Here and there have been articles about military applications of social media, but recently we read a very good piece from the folks at C4ISR Journal, a B2B publication for the defense industry that focuses on the technologies that foster intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. In the last issue of this periodical, “Human Sensors,” (November/December 2012, pp. 16-18) Aram Roston (@AramRoston), the newly hired editor, wrote about the US military’s sophisticated monitoring and analysis of social media, particularly Twitter. You would be surprised what Twitter actually does to help DoD and its contractors….
A Twitter offering known as the “Firehose” is, essentially, all the tweets ever tweeted, excluding private messages. Now that tweets are created in excess of 400 million per day, that’s quite a cache of data treasure. We were surprised to see that the exact phrase “Twitter Firehose” only produced in 37,500 results on Google, which is nothing when you’re talking about technology with such a potential for controversy. Why controversy? Because while our tweets are public, many still expect a level of privacy, especially from government observation. But we’re not here to facilitate a privacy debate.
So what exactly is the military doing with tweets? Whereas in the past, the military has had sonar to understand the marine environment and radar to understand the aerospace environment, “social radar” can be used to understand the human environment. Contractors like Attensity, which this blog has covered in both 2009 and 2010, are taking the data from the Firehose and selling it to the intelligence community.
The DoD is studying how messages spread through various populations, much like an epidemiologist studies the spread of disease. Whether they are friendly messages in friendly populations, or threatening messages in non-so-friendly populations, the military is trying to understand where messages spread, how fast they spread, how intense they spread, and what it may mean for “boots on the ground.” They learned a tragic and valuable lesson from Somalia in the 1990s, when enemy messages were being sent through the streets of Mogadishu by beating 55-gallon steel drums and the most advanced technology was absolutely clueless as how to predict it, detect it, understand it, or stop it.
Luckily, the efforts of marketers do not require exposure to such peril, but there is much to learn from the military’s efforts to monitor social media. There may be trends in a particular area that while seemingly innocuous, eventually make an impact on your brand and sales. You may be able to find a need in a segment you never noticed before. You may actually be able to intercept an opportunity for a quick sale also.
While the ability to filter through all the noise out there in the Twittersphere may be daunting, with time it will be easier even for an SMB to manage this – there are already affordable tools out there to do help you monitor keywords and phrases, but what will be more valuable will be tools that economically analyze the “big data” and provide you with a real-time window as to the sentiment and how people with similar needs are related and how they communicate. We are getting there, but there is still much work on the part of marketers on just how to gather, store, analyze, share, and act upon this data.