The unlimited power of social media is bound by my human limitations

Social media allow us to interact over content, anywhere, anytime. And we love it. Interaction is what makes web 2.0 valuable. While mainstream users are discovering and engaging in this interaction on services like Facebook and MySpace, the early adopter is way ahead using services like Twitter, Pownce, Friendfeed, Dopplr, Seesmic, Yelp, del.icio.us, Digg, Google Reader, StumbleUpon, Disqus etc. (I could go on for a while). A typical early adapter hero is using at least 5-25 of those services and actively shares his own content, events and stuff found on the web with his friends. Content gets aggregated,  shared, re-aggregated and re-shared.

While I do consider myself part of the early adapter scene I have always been reluctant to spent too much time on so many different services. I read about them, I try out a few, but I never spent hours a day on any of these services. For example, I love Twitter, but unlike most Twitterazi I probably average no more than 4-5 tweets a day.I don’t follow thousands of people, but balance the number of followers and follows.

I have several reasons for this. first of all,  I’m not really fascinated by technology itself. I use it, I work with it, I try it, but the final verdict for any service is never based upon the technology. I always look at it from a user (in this case mine) perspective. Does it help me/solve a problem/or provide me value in any way. For precisely that reason I (unlike most) do not like the iPhone I have all that much. If you get past the cool demo effect, an start using it in daily life you’ll find limitations that no mobile handset manufacturer has solved yet, not even Saint Jobs.

The same thing goes for Friendeed. While many of the tech elite’s find Friendfeed the one aggregation service that will replace them all I find it just another tool. Friendfeed lets you share content via RSS feeds with people that subscribe to you. I don’t care all that much about content aggregation (will get to that). But the real power of Friendfeed is that it lets users comment on the content that is being shared. It makes it really easy to start and participate in conversations with other users. By following people you find interesting Friendfeed highlights the content the person you follow for you. Friendfeed attempts to (re-)organize content using the idea that if you follow interesting people, you will see the content that they are interested in.

The users of Friendfeed are wildly enthusiastic about it. There is more engagement, more content, much better discussions. All of this is true. But I also find that there are many people participating in a discussion, surrounding a blog post for example, without having read the post itself. As a result discussions tend to get long lists of everyone ventilating his opinion. Personally I am more fond of interaction that leads to exploration of the subject at hand.

There are services where you share locations, traveling plans, shopping behavior, blog posts, music, video’s. There are so many fascinating ways to meet new people, interact, share content, thoughts, emotions. It’s very addictive once you get into it. But I have found that social media are quickly bound by my human limitations. There is only so much attention I am willing to spend on such services. And I’m not alone in this. If you search for “noise” or “echo” on Friendfeed you’ll find many discussions and strategies to deal with the immense flow of content you are confronted with. Most problems are related to following too many people and getting too much content aggregated. How can you find the interesting people or content if you are flooded with it? The most obvious solutions are to either follow less people, use less services, or spend less time on them. Some are even building their own experiments and take radical different approaches to their social media consumption (see here and here for example).

As a sidestep, this overwhelming content flow makes it really hard for content to stand out. In the blogosphere this leads to sensational blog titles with often virtually no (or copied) content inside. There isn’t any time for lengthy posts anymore (such as this one). The major blogs write short, snappy posts in the hope people are willing to take a few secs and pay attention to it.

This is where Social Media is quickly hitting our human limitations. There is only so much content we can swallow, so much interaction we can handle. We can’t all be Louis Gray or Robert Scoble. A tech guy talks about the signal to noise ratio, in normal language there is just too much to see and participate in. One of the main weaknesses of most aggregators in my opinion is that there is too much unintentional sharing. We don’t just share things we find really important, we share anything. And worse, we don’t share by sending each other something specific (intentionally), but we share RSS feeds making the act of sharing unintentional (or maybe unconscious). As a result the stuff I might be really interested in gets buried under a whole lot of unintentional, unfocused and mostly uninteresting content.

