The CRTC needs to connect with Canadians, not consult with them (part 2)

Leaping onto the social network bandwagon

The consultation site came equipped with some basic Web 2.0 tools, i.e. a video with a YouTube imbed and links to several social networking sites (SNS). With over 500 million people now on Facebook, and the use of other social networking sites (SNS) growing, it would seem there’s a compelling case for having SNS links on any big site. There is. But SNS badges aren’t medicine for a site that’s not reaching its audience.

That’s where the CRTC has run into problems. It has done nothing in creating material for the consultation to expand its audience outside those with a professional stake in regulatory affairs.  Nor has it understood the need to overcome the inertia of demographics.

Even when the site is trying to help, as in the FAQ, the non-expert reader is unlikely to take comfort. Reading suggestions include two CRTC telecomm notices, one of which (CRTC 2010-43) concerns the larger consultation on the obligation to serve. It begins thusly:

In this notice, the Commission initiates a proceeding to review issues associated with access to basic telecommunications services, including the obligation to serve, the basic service objective, and local service subsidy. This proceeding will also re-examine the local competition and wireless number portability frameworks in the territories of the small incumbent local exchange carriers. In addition, the Commission will re-examine the appropriateness of the existing forbearance framework for mobile wireless data services.

Why would anyone put ILECs and the existing forbearance framework for mobile wireless data services anywhere near a site devoted to a vox pop consultation? If the Commission is not making these arcane but important issues accessible to the public, it’s not only doing a disservice to taxpayers; it’s also failing to look after its own relevance as a Canadian institution.

These content issues take on even greater importance because of Web demographics. Despite the increased use of social media by older adults, the Pew Internet’s research demonstrates that one trend remains unchanged. In 2009 (see chart below), the most over-represented age group on social nets was 18-24 (when share of SNS use is compared to share of the general Internet population); the most under-represented groups were 45-54 and 55-64. The site authors would have done well to realize that young adults will give you lots of buzz online – but not when this involves reading long documents that look suspiciously like homework. I know; my students keep reminding me.

pew, sns, young adults

Despite overall growth, use of social networks still skews to young adults

What the server stats say

If you go to the consultation site homepage, you may discover it’s hosted by a firm called Publivate. And a look at the Alexa analytics for the consultation site confirms they’re actually for (I’m using the Alexa toolbar for Firefox, which isn’t 100% accurate, but better than nothing).

I’ve noticed an interesting change from the time I first landed on the consultation page and clicked through to the Alexa stats (week of August 9). Alexa’s world ranking for was 3,155,803. At the time of this writing it stood at 2,338,761, an increase of about 35% in less than two weeks. That increase, which I assume came mostly from consultation visitors, has to be judged in the context of other Web stats.

SNS links need to incent visitors to do more than post a pointer on Facebook or make it tweetable. They have to get people talking, expressing likes and dislikes. The links also have to ride the network effect – what we call going viral, which denotes an exponential rather than linear rate of growth in popularity or awareness (put another way, each transmitter must “infect” more than one person at a time).

So what does the evidence tell us about the CRTC’s experiment with SNS?

I clicked through the five SNS links at several points. I didn’t go hunting for comments, but, as I’ll show in a moment, I did find some revealing details about referrals and traffic in the server stats generated by the site’s YouTube video page.

I used my accounts on Facebook and Twitter to get to the inside landing pages. Of course nothing is provided on these pages but a pointer and a few lines of text. I did get a surprise the first few times I went to Facebook via the site homepage (August 12 and 13). The item I found from Publivate had nothing to do with the consultation – it was about the BP oil spill (dated May 31, 2010). Three weeks in, no one had made the Facebook page point to the right site, a pretty serious error given the potential importance of Facebook in any set of Web referrals.

After 3 weeks, StumbleUpon showed almost zero activity

There wasn’t much else to see via the SNS, except at StumbleUpon. Despite its size (nearly 10.8 million stumblers), StumbleUpon had attracted only one view and not a single like, three weeks after going live. At this writing, it’s scored two views.

While this information doesn’t add up to much, the YouTube video analytics put a nail in the site’s coffin. This is a rather unusual page of information (found below the video player), which I’ll divide into several categories:

  • Number of views: at the official end of the consultation, about 1,460.
  • Buzz: Ratings – 0, Likes – 0, Dislikes – 0, Honors – 0, Favorites – 1, Comments – disabled.
  • Audience: Most popular with males, 35-44, 45-54, 55-64 (no source or methodology is given).
  • Links: Over three-quarters of the views came directly from the consultation site. Other referrals were small in number and scope. For example, a Twitter referral on July 23 generated a total of only 11 views, a poor result considering the size of its base (190 million monthly visitors) and the ease with which pointers can be retweeted.
  • Rate of growth: A time-series graph on this same page (see below) shows the views went up to about 1,000 in three or four days, then hit a plateau and struggled for more than three weeks to gain a mere 460 hits. This is the big disappointment. These results show that, far from going viral, the YouTube video experienced a continuing drop in the daily rate at which it added views for most of the consultation period.

Traffic to the YouTube page, showing stagnant growth after 3-4 days

Let’s spend the taxpayers’ money gathering facts, not thoughts

I’ve tried to describe the numerous shortcomings in the consultation methodology, site materials and the use of social software. At the same time, I think there’s more to be learned here than how to make better use of Web video or Twitter.

First, the odd slant of the questions and poor execution shouldn’t be allowed to conceal the very weak policy infrastructure that underpins this dialog with the public. The framework for broadband in this country has gone from weak to unacceptable, as we continue to slip in the international rankings. The consultation makes assumptions about speeds, quality, competition and availability that simply don’t stand up to the evidence. No amount of consulting with the public will fix that.

Second, if we go back to the original consultation goal, we might find a new and better direction for policy reform. The idea that the CRTC should collect the “thoughts” of its citizens might have some rhetorical charm. But it’s no way to regulate. So let’s pass on the attitudinal stuff and get back to basics. For example…

In a recent technical paper, the FCC has confirmed what Ofcom established in its own study last year: namely, that US broadband subscribers are getting no more than 50% of the bandwidth promised by their ISPs (Broadband Performance, OBI Technical Paper No.4; DOC-300902A1.pdf) . The advertised “up to” speeds averaged about 6.7 Mbps in 2009, but both the median and mean actual figures were way below that level, at about 3 and 4 Mbps respectively. While this round was based on data from Akamai and comScore, the FCC is now going out to the field to install meters that will measure actual line speeds in thousands of homes. It’s expected this research will lead to a set of truth-in-labelling regulations.

Why isn’t the CRTC funding technical measurements of the broadband service Canadians actually have in their homes, instead of making it up with the help of bogus definitions no other national regulator will tolerate?

Right now the CRTC’s idea of consultation has fallen between two stools: it isn’t creating any rapport or dialog with its constituents, nor is it generating information that could conceivably be used to advance any real policy agenda. The Commission needs to make a much greater effort to separate outreach and marketing communications from actual research, of the kind the FCC is committed to.

One good thing might have come from this failed exercise in consultation. Now that it’s over, the Commission and others – both friend and foe – need to ask what we got for our money. As we do, my hope is this online fad will be pushed aside in favor of smarter and more effective ways of talking to Canadians about their communication needs.