On Facebook, status updates, retweets, and the universal law of signal versus noise

Maybe we should consider to rename this ‘social media’ era into the ego broadcasting era. That thought struck my mind when reading a WSJ post entitled ‘How Facebook ruins friendships’. The author discusses her fatigue with friends that send her nonsense status updates:

Like many people, I’m experiencing Facebook Fatigue. I’m tired of loved ones—you know who you are—who claim they are too busy to pick up the phone, or even write a decent email, yet spend hours on social-media sites, uploading photos of their children or parties, forwarding inane quizzes, posting quirky, sometimes nonsensical one-liners or tweeting their latest whereabouts. (“Anyone know a good restaurant in Berlin?”)

She goes on with a number of other observations, but what strikes me about the article are some of the comments that readers disagreeing provided:

[Ditto – If you’re annoyed by the stream coming from your friend, hide it. The tools are there for you to use the offering as you like. No need for a national call to change the world and how it’s citizens interact with social media. Seriously.]

[I couldn’t agree more. She could have tweaked her privacy settings in about three minutes and solved all the stuff she’s ranting about in this column.]

I’ve seen this type of reaction a lot. Go into Twitter or Friendfeed and complain that you find the service less valuable because of the amount of noise involved, and tons of people will not address your basic feeling about the service, but instead will provide a million ways to slice and dice the streams to your needs.

The problem in my opinion isn’t a setting. We (the participants) share so much crap about ourselves and the things that we find relevant in a context where it is fairly useless, that no algorithm can possibly distinguish the signal from the noise. My problem with ‘status updates’ and shares in general is that when they are automated or non-intentional they become irrelevant. This stream of non-sense is fueled by the ‘coolness’  of social media. Every self-respecting social media site now offers at the very least 10 different ways of publishing and sharing your status updates to all relevant sites and networks. We are told where people are and what they are doing, often without them even telling us this in person.

The underlying thought is that status updates are helping us to interact. This is true of course. If anything social media has brought us interaction. But in our eagerness to centralize something (conversation) which cannot/shouldn’t be captured in one place we create an overkill of status update streams jumping off in all directions, hoping that at some point it all comes together again.

Besides their basic value offering services like Disqus (sorry Fred Wilson 😉 ), Backtype, Brightkite, Twitter, Facebook, Friendfeed etc.etc., all provide options to publish your stuff outside the context that it was relevant in, or reel it back into yet another place. And that makes the noise go up and the signal go down.

This puts the pressure on the receiver of this mess (that would be you and me). I need to use complicated settings to scale down the conversation, find the signal in the noise. I need to choose my friends carefully, subscribe to one feed and delete the other. I have to ignore 90% of what passes by in order to find that 10% that’s really relevant to me. It’s all my own doing off course.

I don’t think so. It’s yours. The day you decided to become a broadcaster instead of a friend you took the wrong turn. The day you decided it would be cool to share everything about the most important thing in life (you) was the day that all the noise became a relevant factor. You are not responsible for people subscribing to your broadcasts, but you are responsible for the crap that you send around. Why become a slave of the status update and the retweet? Why broadcast, when you can actually interact? Why automate the things you do in life when a well intended personal message provides 10x the value.Why not think before you act?

I think it’s the reason why well known technology evangelists like Robert Scoble and Fred Wilson are reducing the nr of people they actually follow on services like Twitter. Being followed is a broadcast thing, it is good for your ego. Following the right people provides meaning, it increases the signal within the noise. (on a side note, Scoble is often accused of creating noise which I think is ridiculous given the role he plays in the industry. I bet his private/personal stream aimed at real friends would look quite different from his public one. (Update: TechCrunch just posted: Twitter’s golden ratio (that no one likes to talk about), ties in nicely with this post)

The status update and retweet are mostly a publishers tool. They have little to do with interaction or friendship. A status update or retweet become twice as valuable when you have intent. Add an explanation why you are retweeting, aim a status update at your audience, instead of yourself. Imagine the nr of servers out there needed to store all that noise. You can probably reduce the planet’s carbon waste by 10% by turning of the servers that store and send out copies of copies of copies of status updates. It’s one of the reasons I believe the noise we are creating will be handled by scaling down the conversation.

We can invent real-time search, intelligent (trust, content, friend) filters, and whatever technology we want. But there is one universal law that will always apply. Crap in is crap out. And by writing this post, I just may have added some crap to that big pile too.


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11 Responses to On Facebook, status updates, retweets, and the universal law of signal versus noise

  1. I would formulate it this way: pay attention if you want to get attention. Research what your audience is interested in – and then post the info directly where it is relevant.

  2. Otto says:

    There’s two sides to this argument.

    First, the people commenting about filtering your inputs are absolutely correct. If something strikes you as crap, then filter it. The tools are there for a reason. If you’re accepting completely unfiltered inputs, then yes, noise is going to be the result.

    However, at the same time, for the specific case of Facebook, more people tend to treat it as a friend-relationship site. That is to say, the only people who are my “Friends” on Facebook are people I know in real life. This is not the case on many other social systems like FriendFeed or what have you. Therefore, one needs to consider your audience. Whenever an app asks me about publishing to Facebook, instead of blindly saying yes (like so many people will), I consider who, among my friends, would be interested in this content. conversely, the same app publishing to FriendFeed doesn’t phase me in the slightest, because that’s a completely different audience.

    So yes, she needs to improve her filters, but at the same time, she needs friends who don’t blindly click yes to every single thing that can publish to FB.

    • Otto, in general all of these tools facilitate publishing anything anywhere with hardly any effort on behalf of the user.
      When sharing becomes that easy, it becomes a much less conscious process.

      “Alexander went to see Avatar last night”, as a status update is much less valuable than “Hi Otto, I went to the movies last night and saw Avatar. It was great….”

      The first example is a (possibly) unconscious share. The second one is personal, intended (because I know you love movies too), and therefore much more valuable to you and me.

      It’s not just filtering on the receiver’s side. It’s all about intention on the sender’s side 🙂

      • Otto says:

        True that, but amount of information matters too. A communication doesn’t need to be personalized to be useful.

        For example, if I went to a movie site, and wrote a review of Avatar, and it posted to my FB something like “Otto saw Avatar, he thinks it’s good but … blah blah my review here …”, then that could very well be quite useful to my group of friends on FB, since they all know me and whether or not they agree with me.

        The sharing remains unconscious, since I didn’t post to FB, I posted to some movie review site, but the value is much greater.

        I agree that short blurbs are useless, but I disagree that short blubs gain a lot of value from personalization. Some value, but it’s still short and devoid of real content.

  3. @Otto, you are right. I would not dare to argue that status updates are totally useless to others.

    I do feel the mechanism itself is abused often. As a result we are thinking about complicated technology and services for filtering. It’s going to end up becoming too much noise getting in the way of signal, no matter what technology we throw at it.

  4. Pingback: Twitter Trackbacks for On Facebook, status updates, retweets, and the universal law of signal versus noise « @vanelsas [vanelsas.wordpress.com] on Topsy.com

  5. Brian Solis says:

    I call it the “Egosystem.” There are also some interesting psychological implications that document the migration of socially social networks based on friends, families and associates to more contextual-based relevant networks based on shared topics, ideologies, beliefs, interests and goals.

  6. Gary says:

    Hi Alexander,

    You should have a look at http://twittruth.com (my site) which was basically designed to find out where people were using twitter to engage and where they were using it to just promote themselves.


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