We have been here before.You can see the exact same pattern developing as it did with e-mail. When starting, you get a few intentional mails directed right at you. Later on you get copied in almost every e-mail conversations, both futile things and in cc:, making e-mail much less efficient and forcing us to deploy inbox rules. And on top of that you get a whole lot of messages that aren’t directed specifically at you, but they are in your mailbox and stand in the way of the content that is important to you. You know what that is? SPAM. Social Media aggregation is quickly becoming the next source of gigantic numbers of unintersting pieces of content (AKA SPAM).

And we are so predictable in the way we want to handle this. We need trust filters, noise detectors, blockers, friend feeds and rankings, all kinds of technical solutions to stop all that useless content obscuring the good stuff from us. But we are ignoring the fact that the underlying principle of sharing is the cause of all this. By using RSS which as a technology is truly great as a sharing mechanism, we also accept that we get endless streams of unintentionally shared content. Most of which is useless to the receiver.

There are limits to what I can and am willing to process on a day. I have found that a few choices help me deal with this:

  1. I see everything as a river of content. It passes by all day long, and whenever i feel like it I dive in. I’m not concerned what I miss when I get out again. the river doesn’t dry up, there is always something else to be found
  2. Despite of what you might think I prefer to follow as many as possible. I’m not hunting for follows, but if someone follows me I usually follow back. I’m more concerned to be trapped in a small community with lots of similar people than with possible noise. As long as I accept choice 1. this is fine.
  3. I actually read long blog posts and try to provide my thoughts if I feel I can contribute. I haven’t visited sites like TechCrunch in ages. I’m not interested in any post that has a title of “breaking news”. It’s not the launch of something new I’m interested in, but the impact it has on me and others. So not the breaking news, but the analysis is what I find interesting. That’s why I follow people like Rolf Skyberg, Steven Hodson, Chris Anderson, Kevin Kelley, Chris Messina, Zephoria, Jonathan Harris and many more like those (sorry guys, can’t fit you all in here).
  4. I don’t comment or like endless streams of content (sorry guys). It’s not that I don’t like many things, but I do feel that I need to be reluctant to join in every discussion. I have an opinion about many things, but I’m by no means an expert on them. Instead of adding more noise to the river, I try to interact in those places where I feel I can contribute.
  5. I write long blog posts myself. Maybe it ads noise too, but my intention is to contribute where I feel I can. I read great stuff from others, so I feel I need to pay back by presenting my thoughts.
  6. I try not to share too much, only the things I myself really find valuable (this is always hard to do)
  7. I spent limited time in this social media river. I have a life with a family, friends. I have an incredibly  exciting job (will get to that later) preparing a commercial launch of a service that will conquer the world starting in September  (don’t they all ;-) ). I read books, newspapers, and most of all, I interact with real people. There is a life outside social media you know ;-)

This is how I deal with my human limitations in social media. How do you deal with it?

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28 Responses to The unlimited power of social media is bound by my human limitations

  1. Louis Gray says:

    Being Louis Gray or Robert Scoble probably isn’t that much different than being Alexander van Elsas.

  2. Ha ha Louis, I doubt it. I am still amazed at the incredible amounts of readings and interactions you (and Robert) are capable of handling. And have time for twins and your own blog. I have a lot of respect for that. You even had time to read this post ;-) The force is with you my friend!

  3. Steve Olson says:

    Alexander,

    I struggle with all these problems like everyone else. I like your approach of the diving into the river periodically without fear you will miss something. You really hit a nerve with this post. Senior management at my company are just beginning to get a inkling of what is happening with the early adopters. I helping them learn and coaching them. The great thing is… they are embracing it slowly. Neither rejecting it nor inflating the importance of the new media. What you and Scoble and Gray are talking about are critical to keeping this useful and preventing it from turning into a tabloid newsstand buried in a pile of dung. We need well thought out original content which provides value. Thanks for providing it.

