Enough has been said about what Steve Jobs said (and how he said it) and the length of time it took to respond to criticisms of the iPhone 4’s poor reception. I don’t want to add to the mix. (Though I will say Jobs came off a bit cranky, and for a company that prides itself on being cool, cranky is not cool.) However, there is an important lesson for the rest of us: If we are not part of the conversation about our products and brands, others will happily to take our place. So we should at least know what they’re saying.

Wikiality – Consensus, Not Facts, Determines Reality in the Online World

Jobs stated that iPhone 4 returns are lower than for the iPhone 3 and one percent of technical support calls were about poor reception. Yet touting facts ignores what Stephen Colbert dubbed wikiality“: an environment where if enough people say something is true, it’s true.
Social media exists within wikiality, not reality. People see something interesting and pass it on, too often not pausing to think critically about what they’ve just seen. And if they find others have said something already, social proof demands it must be true. (Consider how many celebrities have been (erroneously) reported dead on Twitter. Even though these celebrities tweet they are very much alive, the momentum has already built and, for a time, those celebs are dead in wikiality.)
As well, people turn to the Web for information before making a purchasing decision. While professional review sites might offer an unbiased view, a recommendation by a friend can carry a lot more weight. If a friend tweets a product has got serious issues that tweet will have a major impact on your decision to buy (regardless of how accurate your friend’s opinion might be in reality). I’m sure plenty of potential iPhone 4 consumers saw what was being said on the Web and decided not to buy because in wikiality the iPhone 4 is crap.

Where Do You Stand in Wikiality?

Now, a few words from Jobs can crush rumors and help push back the growing negative tide in wikiality. But very few of us have Jobs’ clout. However, a lot of us have Jobs’ problem—we just don’t know it.
So what industry are you in? Go ahead, tell the screen…
Really? They’re talking about that on Twitter and I’ve seen blogs about it. Do you know what’s being said? Should you know?
(Okay, I’m going to get off my soap box and put down my drum for a second. There are plenty of social media proponents—self-proclaimed “gurus”—out there shouting “YOU NEED TO BE ENGAGED! YOU NEED TO BE PLUGGED IN! IF YOU’RE NOT, YOU’RE A LOOOOOSER!” And since this is a blog covering social media, there is certainly an advocacy bend to it. However, I’m not going to claim that if you don’t pay attention to social media you’re doomed. I just present this as advice. It might work for you, it might not. Your mileage may vary.)
While a large company like Apple should be engaged, you should at least be aware. With blogs and Twitter and YouTube and Yammer and more (many of them allowing users to remain anonymous), people are very generous with their opinions—especially negative ones. In reality, you may offer superior products and services, but in the wikiality of social media you might have a small cadre of critics dominating the online conversation about you. It’s a good idea to know what’s being said before the negative opinions in wikiality spill over into reality as a decline in business.
Here are some ways to do that:
Google Alerts
Every day, Google examines the entire World Wide Web and looks for what’s new. Google Alerts allow you to tell Google “If you find anything new with the words ‘Wedge Antilles‘ in it, let me know.” You can receive these results via email or RSS. (For an easy-to-understand explanation of RSS, check out “RSS in Plain English” on YouTube.) And you can replace “Wedge Antilles” with whatever you want: your name, product names, ideas, anything you’d search for on Google.
To get started, go to http://www.google.com/alerts (you’ll need a Google account).
You don’t need to understand Twitter to watch Twitter. You will need to create an account, but once you’ve done that you can monitor Twitter in several ways.
Go to search.twitter.com and search for something. In the top right of the screen you’ll see the orange RSS icon and a link “Feed for this query.” This RSS feed will update whenever someone tweets using the keywords you searched for. With this, you can keep track of your name, brand names, topics, anything.
Private Lists
Twitter offers you the ability to organize who you follow into “lists,” so if I only want to see what’s new from authors I follow, I view my “Authors” lists and only their tweets appear.
While lists are usually public (meaning anyone can see what lists you have and who is in them), you can create private lists, which are lists that no one else knows exists. What’s powerful is you don’t need to follow someone to add them to a list. So you might follow some friends on Twitter, but create a private list of your competitors and no one will know.
HootSuite is a website that empowers Twitter. Where Twitter provides you with one column to work with, Twitter gives you up to five, and multiple tabs into which to sort those columns. For example, I have one tab dedicated to my MattMooreWrites account that contains a Twitter feed of those I follow, tweets I’ve send, mentions of @MattMooreWrites, and any tweets of mine that have been re-tweeted. In another tab, I have columns set up to search for specific keywords so I can track what’s being said on Twitter, even by people I am not following.
Social Mention
SocialMention is like Google for social media. Enter a search term and it will return blog posts, tweets, comments and more. As with search.twitter.com above, you can subscribe to an RSS feed so you can be informed of anything new.

You Know What People Are Saying… Now What?

With all of this monitoring, you might have a better idea of what’s being said about you and your products. What you do next is up to you… and it may not involve social media.
Perhaps in wikiality your customer service is awful. Rather than getting into a dust-up on Twitter about awards you’ve won or training you provide, consider a survey at the customer service level, or have supervisors take a more active role in monitoring service staff. Are your products considered rip-offs because they fall apart a few months after the warranty expires? Don’t blog about the superiority of your materials, but extend the warrant another year. Or look into defects in your manufacturing processes.
Or perhaps you are willing to dive into the world of social media. If you set up a search for the names of your products on Twitter, you might find someone saying “ACME’s vacuum cleaner Widget is a piece of crap!” (and you are ACME). Reach out to that person and ask what the problem is. Talk to them and try to solve their problem. This action might change someone who is turning wikiality against you into a committed customer in both wikiality and reality… all through a couple of tweets.

Wikiality is Not Reality

Remember, in the online world the facts of reality don’t matter as much as the opinion of the crowd, which can be swayed by a few motivated and ticked off people. More and more people are using online sources to find information before making a purchase. If you don’t know what’s being said, you might be taken off by surprise when your sure-fire product goes down in flames simply because an influential person tweeted that it sucked, and that opinion spread because you were not there to fire back or take action to address the issue.