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Interview: Social media PhD scholar Vivek Kumar shares views on social media

Brian: How did you get started in social media?


Although I was aware of social media sites and their power when I was working for Google, my true journey began when I decided to take up my PhD in Social Media, which also gave me an opportunity to start blogging on a regular basis. Once I tried almost everything with SEO, I started focusing on Social Media for traffic. This marked the beginning of my interest—both personally and professionally—in the area of Social Media.

Brian: What is that you study about social media at a PhD level?


Frankly, because of the recency of phenomenon, not much hardcore academic research has been done. It puts forward both opportunity and challenge. Opportunity because even the slightest of your work will get recognized and challenge because everything has to be done from scratch.

One important aspect of my PhD is that it will probably have more business implication than academic. I'd like to an build an independent model of how social media can be leveraged to survey business environments to drive product innovation.

As I mentioned this is still in exploratory phase and something substantial should come out soon. However it's great to see some work being done already in a wonderful PhD thesis titled "Taken Out of Context: American Teen Sociality in Networked Publics".

Brian: What are the different kinds of social media and how is it different from social networking? (bookmarks, networking, content)


The underlying philosophy of social media is user generated content. However, it's not mandatory that every user generated content is social media. For example file hosting services like RapidShare and MEGAUPLOAD can safely fall out of the premise of social media. But it's mandatory to have user generated content for any service to be categorized as social media. I have seen people using social networking and social media interchangebly. In my honest opinion, they are entirely two different things.

If companies and bloggers want to use social sites for generating revenue in any form, social sites become social media. However, social sites are social networks if a blogger or anyone else is on a social site just for networking without any motivation to generate traffic. These are the two lenses through which I look at the two phenomenon. Following is the definition of Social Networking Sites [boyd & Ellison, November 2007].

We define social network sites as web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system. The nature and nomenclature of these connections may vary from site to site.

Any social platform that's being used for driving marketing or other related strategies would fall under the purview of social media whether it is social bookmarking, blogging, microblogging or podcasting.

Brian: How is social media changing the Internet marketing landscape?


Let me put in 2 perspectives.

  1. Social Media for generating traffic:

    If you own a blog or an ecommerce website that typically makes money from an online presence then your most potent Internet marketing weapon is still SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and SEM (Search Engine Marketing).

    Social media should be used as a top of hierarchy approach to create image, to improve feed readers, and generate highly targeted traffic. After all the people on social media sites like Delicious, StumbleUpon, digg, and twitter are pretty savvy. Assuming savvy users will click ads on your site to generate ad revenue is not the best of the strategies. The click-through rates on ads is pretty low from Social Media traffic when compared to Search Engine traffic.

  2. Social Media for direct sales/brand management/PR:

    This is where the true potential of social media lies. Dell already manages platforms like twitter wonderfully well to generate sales. Dell outlet promoted a twitter exclusive offer wherein dell offered a 15% discount for twitter users and followers. Dell claims that they have made $1 million in sales using twitter. There are other examples where companies are using social media sites for public relations. After all all these activities some how or other affect a company's marketing effort.

  3. Brian: How do bloggers get started with social media?


    I think social media for bloggers should be a tool right on top of the hierarchy. If I were to have a blog, I'd initially concentrate on content, followed by SEO and save Social Media for last. It'd be more of a reputation management, buzz creating tool. As I said earlier this is a platform to generate quality traffic and hence it'll be fantastic way to improve on your feed readers.

    Brian:What is the greatest benefit of social media?


    Viral impact! I've had instances where my blog was brought down by traffic from Digg and StumbleUpon. The reason being the viral impact of social media. Think about the number RTs (Retweets) can happen if your blog article is tweeted by an authority on twitter.

    Brian: What is the biggest challenge faced by social media?


    People expect to make instantaneous money with any sort of traffic generating strategy. If we are to look at social media, I'd see it as a tool which will bring me readers in a long term who will add exceptional amount of "Reader Lifetime Value" something like CLV for a business.

    However, if we were to look at bigger picture and social media as a phenomenon, I am sure every big house out there is scared. Survival of the fittest probably applies to social media platforms. Who ever thought that MySpace would ever struggle but then Facebook entered the arena. So if I were to associate a challenge for social media platforms, it'd be their capacity for continuous innovation—in terms of concept and technology—to survive the test of time.

    Second challenge would be to find means of becoming a service without which people cannot live. I can't think of living without a Google account. This is the reason why Google is such a sustainably viable model on such a turbulent platform as is the Internet.

    Brian: Are search engines being influenced by social media?


    This is a fabulous question! What did Google do with YouTube? In my personal experience a story on Digg may be higher up in the SERPs (Search Engine Result Pages) than the original website, which means search engines like Google are giving social media platforms weight and integrating them into SERPs. I am very surprised that none of the search engines are doing nothing about twitter. One reason might be the complexity of integrating a 140 character service into SERPs coupled with URL shortening services.

    Brian: How will Twitter impact other Social Media?


    I think we'll have to wait and watch. It's too early to say. It's great to see that the folks at twitter are going easy with the revenue generation stuff. They can very easily go for ads (ppc and banner) and probably ruin the whole service or they can wait to see how the whole phenomenon of micro blogging evolves and then think of a viable business model. As a blogger (non-professional), I don't think it's any different from other social media platforms. As a company it's a much more powerful platform to leverage for branding, PR, and other similar activities.

    Brian: How will Twitter impact search engines?


    I am already using more and more of twitter for my search. I have the greasemonkey script which shows 5 recent results from twitter on Google search. I also have a searchbar plugin of twitter for firefox. Welcome to the world of highly qualitative realtime information. Every search on twitter is a result of human conversation and thus nearly prevents manipulated search results due to search optimization. I am sure we are going to see a lot of improvement and some sort of ranking system to truly leverage the search functionality of twitter. Twitter poses a serious threat to search engines.

    About Vivek

    Vivek is PhD scholar and a management consultant in Social Media and Search Engine Optimization/Marketing at Management Development Institute, Gurgaon, India. Before starting his full time PhD he worked for Google as Search Quality Analyst as part of web spam team. He also has professional experience in fighting cyber crimes. Vivek is also a tech blogger and writes at Technology Reviews and you can subscribe to his RSS feeds. He enjoys traveling, photography, and football in his free time. You can follow him on twitter @vivek1209.


    Boyd, D. M., & Ellison, N. B. (November 2007). Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication , 13 (1), 210-230.