How Social Media Works and the Role of the Intelligent User

How Social Media Works and the Role of the Intelligent User

Social media distinguishes itself from less versatile interactive mediums of the past like print and traditional advertising by giving life to the Intelligent User.

This modern distinction is often misunderstood by web developers and under-appreciated by users because the power of choice is a novel distinction.

It didn’t exist in previous mediums. In marketing, for example, consumers are used to the old paradigm where they listen passively and marketers tell them what to think. The interaction only moves in one direction.

On the Internet, interaction is more involved and the Intelligent User — as the consequence of this new system — has overtaken the old paradigm.

Social Media, Briefly Defined

First of all, what is social media? Briefly — for the benefit of those of you living under a rock for the past half-dozen years — it is the integration of technology and social interaction. When you see social media, think blogs, Facebook, and Twitter.

How does social media work? I’ve always heard that the best advertising is word of mouth. The best explanation for social media is that it’s word of mouth on steroids, and people are sharing more than words. They also share ideas, pictures, video, and audio: Content. Then other users share that content — in turn, through personal connections — at an unprecedented rate.

Some content spreads like wildfire, and some makes the tiniest of ripples, but each choice is made by an Intelligent User.

The Misconception

With millions of people contributing to social media, there is a lot of noise. Which is why an explanation similar to the following — to explain how content spreads — is promptly furnished by anyone who doesn’t fully understand the mechanism:

"The credibility allocated instantly and unquestioningly to just about anything that is read online is a new phenomenon."

Anne Kavanagh, Global Travel Retail

Returning to the ‘word of mouth’ comparison, the "phenomenon" is that word spreads faster than ever on the Internet through the web of connections built by social media.

The misconception is that in Kavanagh’s explanation of social media, there is no direction to the "phenomenon."

Word does not spread through social media "unquestioningly." It does not spread without thought or purpose. She offers decent advice, but her understanding is flawed.

Marketing campaigns based on this flawed understanding will never tap the full potential if the audience is treated like a mysterious phenomenon instead of a group of Intelligent Users.

Old Techniques, New Delivery

We can clear up Kavanagh’s misconception by explaining how social media actually works.

The "phenomenon" is not new. It’s not even a phenomenon. Social media works similarly to how word of mouth worked before the Internet, as I’ve explained, only now it’s amplified and recorded by technology.

Kavanagh was right about one thing. Word seems to spread "instantly" online. The infrastructure of social media is built for millions of immediate minute interactions.

You can literally watch it happen on a website like Twitter. Not only can interested parties follow the conversation, they can measure, assess and even, as Kavanagh suggests, influence its direction.

The Implications

To recap, Social Media is not digital paper. It is not just a bunch of noise. It is a multi-functional two-way communication system made up of millions of Intelligent Users.

So what does this mean for you?

To the Intelligent Users

You’re not just a statistic. Here are some things you can do to humanize your experience.

  1. It’s an investment. The more you put into social media sites, the more you get back. Your experience is based on your willingness to experience. So put something in. Who knows what you’ll get in return?
  2. Interact – Don’t be afraid of change. Go with your first instincts when using new products. Try it for yourself before you pass judgment.
  3. Give feedback whenever developers ask! In fact, give it when no one asks. Positive feedback is always welcome, but don’t be afraid to give constructive criticism, too. It could make the product, perhaps even the whole industry, better.

To Developers

You are the innovators (or, as Nietzsche named his new philosophers, the attempters). But don’t forget that you’re making a product for the users.

  1. Listen to your users. Your users don’t know as much as you do, but their feedback is important, especially the negative feedback. Be patient. Remember that you’re there to help them, not scare them off with your intimidating technological prowess.
  2. Try new things. New ideas brought us here, and new ideas will lead us to the future. Although you must be attentive to your users, don’t be afraid when they protest new ideas. People are naturally averse to change. Facebook users protested the changes many times, but Facebook kept moving forward, and overall their changes have been an improvement on the experience.*
  3. Don’t be afraid of failure, and most importantly, learn to recognize it. Remember, it doesn’t matter how many times you get knocked down, what counts is how many times you get back up.

* This is a subject open to debate and I am referring to the advantageous changes in the design, not the other issues.

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About the Author

Matt Herron is a 22-year-old American writer living in Germany. He’s was a designer/developer, and though he’s moved on, his interest in social media and technology-driven culture keeps him involved on the Web. He publishes short articles and essays on Tangible Motion and uses Twitter probably too much. When not writing or working, he travels to still his restless feet.

This was published on May 14, 2010


Inside the Webb May 14 2010

Social media is a tool, it’s a very popular tool and if you use it properly it can be extremely powerful. Many people don’t know how to utilize social media by sharing articles and links with their friends, but this is one of the biggest assets of the internet era.

@BrandedYou May 14 2010

Matt, great post! This really hits home as a developer I cant stress enough – to listen your users and you will be rewarded!

