Dark Social: Analytics, referrers and why the social web is old news

For anyone who grew up with the web in the 90s, remembered ICQ and the user forums, and who doesn’t buy the must-know bullshit peddled by the ‘engagement patrol’, this is a must read (thanks Gavin):

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.’

But it’s never felt quite right to me. For one, I spent most of the 90s as a teenager in rural Washington and my web was highly, highly social. We had instant messenger and chat rooms and ICQ and USENET forums and email. My whole Internet life involved sharing links with local and Internet friends. How was I supposed to believe that somehow Friendster and Facebook created a social web out of what was previously a lonely journey in cyberspace when I knew that this has not been my experience? True, my web social life used tools that ran parallel to, not on, the web, but it existed nonetheless.
To be honest, this was a very difficult thing to measure. One dirty secret of web analytics is that the information we get is limited. If you want to see how someone came to your site, it’s usually pretty easy. When you follow a link from Facebook to The Atlantic, a little piece of metadata hitches a ride that tells our servers, “Yo, I’m here from Facebook.com.” We can then aggregate those numbers and say, “Whoa, a million people came here from Facebook last month,” or whatever.
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).

Jye Smith is currently the Digital Strategist for Weber Shandwick Australia. Ranked in B&Ts 30 Under 30, he's a regular keynote speaker and workshop facilitator who specialises in digital strategy, social media marketing, and change management.