In recent years, the explosion of social media impelled forward-looking businesses and non-profits to adopt aggressive new online strategies.  Page views and web analytics, it appeared, had become insufficient.

Spheres of influence were expanded via viral agents across the web.  Ethos changed: Why bring people to your page when you could syndicate your presence to them?  Tentacles emerged in the form of widgets and gadgets, in the form of Facebook pages, YouTube channels and Orkut communities, Twitter decks and LinkedIn badges.  People –known as “users”– were promoted into “friends” or “followers.” But their more optimistic titles ignored arguably more passive engagement.

Firms engaged in an equity split of user interest.  New channels had expanded the number of “friends” exposed to ideas, but this uniform web expansion inflated user titles and diluted user interest in any one particular thing.  There were more shares, and perhaps the potential for growth had increased, but the short-term diminished share value of each follower questioned the veracity of value creation.

New media broadened exposure, but greater passivity reduced the currency unit of each view.  The gold standard of the active user, the “unique visitor,” became passé as monikers du jour –“meme,” and “tweet”– intimated web marketing savvy.  Overlooking the gold standard might have inflated numbers and ego, but did the expansion of exposure create lasting value by growing passive involvement?  Is a large network of passive “friends” better than a smaller network of active, unique users?

Today, one must explore, if not understand, the trade-offs between resource allocation, and user cannibalization across forms of new media.  Rarely are we Facebook fans, YouTube followers, Google Alert subscribers, Twitter followers, and LinkedIn members, following the same organization across five platforms.  We pick, and we choose in what capacity we will follow each cause, company, and cohort.
The question then becomes, how does one segment those demographics of value to the organization, and leverage forms of new media in smart and meaningful ways?  How does one optimize active user engagement, reach the broadest audience at the least cost, maximize and retain interest in the business?

In an ideal world we would understand the currency units of active versus passive support.  There would be a CNBC of online currency units, and across industries and time lines we could understand the trade-offs.  Meme tickers on Bloomberg and across Times Square would indicate the diurnal exchange rate between a YouTube view, a Facebook follower, a “Re-Tweet,” and a unique website visit.
But until that notion takes hold we are left with questions rather than answers.

Suffice it to invoke Yochai Benkler, one of the world’s preeminent thinkers on what he calls the “Networked Public Sphere,” to address network trade-offs.  In his book, Wealth of Networks, he discusses emergent patterns.

While there is a thickening of online ties, and facilitation of online solidarity within communities, there is also a “loosening of the hierarchical aspects” of such relationships.  He discusses the emergence of “limited-purpose, loose relationships.”  While inherently passive and non-emotional, they do cohere diverse groups of individuals around specific topics of common interest, and foster a loose group gravity that enables periodic, but passive, engagement over longer time horizons.

Individuals will necessarily retain small, familial, tightly cohered bonds because it is these interactions that provide emotional sustenance.  Just as the telegraph and the telephone revolutionized communication, they did not supplant human interaction. Equally, today’s revolutionary new forms of content and message syndication broaden our spheres of influence, as people and as organizations, but they do not supplant those constituent, active forms of human engagement that remain vital.

There is a hierarchy of interaction, and not all forms of messaging are created equal. The question is what is their relative value, and in which context is each the most effective form of communication?