Should We Try to Measure Social Media Sophistication?

Social media sophistication

Should there be a scientific measure of social media sophistication? In Part 1 of a two-part essay, I share my perspective on whether understanding social media sophistication is important and whether there’s value in trying to create a universal measure to assess it. The perspective of others is welcome.

In 2009 I created a social media quiz, practically on a whim. Over the years I’ve converted the simple quiz into a more complex assessment of social media sophistication, but it’s still very unscientific. It’s great for ice breakers, workshops, and discussions, but its lack of reliability and validity limits its use beyond that.

Over the years, the social scientist in me has contemplated the question of whether there should be a “real” measure of social media sophistication. This is Part 1 of a two-part essay that captures some of my current thinking. Here I provide my perspective on whether understanding social media sophistication is important and whether there’s value in trying to create a universal measure to assess it.

Is Understanding Social Media Sophistication Important?

Yes, understanding social media sophistication is important – and not just for the companies like Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat that provide social media platforms, tools and apps. It’s an aspect of digital literacy that a lot of organizations have a vested interest in, including:

  • Commercial enterprises that want to generate revenue (either by direct engagement or via advertising) and provide customer service via social channels
  • Governments that leverage social media as part of their communication outreach and citizen engagement
  • Mission-focused organizations like charities that want to spread the word about their cause, engage with others who share their interests and values, and facilitate donations and other support
  • Academic and religious institutions, as well as healthcare providers, who want to integrate social and digital media into their overall stakeholder communication portfolios
  • Employers who want to leverage social channels both for employer branding/recruiting and employee advocacy, while simultaneously reducing the risks presented by employees’ personal engagement (e.g., revealing trade secrets and confidential information)

Although it’s not talked about much, the social media sophistication of the individuals linked to all these examples is critical to the success of an organization’s efforts. Like tennis, quality and engagement are dependent on the skill levels and engagement of players on both sides of the net.

Should We Try to Measure of Social Media Sophistication?

Here are a few reasons why I think there’s value in trying to create a universal measure of individual social media sophistication:

Remembering the “silent majority.” There is so much attention paid to who IS using social media that it’s easy to forget about who’s NOT using it. Focusing our conversations too heavily on early adopters and active users – and treating everyone else a homogeneous mass of the unenlightened – is ultimately not in anyone’s bests interests. If social media is going to have the widespread impact its advocates have said it will, more attention needs to be paid to later adopters and less active users.

More accurate and universal assessment. I’ve noticed that people who have some familiarity and/or experience with social media tend to overestimate their social media sophistication, reflecting an overconfidence bias. If we only rely on personal judgments of social media sophistication, it will be difficult to take appropriate action with respect to strategy, training, policy development, etc. A reliable, objective measure would provide a much better starting point for both organizations and individuals.

Similarly, creating a measure of social media sophistication enables a form of standardization when we talk about adoption rates and usage, and knowledge and skills. In other words, if we know more clearly what we mean by a novice versus an initiate, a sophisticate versus a maven (or whatever terms we want to use), and if there’s some consensus around those labels, then we will be able to have more appropriate discussions about both strategies and tactics.

Each individual platform, tool and app regularly mines its data and leverages algorithms to evaluate what its users are doing, but there are limits to algorithmic assessments. First, they can only measure the behavior users DO; they can’t really assess or make inferences about what users DON’T do. They also can’t take deep dives into why or how people are engaging in certain ways, what their skills levels are, or what they know and understand. And third, service-specific algorithms can only assess what’s happening in a particular environment, which doesn’t necessarily reflect cross-platform sophistication.

Individual responsibility. A measurement tool will emphasize the importance of the role of individual social media users in defining the effectiveness of the platforms, apps and tools they use. As technology has advanced, the increasing emphasis on ease of use seems to have created this notion that the tools should require no effort, which is neither practical nor logical. A hammer doesn’t swing itself. Good tools should be well designed, well crafted, and intuitive, but they shouldn’t be effortless.


In Part 2, I’ll address the question of whether we can create a measure of social media sophistication and share some thoughts on what a measure might include. In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts. Do you think there is value in attempting to create a measure of social media sophistication? Can it be done? Should it be done?

Even if we don’t create a measure – which may be unrealistic and impractical – exploring these ideas will enrich our understanding of what social media sophistication is and how we can best assess it.

This essay originally appeared on Social Media Today as part of their Best Thinkers program.

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