Soren Gordhamer is the organizer of the Wisdom 2.0 Conference, which brings together staff from Google, Facebook, Twitter and Zynga along with Zen teachers and others to explore living with awareness and wisdom in our modern age. He is SorenG on Twitter.
The conversation about social media in our society is shifting significantly. We’re no longer asking questions like, “Will people use social media?” or “Are sites like Facebook and Twitter simply trends that will soon lose steam?” After billions of tweets and 600 million people on Facebook, it’s settled: People want to share online. And with Facebook moving toward a $100 billion valuation, there is money to be made.
The emerging conversation is not if we will be connected but is instead, “How can we effectively and productively connect?” Now that we can get constant updates on just about every aspect of our friends’ lives, how do we receive that which is relevant?
New paradigms are beginning to emerge as user habits shift toward greater relevancy. The companies that successfully address these changes will have a huge advantage over those that don’t.
1. The Distraction Question
How do we live continually connected without being continually distracted?
A recent survey from social email software provider harmon.ie found that individual employees are burning an average of $10,375 in productivity each year. Why? “Because we don’t disconnect from an online chat quickly enough, or we get sidetracked by a bulging email inbox, or we fall into a Facebook hole of photos, updates and messages.”
In a recent blog post titled “The Twitter Trap,” Bill Keller, the executive editor (for not much longer) of The New York Times, writes about the challenges of staying focused. “The most obvious drawback of social media is that they are aggressive distractions.” He continued, “Every time my TweetDeck shoots a new tweet to my desktop, I experience a little dopamine spritz that takes me away from … from … wait, what was I saying?”
While the range of content we could access was once exciting, people are realizing they need to know as much about how to turn off their stream than how to turn it on. The question is no longer, “How can I know what my friends are doing or thinking at any given time?” We have solved that for the most part. Social media that finds the right balance of when and how to update us, and which gives us control over such notifications, will win in the long run.
2. The Filter Question
How do we filter the stream to get what is most essential?
In the early days of Twitter, your feed would show the @replies of everyone you followed. For some, it created an excess of irrelevant information. Twitter changed this functionality (to the initial chagrin of many users) to only include tweets directed at users that were mutually followed. It effectively streamlined Twitter feeds and removed information clutter. Most users have since come around to accept that this was the right move for Twitter amid its exponential growth.
Twitter’s focus on relevance is echoed in the activities of other web giants like Google and Facebook. They are attempting to do the filtering for us, such that we only see what they think most interests us.
Some people, like MoveOn.org board president Eli Pariser, see a danger in this. In a recent TED talk, he describes the “filter bubble” as “your own personal unique universe of information that you live in online.” More and more, we see only what companies think we want to see. For example, we might receive different Google search results than our neighbor, since the rankings are now based more and more on what Google knows about us. And even if we have the same Facebook friends as our neighbor, we will be shown very different updates, as Facebook defaults to showing us only things related to what we click on and share the most.
Three elements are important here. First, the means of filtering needs to be transparent. We need to know what the filtering is based on. Second, we need choice in that filtering to help make it relevant to us. And third, there needs to be a non-filtering (or non-personalized) option. For example, if we can see a personalized Google search, we also need the choice for a non-personalized one.
The companies that can do this will succeed in gathering user trust and engagement. The question is not if filtering is needed but rather how that filtering happens and the level of choice and transparency in the process.
3. The Capacity Question
How much social media can I actually consume?
Along these same lines is the third issue of capacity. As more an more media are integrated into social networks every day, we’re growing accustomed to knowing just about everything our friends are doing, thinking, watching and listening to. On one level, this is awesome. On another, it makes balancing other people’s life updates and living your own life that much more challenging.
Mark Zuckerberg argued last week that people tend to want more than they think. Recalling the implementation of Facebook’s News Feed feature, he said, “People thought that, you know, it was just too much. They wanted to share stuff on the site, but they didn’t want it to be so much in people’s face. You know now it’s just part of the site that I think most people in a way would be like, ‘What’s going on? How can there be Facebook without this?’”
At some point, though, we reach a capacity. There is only so much time in a day. Dave Morin’s company, Path, which gives users a maximum of 50 friends, is one step toward a shifting paradigm. Other efforts that build limits into the system will likely emerge to support people in search of this balance.
Get Ready – It’s Only Going To Increase
If you think you have a challenge now managing your tweets, emails, Facebook posts and texts, hold on to your hat. This is just the beginning. According to a recent blog post from Cisco Systems, “In 2010, there were 12.5 billion devices connected to the Internet. Looking to the future, Cisco IBSG predicts there will be 25 billion devices connected to the Internet by 2015, and 50 billion by 2020.”
Both the types of information we can share will dramatically increase, and the number of people from whom we can receive this content will also grow. Essentially, we will have many more people creating significantly more content.
Providing people more ways to share online is no longer the challenge. That was the old paradigm. A new paradigm of relevancy is emerging, which goes beyond the question of whether “to follow or not follow” or “to friend or not friend.” Companies need to see that their job is not to provide us data, or even keep us updated — it is to serve our needs.
And people have a need to not only receive a constant flow of information but also to get quality information in ways that add benefit to their lives. The social networks and web companies that remember this will stand the best chance of success in the future.