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.

Listening – Connecting – Publishing

Chris Brogan talks about a handy framework upon which to build your social media strategy:

There are three main areas of practice for social media that your company (or you) should be thinking about: listening, connecting, publishing. From these three areas, you can build out your usage of the tools, thread your information networks to feed and be fed, and align your resources for execution. There are many varied strategies you can execute using these toolsets. There are many different tools you can consider employing for your efforts. But that’s the basic structure: listening, connecting, publishing.

This framework is ostensibly about external social media usage, but these concepts are just as important internally:

  • Listen to what staff what and need, and allow staff to listen to each other
  • Provide meaningful ways for staff to connect with each other
  • Allow staff to publish information in a way that makes sense to them

Does it work that way in your company?

Does your personality influence how you use the web?

The British Psychological Society blog highlights recent research by Leman Tosun and Timo Lajunen (requires login) into personality type and internet usage:

Using Eysenck’s classic personality test, Tosun and Lajunen found that students who scored high on extraversion (agreeing with statements like ‘I am very talkative’) tended to use the Internet to extend their real-life relationships, whereas students who scored high on psychoticism (answering ‘yes’ to statements like ‘does your mood often go up and down?’ and ‘do you like movie scenes involving violence and torture?’) tended to use the Internet as a substitute for face-to-face relationships. Students who scored high on psychoticism were also likely to say that they found it easier to reveal their true selves online than face-to-face. The personality subscale of neuroticism (indicated by ‘yes’ answers to items like ‘Do things often seem hopeless to you?) was not associated with styles of Internet use.

‘Our data suggest that global personality traits may explain social Internet use to some extent,’ the researchers concluded. ‘In future studies, a more detailed index of social motives can be used to better understand the relation between personality and Internet use.’

I wonder how long it will take for companies that use psychometric testing to add an additional “internet user type” section…

Asymmetry: The problem with social networks

Clive Thompson writes on his blog (and in Wired) about how social networks such as Twitter become dysfunctional when the network gets too big and, as a result, too lopsided:

When you go from having a few hundred Twitter followers to ten thousand, something unexpected happens: Social networking starts to break down.

This is a point I’ve been making for a long time, not really from personal experience but from observing various friends who have very high follower counts. Clive goes on:

Technically speaking, online social-networking tools ought to be great at fostering these sorts of clusters. Blogs and Twitter and Facebook are, as Internet guru John Battelle puts it, “conversational media.” But when the conversation gets big enough, it shuts down. Not only do audiences feel estranged, the participants also start self-censoring. People who suddenly find themselves with really huge audiences often start writing more cautiously, like politicians.

When it comes to microfame, the worst place to be is in the middle of the pack. If someone’s got 1.5 million followers on Twitter, they’re one of the rare and straightforwardly famous folks online. Like a digital Oprah, they enjoy a massive audience that might even generate revenue. There’s no pretense of intimacy with their audience, so there’s no conversation to spoil. Meanwhile, if you have a hundred followers, you’re clearly just chatting with pals. It’s the middle ground — when someone amasses, say, tens of thousands of followers — where the social contract of social media becomes murky.

‘Microfame’ is a term I first heard used by Danny O’Brien at OpenTech 2005 in his keynote, Living Life in Public (available from the UKUUG site, embed coming soon!).

This was in an era before Twitter, before Facebook opened up to the world, when most people became ‘internet famous’ through their blog. But becoming ‘microfamous’ puts people at the centre of an uncomfortable social dynamic. As Danny said:

There are people out there who know something about you, but you have relatively little knowledge about them.

This becomes problematic because the microfamous rarely have the resources that the truly famous do to protect their privacy. But more importantly, it creates a disconnect, an unbalanced power relationship that we don’t really have the societal experience to understand. Knowledge is, after all, power.

This relationship asymmetry has been amplified by Twitter especially. Twitter is a very good example of how poorly we understand these dynamics and how the tools that we create and use are not designed to take the microfame effect into account.

It’s appears that there are a number of stages in the growing asymmetry of one’s Twitter network. The first is when the majority of @ messages you receive come from people you don’t know. That happened a while ago for me, probably at around the 2000 follower mark. Then @ messages from people you know get swamped by @ messages from people you don’t. Finally, the @ messages to every last thing you say flood in, killing your ability to have a conversation with anyone and making it impossible to build connections.

I’ve not experienced those last two stages, but I’ve seen it happen to friends and it’s not pretty. It puts them in a difficult position where the people @ing them feel put out that they don’t get a personal reply, but the amount of time it would take to read and respond to every @ makes it extremely difficult.

This is the eternal problem of social networks. In order to be financially successful, social networks need to grow large. But in order to be socially successful, they need to stay small. Seemic was a good example of this. In the early days, it felt like a small, intimate community where one could upload a video and have a real conversation around it. As it grew, the conversational seeds, those first video uploads that broached a new subject, became so numerous that it was hard to find one’s own, let alone the responses to it. In fact, it became so time-consuming to participate I had to give up.

With Twitter, the problem is just as much about the tools as the network itself. Twitter clients tend to be designed for people with small networks and don’t deal well with asymmetry. Most tools, for example, have two ways to show @ messages: you can see @s from your friends in your timeline or see all @ messages lumped together, regardless of who they came from.

I’ve yet to see a tool (although clearly I’ve not used all Twitter clients) that gave you a third choice, to see all @s from people that you follow in a separate view. That would at least allow the Twitterer to focus on maintaining relationships with the people they have chosen to follow, whilst facilitating a dip into the faster-flowing stream of @s from the rest of Twitter whenever they wanted.

It might be tempting to dismiss this problem as one that only the cool kids suffer from, but that would be to miss the wider point. In some situations, creating small trusted networks with variably-permeable boundaries is key to creating a sustainable broader network. This is particularly of collaboration spaces, where you want to invite only key people to work with you, although that group may change from project to project.

(Now, you may think that Facebook achieves this, but it doesn’t. It gives one the sense of being in a small sub-community without actually delivering on that promise – the boundaries are far too porous, and their porosity is not entirely under your control.)

We need to do a lot more thinking about this problem. It’s relevant in a whole host of context – hot-desking enterprise, for example – and most social networks focus on creating broad opportunities for interaction without considering how to let people create natural boundaries where they feel comfortable.

Avatars, faces and the socialisation of enterprise software

I just read a great post by Joshua Porter about the origins of avatars in computing and it made me think about the importance of faces in our online social interactions. It reminded me of a blog post that Kevin Marks wrote in May about faces and trust, which then led me on to posts by Brad Feld and Dave McClure.

Brad talks about the importance of real photos in Twitter, rather than a graphic or cartoon. He then discusses tying photos to people’s contact details on his iPhone and how useful it would be to have the same functionality in email. Dave McClure discusses the importance of faces in a wide range of situations and provides a lot of examples and counter-examples.

Faces are undoubtedly important to us. It’s how we primarily recognise people and those of us who are… let’s say physiognomically challenged find themselves frequently embarrassed at social gatherings because we are expected to be able to recognise people we have met before.

What, then, are the opportunities for enterprise software to become just a touch more social by incorporating avatars? Would email be a less awkward communications mechanism if we were shown a picture of the person we are replying to as we write? Would seeing a photo make us think a little bit harder about how our words might be interpreted by the person on the other end? Or would we end disadvantaging people who aren’t very photogenic? Or encouraging prejudice against those who have characteristics that can be perceived negatively, e.g. white hair triggering ageism.