% of all link-based visits. So it appears that the vaunted social media are perhaps not just as relevant for the dissemination of content as they are purported to be – even though, of course, their share as a driver of 30-50% of direct social traffic is still pretty substantial.

Madrigal draws some interesting conclusions from this observation, chiefly that the main point of social media based sharing is not the sharing as such (because we apparently keep doing much of that privately), but that we want to share publicly a portion of our content recommendations. We send a link directly to a friend or colleague because we feel they might like or benefit from it, but we publish a link on a social network at least in part to make a (semi-)public statement about ourselves, our interests, or a professional preoccupation.

Quality measures revisited

Accordingly, the number of social networking shares does not paint a full picture of the popularity or relevance of any content at all; to the contrary, “dark social” sharing might actually be a better indicator for quality as it cannot directly be influenced by search engine optimisation, social marketing techniques, or algorithms that manipulate your attention. A “dark social” link might express deeper personal involvement, a more profound conviction of the usefulness or entertainment value of the information, and a more honest and straightforward kind of recommendation.

The notion of “dark social” also chimes with the frequently mentioned contention that social media are all about conversation. It implies that the Web 2.0 only actualises its full potential once someone re-Tweets, replies, comments, “likes”, and so on. I would certainly agree that this is an added value of social media. But does non-interaction necessarily mean that the content is lost on the audience? Does a person like a blog post more because they can share it on Facebook and write a comment underneath it? Or does a carbon-based book have less impact on a reader because they are unable to share their comments immediately with the world at large?

A lot of information, if not most of it, is meant to be received and, hopefully, over time digested in a meaningful fashion, so it can be discarded, stored away in memory, or in the best case incrementally improve the recipient’s knowledge and intelligence. It does not require a reflexive expression of “like” or “dislike”, or a spontaneous comment to work. Conversely, I would be surprised if social media-style engagement even were a solid indicator that the sharing person in fact read or watched and thoroughly appreciated the content (in fact, very likely they didn’t).

Please see also Are social shares a good metric to judge journalism? by Gregory Galant and EdgeRank Is Dead: Facebook’s News Feed Algorithm Now Has Close To 100K Weight Factors by Matt McGee. For an update on the latest dark social figures and methodological challenges see The Evolution of Dark Social: Correcting Attribution in the Mobile App Age.

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Thanks Flickr user Niklas Wikström for the photography.