Monday, September 20, 2010

Ten things that are killing the social web

In common with lots of people recently I've been seeing a slow fall-off in numbers of people commenting, participating, chatting and responding on my various social networking channels. Part of the clue's in what I've just said; channels. More channels spreads attention more thinly, and stops people reliably getting your news.

You drift apart.

This annoys me; when I first joined the busy rush onto social networking sites (2001, my archives tell me) I had a bold vision of a world where I could broadcast important information easily to friends; where they could pick it up at their leisure without feeling pressure to respond or react; where I could see day-to-day details of their existence and by this resist the slow erosions of time and distance that lead us, in five years time, to be strangers again. This was my vision; a social group where no one is left behind.

It didn't happen that way. Partly, that's down to human nature. Lots of people don't enjoy the fragmentary communication style of online contact; others see computers as work and socialise away from them. I've made new friends and reconnected with old friends and walked along the social connections to friends of friends pretty much as you're supposed to, but right now I'm organising a party and the situation is far from ideal. In fact, I'm probably going to need to send out an email, and then send out another email, just like I did in the old days, but with even less chance of success thanks to hair-trigger spam catchers.

The messages are up, but the number of relevant people listening is dropping off. Plenty of interaction, but increasingly with partial strangers, as if this were a communication mode no longer sufficiently privileged for actual friends. And there's no point in trying to write IMPORTANT in capital letters or bold or even blink some text or use any other attention! indicator, either: years of deleting spam has taught us that the more urgent something appears, the less likely it is to need reading.

So much for human nature; there are also a bunch of things happening in the evolution of the social web at the moment which are stifling communication (even though some are enabling it). Confused? Let me explain through the medium of a conveniently numbered list:
  1. Richer environment
    It's a bit like trying to meet a friend at an Arcade combined with a Science Museum, gallery, Shopping Centre and Funfair. With so many shiny distractions around it's easy to miss something, especially when the first symptoms of offline crisis is online absence. Yes, your games, puzzles, ads, badges and prizes are lovely, but I need to go see my mate now, sorry.
  2. Feature creep, usability decay
    Currently Myspace's music player is flaky and Facebook is only intermittently alerting you when you receive an event invitation. At the same time, both are expanding their capabilities like excited slime moulds, colonising thrilling new features, while crucial central systems decay and reorganise, forcing users into multiple work-arounds and unbudgeted and unexpected learning curves to a soundtrack of struggling, swearing and giving up.
  3. Social Networking Marketing Experts
    Top of the social pile of the people trying to game the online social system are the people trying to build personal brand, leverage their online identity and create a buzz around [content]. They not only clutter my social space with idiot theories, annoying how-to videos and tedious single-insights posts, they also (and more insidiously) create nervousness among online freshers who are in a state about making a mistake; irritate and annoy regular users; and provoke veterans to throw up their hands and leave it to the Nathans.
  4. Earn money from home!
    Somewhere in the middle are gangs of teenagers, marketing students and stay-at-home mums earning small amounts of money for brand blogging, SEO optimisation, buzzes made entirely by a stable of fake IDs, and all the other myriad methods of white-to-greymarket online advertising. It's impossible to resent anything that produces such low wages and some of it is useful information, but the constant murk of UGG boots, random restaurants and price comparison websites gets wearing.
  5. Spammers, scammers, hackers, script kiddies and their ilk
    Bottom of the heap are the parasites who've trained us to ignore urgent messages, avoid clicking on links, and fear making friends with strangers. Who have distorted the development of websites so that vast resources are now poured into security and updating, rather than into improving the site for its users. Thanks to them, all websites are now less reliable, more prone to changes of service and more annoying. They are largely responsible for that slug of anxiety, paranoia and fear many people feel when they sign up to a new service or suffer interruptions or changes to a current service. It's driving people off the web, not least because there's no obvious way to punish the perpetrators.
  6. Firehose of Me anxiety
    Some people select one channel and stick with it; others skip around doing a bit here, a bit there (often precisely because their friends are scattered across different channels). Almost everyone has an additional channel for rich media, even if it's only a Photobucket or a Youtube. While combining these channels into one, single complete channel is certainly possible nowadays, all but celebrities and massive egotists flinch from full channel combination, the unmediated stream of an individual's online existence. That much of one person at once is overwhelming, and feels intrusive; even if it is, often, things you do want to see.
  7. Overwhelementation
    There is too much to follow. Too many cool things, nice people, fun events, neat new music and gorgeous art. Once the watched feeds get over a certain level, once the channels proliferate sufficiently, once you have above a certain number of elements on your page, following everything, reading everything, you either can't do it, or it stops being sociable fun, LOLs and gossip and turns into a joyless job-list, a round of sniffing posts to deal with and shout back at, grinding out your social existence like a grumpy prayer-wheel.
  8. Intimacy drift
    On the social net, the professional is personal, strangers are friends and family are filtered; privacy settings came in alongside the crowd of old schoolfriends, colleagues and acquaintances building their instant social groups, and all of us too status-aware and/or open to turn down even a dubious social connection. But as friend-groups swell, trust diminishes; and no matter how heavily we filter, the awareness is always there that as soon as anyone gets annoyed or feels someone should know something, or is simply sufficiently motivated to press ctrl+c, ctrl+v, our privacy is toast. It inhibits, and forces a backwards march into an inner circle, particularly during times of stress when we need new connections and fresh perspective.
  9. "Share this" --with your mum
    Sharing is a lovely idea, but enabling tools encourage oversharing, which leads to inhibition. The first step into any new application, social network or utility is nowadays increasingly likely to include a frantic dash through the settings, turning absolutely everything off, for fear that your skimming of small print has produced a cross-identity torrent of "x watched this", "X thinks kittens are cute!" and forced that most disagreeable of thoughts; Le spammeur, c'est moi.
  10. Hesitancy of choice
    Most of the central services (Facebook, Myspace) want to take on the functions (photoposting, status updates) of the specialist services (Flickr, Twitter). By the time you've figured out what to use, the urge has often faded. This is why I often find myself using Tumblr, the blogging equivalent of bashing big buttons with little thought. But Tumblr's simplicity means I don't tend to pass on its pretty updates, locking them away from the bulk of my friends. As a result, my friends are --word of the moment-- siloed into channels and unable to mingle.

I'm aware that I'm listing problems without knowing solutions, and that it's only my opinion, and that I'm no trendsetter or important voice; but I know I'm not the only one posting things like "...tumbleweeds here..." right now. And, as it happens, I do have some advice, although it's not new, not rocket science, and not an easy answer to all your online marketing needs.

  • Don't neglect your core functionality
  • Build new features when you need them, not for their own sake or keeping up with [SNx]
  • Engage with your marketing population and encourage them to enforce good behaviour
  • Make it easy to share and not to share on a post by post basis
  • Play nice; you'll win in the end