  4. @Steve thank you, glad to be of help ;-)

  5. Richard Kannegieser says:

    Awesome post! I find myself jumping in the river alot and getting swept down streat :). It’s so easy to get sidetracked with the mass amounts of information coming through friendfeed. Very good tips on how to focus and avoid the noise!

    Thanks for the great post!
    Richard Kannegieser
    twitter.com/richardk138

  6. madpotter says:

    Hey Alex, I am with you re. not spreading yourself too thin throughout the social web- That is because tech is not my primary work realm. I am an artist and using this media, partly from curiosity and seeing where it is going, partly from passionate interactions that get my heart pumping, (amazing and daily) and partly to get my work into the world in a broader arena than those that exist. This medium, these media, are evolving and the users (all of us) are evolving with it. I am curious about the developer vs. the producer- may or may not blog about that, but glad to be part of this conversation.

  7. @Madpotter thank you, it’s good to hear the view of someone that can observe this crazy early adopter world from a totally different perspective :-)

  8. gregorylent says:

    there must be 25,000 magazines in the world, several thousand tv channels, the same for radio stations, god knows how many newspapers ( i could look it up, but won’t)

    there is a TON of stuff, everything stands out for somebody … there is not too much, there is what is … nobody is required to consume anything, one does or does not.

    treat the electronic stuff the same as the print stuff. you put unnecessary pressure on yourself.

    it simply is not important

  9. Gregory, I hope you do not get the impression it puts pressure on me, on the contrary. I do not feel pressurized at all, that is why I can deal with loads of content flowing by ;-)

  10. J. Phil says:

    I really like what you said here, about dipping in to a river of information. The metaphor really works for a mindset where one remains deliberately aloof, and makes a conscious decision to participate for a period of time.

    I have a tendency to just let myself get swallowed up, and trying to be productive from that position doesn’t work for me. I think for me making a more deliberate choice of withdrawing from the river of information will definitely help.

    I appreciate the insight Alexander, thanks.

  11. sheenonline says:

    Alexander, everytime I read your blog I find you suckered me into reading another long blog post. Your writing is interesting and insightful and I really enjoy the change of pace from other blogs I read.

    The part about the stream not going anywhere and not worrying about missing anything really resonates with me. I have definitely found myself getting carried away by the current.

    I am an artist as well (Hi, madpotter) and I’m not looking to break news or scoop anyone, so why do I keep trying to swim upstream?

    Thanks for this :)

  12. As a relative newcomer to using the social media tools, I initially dived right into it (I suspect this is true with most newcomers). Subsequently though this “data stream”, it has become somewhat overwhelming and so I’ve begun to cut back on the number of people I follow.

    I have observed that as the sources for these aggregation streams become anonymous over time (aka I’ve added them due to the recommendation of others) and as a result I find myself disengaging with these services. They turn into a highly personalized Google News or Digg page.

    So I’m finding that my “global” sources for aggregation are happy diminishing.

    Alternately, this leads me to the surprise upside that to these types of aggregated services. Local aggregation services. Most of my twitter and friendfeed contacts are in fact other people I previously didn’t know from my city and province.

    Strangely, I’m happy to keep them due to the fact that I feel I am developing a deeper sense of connection to the immediate environment around me. We all share a common environment (our city) so the dialog is helping me to keep in touch with the city around me. This is increasing my sense of the social capital around me.

    This has been my experience so far, thanks for the post Alexander, its always fun to comment.

  13. @J Phil, thanks ;-)

    @Sheenonline Sorry ( I think ;-) ). Good to see there are more non-tech folks out there. We need someone to hold a mirror in front of our (sometimes) ridiculous behavior

    @John-Paul that is actually a very cool upside!

