Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Problem with Social Networks: Where's the Wisdom in 1% of a Crowd?

In his book "The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations," author James Surowiecki argued that aggregate information gleaned from groups results in decisions that are often better than could have been made by any single member of the group.

It all depends on how you define "GROUP"or "CROWD." What if it's only a few "knuckleheads?" That's what Dan McKillen asked in his recent MM&M "Web Watch" column:
"Online communities have a substantial amount of influence on almost all web users. Product reviews, visitor comments and recommendations posted online are second to word-of-mouth as a way to drive sales for all web users. The scary part is that so many of the comments, advice and postings come from only 1% of the community. Two or three knuckleheads with a laptop can have a profound influence by posting messages and responding to questions that all the lurkers absorb as factual user-generated content. And that's fine if this 1% is really knowledgeable and honest. But what if they are hired by the local plastic surgeon or a state tourism agency to say nice things about their client?"
That is SO true!

I have a confession to make: on my Pharma Marketing Network Forums online community, out of 1,000 registered users and about 3,000 daily visitors, one individual does most of the posting and that individual is me! Not only do I post a lot of stuff under my real name, but I have several user names (persona) that I also post under. Occasionally, I even post anonymously!

I don't expect a social networking site for pharmaceutical marketing professionals to be as interactive as a site for moms whose sons have ADHD. What my visitors are looking for is information they can trust and I provide that by posting RSS feeds from many different sources, including this blog.

Given that some experts like Dan believe the wisdom of social networks can be manipulated by special interests because so few members participate in the discussion, I find it curious that on the same page as Dan's column in the December, 2008, issue of MM&M there was a news item about Sermo teaming up with Bloomberg so that investors can tap into the "wisdom" of Sermo's physician crowd.
"Investors and analysts will be able to pose questions to physicians to gauge opinion and reactions to potentially market-changing information, such as company statements about the efficacy of therapies or media stories about adverse events" (see article).
This venture "gives users direct access to the observations and insights of Sermo's 90,000-strong physician community." According to McKillen, however, it may give investors access to only 900 physicians in the community, if that. Even if all these 900 were to respond to information requests, the 1% response rate is worse than response rates from direct mail campaigns or simple email!

And don't forget the "knucklehead" factor. It opens up a whole new world of physician influence by pharmaceutical companies -- especially since Sermo has opened its doors to the pharma industry (see "Sermo CEO Talks About Pfizer Collaboration" and "Pfizer has a Gold Mine in Sermo!").

Imagine Pfizer docs lurking on Sermo who see that investors are asking about the adverse effects of a drug that Pfizer is developing. Maybe these docs can't post comments anonymously, but they may get the word out to their Sermo "buddies" to post nice comments on their behalf. And then there's always those physicians with their own special interests.

How are investors going to distinguish between the "really knowledgeable and honest" user-generated content from the "knucklehead" content? Inquiring minds -- and us poser dogs -- want to know.


  1. With the company I work for, I find that filtering the sources--putting the "health forums" in one channel and tracking these and then putting the "regular forums" in another channel, tracking these and comparing can show where the knuckleheads/posers are working a bit too hard to compensate for the more "normal" experience.

    Of course, there is no substitute for actually reading the content and doing your research on the influencers...which keeps me in a job, making me appreciate the research smart companies do on their products for both moral and economic reasons.

  2. Apologies, posted under my personal blog. My company is here:

  3. Anonymous8:54 AM

    With such sites, Socratic learning occurs either vicariously or directly. While many might not annnotate any imput on a particular topic, they are still likely experiencing Socratic learing of sorts:

    Recently published on:

