Signal to Noise
Jan 30 2011

A couple of years ago someone I know mentioned the term ‘signal to noise’ when talking about social media and my tweet stream in particular.  His comment indicated that he thought I was putting out more noise than signal, which was probably true.  I used to tweet a lot more than I do now and he said this during South by Southwest Interactive when everyone was tweeting.  Currently, most of my tweets are just links to my blog posts.  I had already been using twitter for some time and he was new to twitter. I had close to 2,000 followers and was following maybe 700 people at the time and he was probably following 50 people so, in proportion, my tweets appeared more often in his twitter stream than most people’s appear in mine.

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It’s true that social media tools have provided a platform for noisiness.  People put out a lot of noise and seemingly irrelevant information about themselves and others.  But people are noisy in person whether they are talking a lot, writing a lot, or paradoxically not saying anything at all.  There can be a lot of ‘noise’ in silence.  When I say ‘noise,’ I mean information.  Some people can decide that what a person is saying or not saying is irrelevant and dismiss it as mere noise, but, in my opinion, there is always ‘signal’ in there somewhere.  Whether we want to spend time or care to understand the signal and what it’s telling us is another thing.

Interestingly, a company called Mass Relevance (Austin Startup blog post), recently launched and funded here in Austin, seems to me to be trying to separate signal from noise based on one of the executives answers to a question in the blog post:

Q: Only a small fraction of social status messages (like tweets) get viewed. Is there real value in that data?

That’s exactly the point. More user generated and social content is being created than we can consume. The future is in finding relevance, curating for context, and syndicating this to the right audience at the right place. A good analogy of the value of all this data is like web analytics. If there’s only two web analytics report you view about your web site, is there value in the rest of the log data? Of course there is, you’re just not getting at it. We know that there’s tremendous untapped value in data, as there is in social content. The value is in how to aggregate, curate, display relevant content, create participation around the conversation, and analyze how it drives real business metrics. And it’s more than just technology. We have the expertise, service and support to make this work for large companies.

I wish them luck in finding relevant, poignant signals for their clients.  I just hope people don’t stop looking at and listening to people directly instead of just sifting through their words on a social media platform.  If you pay attention, you can pick up very strong signals directly from a “noisy” person that can help you work with and manage people and even understand your customer better than just what they write down in 140 characters or less.  As they say, close to 80% of human communication is non-verbal and never gets put on a computer screen or paper.

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