Social network overload?

Are we getting swamped by social media? David Armano thinks so. I think that it’s a little bit more complicated than just trying to amp up the signal in the noise and has to do with a whole bunch of issues involved in, well, just being human:

1. We’re all interested in status

Actually, we’re all obsessed with status whether we realise it or not. Social networks make status explicit in some way, or at least they seem to. Number of followers on Twitter is a very bad proxy for our status within the different communities we inhabit, yet we can’t stop our status-obsessed brains from over-interpreting it.

2. We’re all interested in success

Status and success are two sides of the same coin: If you have success you probably also have status, although it very much depends on your definitions of success and whether others share them. We often don’t define success and can’t recognise it when it happens, so we use apparent status as a proxy for it. If you believe that in order to prove to yourself that you are successful you also need to have high status within your community, and your community is online, then you’re looking for high status there too… which means you’re looking at numbers which are a proxy for a proxy. Great stuff!

3. Phatic communication is as important as informational communication

Social media makes a lot of phatic communications, i.e. that stuff you say to show the world you’re not dead yet, explicit whereas we are used to them being almost unnoticeable. Those little grunts, sighs and snarfles you normally make to tell the people around you, “I’m still here” become “Making a cup of tea” on Twitter. Because we’re use to the written word containing useful information we get frustrated when it contains phatic information and fail to realise just how very useful that info actually is.

4. We’re completists

We evolved in a world where it was possible to know everything everyone else knew: Where to hunt, where to gather, how to cook, who’s in charge. Now there is so much information in the world that we can barely learn a tiny fraction of it, yet it feels like somehow we ought to know it all. Our dopamine system rewards us for seeking and there’s no end to what we can find. There is no end to the internet, so the seeking just goes on and on and on.

5. We’re stretching our wetware

Armano is right that we’re using tools that allow us to shatter Dunbar’s Number into tiny bits, and this is causing us some problems because we are trying to treat everyone as ‘friends’, instead of accepting that some people are closer than others. In actual fact, then number of close friends we maintain remains at around ten, or less. It’s the number of acquaintances that’s booming, and we’re not quite sure what the social etiquette is for our interactions with all these people we my well like but barely know.

This is problematic, to be sure. The technology is evolving faster than we are figuring out how it fits into our social natures. Manners and etiquette vary wildly between communities and society has not settled on a common ruleset. But I think a few simple guidelines can help us all:

  1. Don’t try to be everywhere
  2. Don’t try to know everyone
  3. Feel free to ignore content and people
  4. Don’t be offended if someone ignores you or what you write
  5. Accept that your brain is not the size of a planet and you can’t know everything. Yet.

Of course, all bets are off once the Singularity occurs.

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