May 27, 2010

Could Social Media Plug the BP Oil Leak? Can Social Media Clean It Up?

Posted in Best practices, Facebook, LinkedIn, Productivity, Social Media Tools, Social networking policy, Twitter tagged , , , , at 10:28 pm by bizlawblog

The title of this post notwithstanding, I’m not asking if:

  1. dropping all the Facebook  “friends,” LinkedIn “contacts,” and Twitter “followers” into the ocean directly above the horrific BP oil leak would plug it; nor
  2. if there might be a possibility that turning a year’s worth of online digital chatter into pieces of paper containing those messages would bury the leak so much as to stop it.

Granted, there are statistics indicating:

  • Facebook is said to currently have more than 400 million active users; 50% of whom, as active users, log on to Facebook in any given day; the average user has 130 friends; people spend over 500 billion minutes per month on Facebook; there are over 160 million objects that people interact with (pages, groups and events); the average user is connected to 60 pages, groups and events; the average user creates 70 pieces of content each month; and more than 25 billion pieces of content (web links, news stories, blog posts, notes, photo albums, etc.) shared each month.

These statistics come from Facebook.

  • LinkedIn may have over 65 million members in over 200 countries; have a new member join approximately every second, and and be able to boast that executives from all Fortune 500 companies are members.

These statistics come from LinkedIn

  • Twitter is said to have 105,779,710 registered users; new users signing up at the rate of 300,000 per day; and 180 million unique visitors coming to the site every month.

These statistics come from the Huffington Post

Some might say these statistics are inflated. That would certainly be a surprise wouldn’t it? The Tweet Twins, yes, you read that right, put these statistics, as of December, 2009 at:

  • LinkedIn users at 24 million unique U.S. visitors;
  • Facebook users at 23 million unique U.S. visitors; and
  • Twitter users 116 million unique U.S. visitors

Any way you slice it, these are some hefty numbers. What I’m wondering is, with all those folks using social media to connect, learn, and more, why does social media seem to have so little a role in solving the BP oil catastrophe?

I searched the BP Web site and failed to come up with an easy way to offer a suggestion to BP on how to fix the problem. I’ve heard on the news that everyone from actor Kevin Costner to some of our most brilliant scientists have tried to make suggestions, but have had a difficult time getting anyone at BP to listen to them. How could that be in a world with such robust social media platforms designed specifically to facilitate communication?

“”They’re clearly out of ideas, and there’s a whole world of people willing to do this free of charge,” said Dwayne Spradlin, CEO of InnoCentive Inc., which has created an online network of experts to solve problems.”

When I searched the BP Web site for information on the oil spill, I found very little, if anything, to allow one to post a suggestion. BP America has a Facebook page and a presence on Twitter. The official Deepwater Horizon Response has a Web site. It states:

“A Unified Command has been established to manage response operations to the April 20, 2010 “Deepwater Horizon” incident. A Unified Command links the organizations responding to an incident and provides a forum for those organizations to make consensus decisions. This site is maintained by the Unified Command’s Joint Information Center (JIC), which provides the public with reliable, timely information about the response.”

Below that statement are the names of fifteen .gov sites one might initially think were intended to facilitate the process of transmitting one’s brilliant, problem solving ideas to the “proper authorities.” Not so fast. All you get here is links to the home page of these fifteen government agencies.

The Unified Command Web site contains a link to an Alternative Technology Response Form, posted online. It also has a suggestions page where it says:

“BP has established a process to receive and review submitted suggestions, on how to stop the flow of oil or contain the spill emanating from the Mississippi Canyon 252 well. Proposals are reviewed for their technical feasibility and proof of application.”

“More than 7,800 ideas have been proposed to date. Given this quantity of technical proposals suggested by industry professionals and the public, it may take some time to technically review each one.”

Maybe they don’t need our input, with all those suggestions. As a student of how social media can be used by businesses, I find it hard to believe that putting up an essentially static Web page with a limited information form is the best way to get meaningful input. It took a while to find out how to offer a suggestion and the Web site says they are apparently overloaded with suggestions. Traditional media channels are full of stories about people who have suggestions but can’t seem to get anyone to listen.

BP seems to tout its expertise. BP America’s Web site maintains that:

“BP strives to minimize the environmental impact of its activities by applying management systems and standards and using innovative technology in its operations.”

If BP is innovative, they have not yet proven it in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill response. As of this writing, they were still struggling to find an effective way to “plug the damn hole.”

Perhaps they have not seen the wisdom or potential application of James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of  Crowds. Surowiecki says:

“If you put together a big enough group of people and ask them to ‘make decisions affecting matters of general interest,’ that group’s decisions will, over time, be ‘intellectually [superior] to the isolated individual,’ no matter how smart or well-informed he is.”

If BP is actually getting too many suggestions to handle well in a finite amount of time, what would they have to lose by giving the wisdom of the crowd a shot? One of my favorite examples of how a business can use the wisdom of the crowd to be successful comes from Threadless. As Max Chafkin says in his article about the company in Inc. magazine, The Customer is the Company:

“…[t]he lesson of Threadless … demonstrates what happens when you allow your company to become what your customers want it to be, when you make something as basic and quaint as ‘trust’ a core competency. Threadless succeeds by asking more than any modern retail company has ever asked of its customers — to design the products, to serve as the sales force, to become the employees. Nickell has pioneered a new kind of innovation. It doesn’t require huge research budgets or creative brilliance — just a willingness to keep looking outward.”

If you are not familiar with the Threadless business model, it would be fair to say it is one in which the customers create the product. Threadless makes T-shirts. They don’t think up the designs, however. They let the customers do that. Anyone who wants to can design a shirt. Once the designs are in, customers have an opportunity to engage in a “popularity contest” and pick their favorite design. Threadless then produces the winning T-shirts for a group of potentially interested customers who are already prequalified buyers.

Could BP do worse than they are now? What would they have to lose by opening up the potential solutions and letting the world vote on the best solutions? If the “best” solutions didn’t work, it would seem they and we would be no worse off. Maybe Kevin Costner has the solution. Maybe Joe Shmoe does. I don’t know. What we do know is that BP has apparently not come up with one yet.

Maybe it is time for the wisdom of the crowds to take a shot at resolving the continuing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Could social media be used to “plug the damn hole?” Could the use of social media be helpful in finding ways to more effectively remediate the damage the oil spill has and will cause?

I don’t know, but could BP do worse than asking?

That’s what I think. Please leave a comment and let us know what you think.

If you are really interested, I just started yet another free group on LinkedIn, Social Media Search and Forensics. Many of these articles and discussion about them are posted there. Please join us