The Human Factor in Social Media (part 3)

Last week I started something that might take a while to finish. I called it the human factor in social media trends. For those of you that missed it, you can find two posts here and here and besides the comments on both posts there were also great discussions going on about it here and here.

The object of this thought experiment is to spot a Social Media trend, drive it to the extreme and see what would happen to human behavior. So far I discussed 4 trends, and here is a fifth one

Trend no. 5: Social media makes us all public figures -> This will lead to an accompanying need for privacy

This  trend is related to the 4th one I mentioned here. I wrote:

Trend no 4: Public interaction using social media is exciting now -> But higly localised immersed interaction will be more important

The most important value of Social Media isn’t the media itself. It isn’t the content, the channel, the technology. What makes social media valuable is that it allows us to interact. Interaction is by far the most valuable driver for any online service. Friendfeed isn’t an interesting service because it aggregates content from specific people to one place. Friendfeed is interesting because it allows its users to interact over that content.

This value of interaction drives all major social networks such as Facebook and Myspace to lower their walls and allow interaction across their networks. That’s why Google comes with OpenSocial. Every object on the web is to be “socialised”, allowing anyone to interact with or over it. The trend isn’t that we are getting more social networks. The trend is that everything becomes social, making the web one big social object. A place where interaction can take place whenever we feel like it. And it is a public interaction. The bigger the better.

This giant conversation could have many different effects on human behavior. A few worth mentioning:

  1. It leads to massive amounts of new online “friends”. I put that in quotes because the relation you will have with these online friends will be a different one from those you know in the real world. In essence having many online friends leads to a lot of online conversation. But unlike in the real world where we are expected to invest time and effort to keep these relationships valuable, there is no such behavior needed online. We use these friendship for the conversation taking place, but no one really expects you to invest in such a relationship. Interestingly enough, this feature is prominent on TechMeme right now, as we learn from a good article by Allen Stern that Friendfeed uses this feature to grow its service exponentially. When a new user joins Friendfeed it immediately is presented with nine possible friends. These friends happen to be people that are extremely active on friendfeed. This makes a newcomer less alone, as he is immediately included in most of the conversation taking place there. As a small sidestep, I believe this shows how “tech” Friendfeed really is. There are only early adopters out there, and if new people joining in only get to see the “noisiest” of them all, then Friendfeed will remain what it is, an early adopters community. Nothing wrong with it, but there simply isn’t any mass appeal for this.
  2. With a conversation that never stops, so many friends involved, the content that passes by, people might easily get a feeling that it is too much. The tech elite calls this noise and thinks up technical solutions for it (making way more noise as they go along 😉 ). Noise filters, trust filters, blocking mechanisms. The human solution fort this is much simpler of course. Simply follow less friends and accept that the conversation is never ending. Dive in when you feel like it, and leave the premises as soon as you need to get on with life. Remember, the conversation will be there when you get back, so no need to stick around too long 😉
  3. Regarding 2) there is another phenomenon I see happen often (and have felt myself). When you join in this massive online conversation you feel pressured to actually join in and not just be an observer. It forces you to form an opinion and ventilate it. Being part of the conversation provides us the feeling that our opinion matters. Its not just the massive amounts of content that provide us a with a feeling of noise, we tend to create quite a bit of it ourselves when we join in.

Being a public figure puts pressure on us. It makes being part of the conversation going on less permissive, almost mandatory. When that happens people tend to find a way to get out of that pressure all the time. A way out of this is to ensure that that you can become anonymous every once in a while. Instead of being an online public figure you might want to be an anonymous bystander.

I believe that all of this might lead to an increasing need for privacy on the web. Privacy centered around yourself and the connections you will have online. Privacy controlled by you, not by others. Privacy that can be turned on or off whenever you feel like it. Fine-grain controls easily understood and used. These privacy controls will help you to surf the web anonymously, being able to look at the conversation without anyone knowing you are there, interrupting your life streaming activities for a while. Providing you the freedom to become an observer again. Not having to take part in this conversation. It will also allow you to create smaller, more private conversations with people you know. One on one, a few with a few. People aren’t all public figures by nature. Some feel the need to be more of an observer. With social media technology infiltrating any object on the web, we will have a stronger need to turn off social media interaction every once in a while. Privacy controls centered around ourselves will take care of that.

