Thursday, 26 January 2012

Profile pic protests are invisible

Could identifying and reading text in profile pics become the next step in social media monitoring? I recently changed my Twitter profile pic to include a little banner that says: "Stop SOPA". Obviously any sane person would oppose a law that completely bypasses due process to allow whole businesses to be shut down as a direct result of one unverified complaint.

But then it struck me, I was not in fact making my voice heard at all. To be heard, protests must be measurable. That is why we have petitions and protest marches: so we can be counted. There are plenty of social media monitoring companies out there that gather information from the web in lots of different ways but all of them, as far as I'm aware, are essentially text-based. Social media monitoring tools can count how many times the word SOPA appears, but even though profile pics are often collected as well, the content of those pics themselves is not being picked up by automated search terms. The best social media companies, like the one I work for, combine automated data-harvesting with human analysis to pick up on details like that, but even we would have no way to give an exhaustive quantitative measure of how many pics contain banners or certain words, or a pictogram-style protest message.

Possible solutions for monitoring purposes could lie in the type of facial recognition software already used by Facebook. If such technology can recognize your friends' faces, surely it could use OCR to recognize and read text in a pic, or even identify a given motif. Another option would be to collect and collate the personal data from such services as Twibbon who change your profile pic for you. At present, neither of these avenues have yet been explored by any social media monitoring company I am aware of. This is a shame because a lot of shared content is becoming more and more visual.

For now, although a picture speaks a thousand words, those of us who really want to stand up and be counted, should use our 140 characters to the greatest effect.

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