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:
- 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
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- I try not to share too much, only the things I myself really find valuable (this is always hard to do)
- 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?