This post is a followup of a series I did last year on ‘The Human factor in social media’. Technology allows us to be “always on”. To be part of a never ending conversation. Simply plug in, anywhere, and you can join in. Friends are spread out across every timezone, so there always are people available to interact with. Technology becomes smaller so we can take our connection device with us, wherever we go. Connection technology provide us a network that spans the entire globe. Wifi, UMTS, HSDPA, WiMax, no matter where you are there is always a way to get on-line.
Everyone talks about the network effect in web 2.0 ((over-)simply stated: a service gets better as more people join). The network effect explains why the quality improves, it doesn’t explain why we all want to be a part of it. I feel there is an underlying need for interaction that drives current web development. Any respectable web 2.0 service is based upon the premise that we all want to share anything with the rest of the world. We have life streams (what am I doing), news feeds (what am I reading), traveling plans (where am I going), shopping behavior (what am I buying), localization (where am I now), fan sites (who am I following). Even when you are not on-line, people that follow you are likely to know exactly what you are doing. Sharing alone isn’t good enough anymore. Now we need to discuss it as well. Everything is becoming social. You can share the things you discuss or discuss the things you share. Web companies have a field day catering our need to share and discuss what we are doing.
This ‘Social Media trend’, if you will, partially explains the phenomenal growth of social networks like MySpace, Facebook and even Twitter. The question is, where will this take us. I can’t predict the future, but I find it useful to think in extremes and see if it can help me get a better understanding of the present. I try to imagine what would happen if every Internet user (there are more than a Bln already) would be part of this process. What if everyone shared everything? What if we would all engage in a never ending conversation?
I imagine that a few things would happen:
- Our world would become smaller instead of larger. As more people get online, and the data and conversations being shared becomes overwhelming, we will feel the urge to be part of less instead of more. Quality over quantity so to say. It is a natural phenomenon that can be observed right now. Just look at 2 examples of the way we now try to cope with the endless stream of information or conversation. a) Instead of searching ourselves we let others deal with that. In the tech world that would be the Robert Scoble or Louis Gray “like” filter. We ‘trust’ such people to find the pearls of wisdom for us, which takes some pressure off of ourselves. But if you think about it, this behavior is pretty ridiculous. b) We follow or get followed by countless numbers of people that we have never met, only to find out that the information or conversation that gets shared that way is often not as interesting as we thought. We end up listening and engaging with a much smaller fraction of the group of followers.
- We end up spending our online time more consciously. Right now we spent hours at a time engaging in short bursts of interaction/discussion. It gives us pleasure, fun, a good time. But when does it really matter? When does it truly have an impact on your life? Change the way you think, feel or act? We may find inspiration, fun and profession on the web. But it simply can’t compete with real-life experiences (falling in love, getting married, birth, death, getting fired, getting hired, a fight, making up again, a beautiful sunset). The online engagements, as much fun as they are, are much more volatile than real life. It is the relationships you build up in the physical world that matter in the end. Family, friends, neighbours, co-workers.
It might be a bold statement but I believe that there is a limit to the quality effects of the network. While this effect can be used to explain why Google search improves as more people join I would be willing to challenge its value in interaction. The network effect improves data, the most important currency in web 2.0 if you listen carefully to the experts.
I would argue that the network effect diminishes in value when it comes to interaction. We simply can’t interact with the whole world. Our interactions would become meaningless, lose impact, and our impact would become infinitely small in a global conversation. Our human limitations force us to focus on value, on those things that really matter. In the end there is no need to interact with 6Bln people. The real impact lies in those few people we engage with that make a difference in our lives. The rest is just play.