    Historically, information sources provided to American citizens were limited due to the few methods available to the public, such as radio, TV, or news print. And also this information was subject to being filtered and, in some cases, delayed. This occurred for a number of reasons, which included political ones.
    Now, and with arguably great elation, there is the internet, which can be rather beneficial for the average citizen.
    Soon after the advent of the internet well over a decade ago, web logs were created, that are now termed ‘blogs’. At that time the blogs were referred to as personal journals or diaries visible on line. As time passed, blogs became a media medium, and blog communities evolved into addressing topics that often were not often addressed in mainstream media, as they crossed previously existing political and social lines. In addition, blogs provide immediate contributions by others, the readers of the posts of the blog authors, instead of the cumbersomeness of opinion and editorial pieces historically and not always presented in such media forms as newspapers or magazines.
    The authors of blogs vary as far as their backgrounds and intent of what they choose to address on their blogs exactly, just as with other media forms. Some are employed by the very media sources that existed before them. Furthermore, they are not exonerated from the legalities of what is written, such as cases of libel. While we can presume that bloggers like to write, they may not be quality writers, yet several are in fact journalists, as well as doctors and lawyers, for example. But to write is to think, which I believe is a good quality one should have. Regardless, a type of Socratic learning seems to be occurring due to the advent of blogs.
    Yet presently, blogs have become quite a driving force for those with objectives and issues often opposed by others, and therefore have become a serious threat to others. These others may be politicians, our government, or corporations- all of which have been known to monitor the content of certain blogs of concern to them for their potential to negatively affect their image or their activities previously undisclosed. This is why blogs, on occasion, have become a media medium for whistleblowers, which will be addressed further in a moment.
    While one disadvantage of blogs is the potential lack of reliability, blogs however do allow in addition to the comments of its readers the posting of authentic internal or confidential documents that typically are not created to be viewed by the public, yet are acquired by certain bloggers. For example, blogger Dr. Peter Rost, a whistleblower himself, not long ago posted a newsletter published by pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca on his blog site, and this newsletter was given to him by AstraZeneca's employees who called themselves the ‘AZ Group of Seven’- with the intent of this group being to bring to the attention of others the illegal activity of off-label promotion of one of AZ’s cancer drugs promoted by their employer. Yet this particular concern by AZ seven, by surprise, is not what caught the attention of so many who viewed the posted newsletter by Dr. Rost and was read with great interest by others. It was instead a comment included in this newsletter that was stated by former regional AZ manager Mike Zubalagga, who was being interviewed by a district manager in this newsletter. Mr. Zubalagga, who in this newsletter posted on Dr Rost's blog site, referred to doctors’ offices as ‘buckets of money’, which caught the attention of several readers. This and other statements by this man were in fact published in this newsletter clearly not reviewed before its publication. . Again, the statement and the newsletter created by AZ was indeed authentic and further validated due to the content being in the written word, which added credibility.
    Mr. Zubalagga was fired the next day due to this ‘buckets of money’ comment due to the effect it had on the image of his employer. His manager resigned soon afterwards from AZ.
    Blogs, one can safely conclude, reveal secrets.
    And there have been other whistleblower cases on various blogs in addition to this one described a moment ago, which illustrates the power of blogs as being a very powerful and threatening media medium of valid information disclosure that others cannot prevent from occurring.
    This, in my opinion, is true freedom of information- largely free of embellishments or selective omissions. It’s a step towards communication utopia, perhaps, yet a force that has the ability to both harm and protect many others.
    Yet again, the information on these blogs should not be taken as absolute truth without proof to verify claims that may be made, as with other media sources. Of course, documents that are authentic is an example of a good validation source. And this, in my opinion, is the blog’s greatest value, combined with the comments on blogs from the growing number of readers who are allowed to contribute to the subject matter so quickly, which fuels the objectives of the blogs, which may be a type of Socratic learning.
    Like other written statements, some on such internet sites are composed with respect of the written word. Others are not. It's the freedom that may be most appealing of this new medium which has the ability to convert citizens into journalists who want to contribute to an issue of their concern they share with the blogger often with great conviction and accuracy.
    Because we, the public, have a right to know what we are entitled to know and what we want to know. This is especially true if the information disclosed on blogs could potentially be adverse to our well-being.

    Ignorance is bliss, but knowledge is power.

    “Information is the seed of an idea, and only grows when it’s watered.” --- Heinz V. Berger

    Dan Abshear

  4. Anonymous11:03 AM

    LOVE LOVE LOVE the New Yorker cartoon (modified as it may be)...

  5. The way you identify between a knucklehead and a real person is, knuckleheads usually have bad english lol. How will doctors distinguish between real living people and mere statistics they will become with EMRs? EPIC Systems may be well on its way to becoming the only EMR doctors can use, as this article suggests:


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