  14. Ivan Pope says:

    I think you’ll find that most people are moderate users much as you are. In fact I’d hazard that this is the default mode of behaviour here. It’s just the manic chatter of the few can give a different impression – give this stuff a couple of years and it will all calm down.
    I think we all end up using a few services that just work for us – and we don’t spend a lot of time analysing what that means, we just use what we use.
    I would go so far as to say that even writing this blog post is evidence of misreading the situation, finding issues where in fact there are none. We are naturally good at moderating our behaviour, because we are human.

  15. @Ivan, you may be right, there is no way of telling. But the analogy with e-mail, which I find pretty straight, sort of suggests that people might start feeling the pressure a little. But you are right that human behavior deals with it one way or another. I know I did ;-)

  16. Dave Thomas says:

    You’re right on so many levels…I’ve been noting the effect of global social media production for a while now as something I call “Attention Crisis / Content Overload” ACCO. Lots of noise, scarce signal. I’d love to quantify it with some good guesses…on LinkedIn I asked…

    My Question: Social Media Production: How many global social network users are there?… and, how many videos, posts, images, podcasts and comments do they produce in one month?

    perhaps some of your readers want to venture a guess?

    thanks for the post Alexander !

    Your Answer:

  17. Kat says:

    This post reminded me of something my Dad always tells me, which is to seek out opinions that differ from your own as you can’t grow if everyone around you is in agreement. So much of the blizt-quick flashy information consumption happening all over the web can be an exercise in self-reinforcement. Or it can be an opportunity to expand. I prefer the latter.

    cheers~!

  18. friarminor says:

    Honestly, I’m overwhelmed by all of the web activities but then it’s part of my work and I really am fascinated with how easy it is to interact with people whom I would never have the chance to probably meet or say hi to if I lived a decade and a half ago.

    Maybe I better go back and do a bit more of writing snail mail to offset this excess but there are people who really are interesting and have interesting ideas worth sharing and until then i might just settle being the herald for those in my neck of the woods which I hope doesn’t really go larger than what real intimate conversation or friendship can handle.

    Best regards, Alex.
    alain
    http://www.mor.ph

  19. My consumption is the complete opposite. I feel like I always have to be engaged and involved in social media, this has been the case on Friendfeed for me for the past 5 months. I feel that the constant river of content will pass me by, if I am not their to participate in it immediately, either by liking or commenting or sharing. In the beginning I was very focused on consuming massive amounts of information and followers. In some respect it had become what I feared the most, quantity and not quality. That focus lead to me a river of noise and disruption, and really diminished how I use social media. The ephinany I had was too focus more on the people that I follow and that follow me, basically getting to know them better the best that I can, rather then them just being a profile pic and number. This discovery has led to me to some new and interesting things, I otherwise would have never found. My consumption level has changed, and so has my interaction. I have become more selective on what I share, comment on and like as well. It’s only as of lately I am realizing that this river will still be here, with or with out me, and that I can jump in at any time. I don’t have to be first any more, I can start to sit back watch and lets things marinate a while.

  20. “A typical early adapter hero is using at least 5-25 of those services and actively shares his own content, events and stuff found on the web with his friends.”

    …+ Women? What do women do?

    *shakes head*

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  23. Laura Norvig says:

    Information overload was a problem for me before social media, and its still a problem now, but I think social media helps me with the overload. My first few weeks on FriendFeed, I really felt I hit a sweet spot where I was getting lots of great info about social media and about my profession (lots of fabulous librarians on friendfeed). Now I think I’m following a few too many people so, yes, one needs strategies. But now I know the tricks to continuing to find the stuff I want to pay attention to (some of the options in beta friendfeed help with that also).

    I like the serendiptious, community party aspect of social networking too. It’s clear by how many people comment on Mona N.’s post that she just has a je ne se quois that excites that community vibe. She shares fun stuff, much of which has nothing to do with my intellectual interests, but it’s just fun to talk about. I like the way that breaks up my hunt for more serious content. It’s an all around win for me.

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