Nick Burd May 14 2010

Great article Matt, I think alot of developer and designers ARE afraid to try new things, even if its not just social media related.

Thanks for the great read.

Sarah William May 14 2010

Good article..nice to read..

Jae Xavier May 14 2010

And then… there is the sub-niche of intelligent users who know how manipulate and aggregate the power of social media networks.

Developers: Why be afraid? You’re in position to be in this sub-niche of intelligent users.

Steve Kaiser May 14 2010

I have been paying more attention to others responses about social media since I have become an active subscriber. Overall I see a lack of urgency to get active with some form of social media. I think we will see a wave of urgency to “get connected”. Do you think there is an over all non-chalant attitude toward getting active?

misscheryltan May 14 2010

This is a great post and should be read by social media users who are not using it intelligently. I say this because some users do not realise that their posts on sites like Twitter gets broadcast to millions of users, especially when their Twitter is on for public viewing. The amount of inappropriate tweets I see everyday from some Twitter users are bewildering to me.

Nonetheless, social media is definitely a powerful tool when used properly. And like Inside the Webb said, this is definitely one of the biggest assets of the Internet era for just anyone who uses it intelligently.

Steve Kaiser May 14 2010

I have been paying more attention to others responses about social media since I have become an active subscriber. Overall I see a lack of urgency to get active with some form of social media. I think we will see a wave of urgency to “get connected”. Do you think there is an over all non-chalant attitude toward getting active?

Ron Morrison May 15 2010

Nicely done Matt. One thing the struck me was the wisdom from a 22 yr old. Very impressive. Your post is an good practical explanation and contribution to the Thesis posited in the The Cluetrain Manifesto: Markets are Conversations.

I also enjoyed adding to my socmed vernacular the notion of the intellingent user. I do believe that there is also an intelligent buyer who is in large part made more intelligent vis-a-vis social media. At ronsmap our goal, we set out to “reach” this intelligence in buyers. To give the intelligent user/buyer more “intel”Further we set out to encourage and motivate the user to leverage their intelligence through social media platforms.

Don’t be a fraid of failure is a notion that I appreciated seeing in the article is well. Because it stands to reason that when developers attempt to stand their intelligence next to the vast intellect of the internet users, naturally the developer will experience failures in concept, design, and implementation.

Again – very nicely done! Thank you for your post.

Matt Herron May 15 2010

Thanks for reading! It’s good to see this idea hit home with you. And you have some good questions….

@Jae Xavier That sub-niche of intelligent users is even more important to designers, not because they are one of them (which they typically are), but because they have the tools at their disposal to _empower_ them. It’s like the difference between being a soldier in the army and supplying them with powerful new weapons and tactics.

@Steve Kaiser About the non-chalant attitude, I think people want to get involved because they see something happening on Social Media hubs but, at the same time, they are holding back. It appears non-chalant because theyre stuck in stasis. Perhaps they don’t understand Social Media, or they don’t trust it (privacy is a big concern, perhaps a whole article’s worth of concern…), but the more we use it, the safer and more acceptable it becomes, and the more people will be willing to embrace it.

@Ron Morrison I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Where can I find The Cluetrain Manifesto: Markets are Conventions thesis you mentioned? Is it available online? I would very much like to read it.

Excellent article Matt, sums it up briefly and up to the point.

Social media is also about “collective intelligence” and self-filtering of the noise/spam.

Understanding social media is understanding that others also have, often more, intelligence too. But most importantly that you can not control social media. You have the choice to be part of it or not. It will happen without you anyway.

…giving life to the Intelligent User

thing is, not all fall into this category.

Beat (of Community Builder team) May 16 2010


Sure not all fall into the “Intelligent User” category.

But with a community of over 300’000 members that we have built from ground up, mostly community builders using our free and open-source CB to build social networks and communities, over at our site ( i’m amazed how well and intelligently all people behave in public, vs in private.

So I guess:
Another huge difference of social media to normal “word of mouth” is that this word of mouth is not a private lisper, but a public discourse.

People behave differently (giving the best of them) in public than in private, or often just shut up if they don’t have something “intelligent” to add to the public discussion.

So yes, the “*Public* Intelligent User” not only exists, but it’s the overwhelming majority of people, in my professional social networks experience !

Najam Siddiqi May 18 2010

great article and great work also

Cecilia Neher May 21 2010

I liked very much this article and the comments to it… Just for that I should be considered an intelligent user, right? ;-)

kelly Jun 04 2010

As an IT consultant I am fully aware that IT management is struggling with whether social media is productive or obstructive for companies and their employees. Software is being developed and policy and restrictions are being decided everyday by IT managers. The security of company networks are at stake but the potential for innovation using social media is a large enough carrot for the discussion of how to properly utilize the medium continues. Palo Alto networks came up with an webinar,, that should be interesting exploring the issues surrounding social media in the workplace. It is important to not only understand the immediate benefits of doing business how one lives, but the threat it presents to a company’s greater ROI and productivity when it comes to the server’s safety and security.

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