I’ll stop again as the post is getting long enough again 😉 . But I hope you like these little thought experiments. Don’t see them as predictions of the future. I would rather see them as a help to understand the present. And as usual, I’m really interested to hear your opinion on these observations.  Does anything I say here make any sense? Do you recognise any of it in your on-line experiences now?


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13 Responses to The Human Factor in Social Media (part 3)

  1. Louis Gray says:

    Hopefully, the additional pressure of people being public means that they will act in such a way they don’t mind employers, peers and family seeing their activity. That would help raise the bar for interaction and community.

  2. @Louis, definitely, the social pressure will increase.

  3. Romain says:

    @Alexander: thanks for sharing your thoughts (just read the 3 parts).
    Regarding the 5th point, I do think people would more need a digital ID protection (like OpenID) to prevent digital ID theft than an accompanying need for privacy (such a thing means to me just a privacy feature LiveJournal managed to do right, and the reason why Google hired Brad Fitzpatrick for OpenSocial). Managing privacy is just habits of use and built-in feature no split private sharing from public sharing. And also of social platform terms of use.

  4. Toby Graham says:

    I agree totally with all that’s said in your three-parter. A thought I had about a year ago is that with lots of our time spent online, activities offline will become much more popular. Therefore I’m constantly wondering why I’m still playing around with this fast moving internet malarky!

  5. Pingback: Colin Walker » Freedom of conversation vs social responsibility.

  6. “But unlike in the real world where we are expected to invest time and effort to keep these relationships valuable, there is no such behavior needed online.” Once I had kids and job, the work required for most real world friendships went away. The amount required for social media is just right for where I am today. Rejuvenating connections over ideas. And I don’t need to share or hear all the various details of our lives.

  7. gregory says:

    we only meet the people we have resonance with, the rest of the 6 billion we will never even see. this is online or off, doesn’t matter.

    so where is the pressure? same place it always has been, in your head only. same place privacy is

  8. @Romain identity theft is important. But how about the use case where you and I want to interact using some social media mechanism, but we don’t want the whole world to see this. That’s a very basic and simple privacy control. I want to be able to set that behavior myself.

    @Toby Thanks

    @Hutch you are right. It allows us to have many online connections. I just saw Phil Bauman call his FF friends “idea friends”, as the relation is based upon sharing of ideas and conversations (in another fragmented thread 😉 But in real life, we tend to give and expect more in a friend relationship

    @gregory this is true for some but I also see different behavior when you look at people joining Facebook etc. It seems a lot of them are interested in sheer numbers, not the relation itself

  9. Romain says:

    @Alexander: What you’re speaking about is the privacy control LiveJournal pushed years ago. Using that blogging platform, user can publish and share content with different kinds of Livejournal networks (Friends/ Family/ All/ Custom groups). As you say, it’s a really basic and essential feature social platforms such as Hi5 or FaceBook should implement. And it’s why I say it’s more about preventing digital ID theft than accompanying people to have the right behaviour (but still important to do since it’s the first thing we can change).

  10. @romain Maybe sites are implementing this. But the main point for me is that I want to be in control. Do you trust Facebook to do this for you, knowing that they only do this to keep competitors away from that data, while they still use it? Neither Google, Facebook, Hi5 or any other social network can be left to do this. I need the controls, and the only commercial organisation I trust to implement this for me would be an organisation that ha centered his entire business model around my privacy (iow I pay them for it). Any other business model wouldn’t fit

  11. Pingback: Social Media + Users behaviour = Would it change it all? (Part 1) - Fast.Fwd.Innov@tion

  12. RocSearch, the UK-based research & analytics firm has recently released a research study on ‘Leveraging Social Media for Brands’. The study showcases the social media eco-system, its drivers & imperatives while detailing cases of brand successes and failures attempting to harness the power of this medium. For a complementary copy of the study, visit

  13. Pingback: Freedom of conversation vs social responsibility. » Walker Media

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