A lot of web traffic comes through the “dark social,” not through social network sites

Alexis Madrigal argues that while social network sites like Facebook get a lot of attention, a lot of web traffic is influenced by social processes that are much more difficult to see and measure:

Here’s a pocket history of the web, according to many people. In the early days, the web was just pages of information linked to each other. Then along came web crawlers that helped you find what you wanted among all that information. Some time around 2003 or maybe 2004, the social web really kicked into gear, and thereafter the web’s users began to connect with each other more and more often. Hence Web 2.0, Wikipedia, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, etc. I’m not strawmanning here. This is the dominant history of the web as seen, for example, in this Wikipedia entry on the ‘Social Web.’…

There are circumstances, however, when there is no referrer data. You show up at our doorstep and we have no idea how you got here. The main situations in which this happens are email programs, instant messages, some mobile applications*, and whenever someone is moving from a secure site (“https://mail.google.com/blahblahblah“) to a non-secure site (http://www.theatlantic.com).
This means that this vast trove of social traffic is essentially invisible to most analytics programs. I call it DARK SOCIAL. It shows up variously in programs as “direct” or “typed/bookmarked” traffic, which implies to many site owners that you actually have a bookmark or typed in www.theatlantic.com into your browser. But that’s not actually what’s happening a lot of the time. Most of the time, someone Gchatted someone a link, or it came in on a big email distribution list, or your dad sent it to you…
Just look at that graph. On the one hand, you have all the social networks that you know. They’re about 43.5 percent of our social traffic. On the other, you have this previously unmeasured darknet that’s delivering 56.5 percent of people to individual stories. This is not a niche phenomenon! It’s more than 2.5x Facebook’s impact on the site…
If what I’m saying is true, then the tradeoffs we make on social networks is not the one that we’re told we’re making. We’re not giving our personal data in exchange for the ability to share links with friends. Massive numbers of people — a larger set than exists on any social network — already do that outside the social networks. Rather, we’re exchanging our personal data in exchange for the ability to publish and archive a record of our sharing. That may be a transaction you want to make, but it might not be the one you’ve been told you made.

Two thoughts about this:

1. Here is how I might interpret this argument from a sociological point of view: Internet traffic is heavily dependent on social connections. Whether this is done on sites like Facebook, which are more publicly social, or through email, which is restricted from public view but is still quite social, the interactions people have influence where they go on the web. In this sense, the Internet is an important social domain that may have some of its own norms and rules as well as its own advantages and disadvantages but it is built around human connections.

2. This sounds like a fantastic business and/or research opportunity; what is going on in this “dark social” realm? Could there be ways at getting at these activities that would help us better understand and analyze the importance of social connections and interactions and could this information be monetized as well?

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