August 23, 2010

Social Me Me Me Me Me Media


With more places to share content on more networks, each having their own diverse social graphs, connections and features, many of us are splintering our online identities, choosing one or a few communities over others, and optimizing our sharing and consumption to fit the model that best works for us - and that self-assessment should be constantly changing as our own preferences, and those sites' capabilities change. But what will never change is people's desire to feel important and interesting, whether they are creators, sharers, commenters or even lurkers. As I've seen time and time again, people often measure a site's "success" for them by how much attention they receive, and if this attention fades, so too does their opinion of that community.

Despite significant attempts at automation, people continue to be human, and thus, emotion is involved. With so much content being created and shared in more places, and the hours in the day not having increased for some time, the potential for data to be distributed and lie untouched is increasing, even as the total number of users of communities grows. Sharing is outpacing user growth in practically every case, so far as I can tell.

This means that many blog posts are getting no comments to fewer comments. Tweets are not getting replies. Shares on FriendFeed and Google Buzz that once got conversations in times of heightened awareness are lying fallow. Photos on SmugMug and Flickr are getting fewer views. This isn't true for everyone, but it happens, unless the person sharing is aggressive about engaging with that community, doesn't mind the community morphing, staying flexible as it does, or if the person is a brand worthy of following no matter what, even if strangers are forced to interact with their "real" friends less just to keep pace with the top dogs.

As someone who has worked hard in a few dedicated communities to engage with people, I have been lucky enough to forge real relationships with people I have never met, as we each share our lives and interests together, engaging where they intersect. But I have seen many people, friends real and imagined, get frustrated when they find their own actions are going unnoticed. After periods of decreased engagement and assumed invisibility, it's not unreasonable to think they get disillusioned, and the truth is, it's not a surprise if I didn't even notice. With so many streams flowing by and so many sources and people demanding my attention, even the strong soldiers that fatigue during battle are left behind in our own self-directed charge up the mountain.

The well-respected Leo Laporte had an epiphany of sorts this weekend, finding that a gap in his sharing to Google Buzz, one of my favorite communities, had gone unnoticed. This led him to a conclusion that "no one was even paying attention to it in the first place", and his years of effort had been in vain. This is the same conclusion often rapidly reached by much-less visible people, but carried more weight thanks to Leo's seeming pervasiveness, and his typical upbeat mood, so when Leo barks in frustration, you know something could really be wrong.

With the many different places demanding our time, I've long held to the belief that blogging is the foundation in a world of streams. If forced, I would keep the blog going and dump all my social media accounts, because the blog is a history and it is me, even if I write often about others. This is a searchable, indexable, discoverable entity with longform, permanent content, not an ephemeral short-time share that adds to the minute or the hour, but not much longer. I have embraced all the other networks, and will embrace many more, because they can be valuable tools, and that's where real communities are thriving, but the millions of shares pouring into the largest networks are usually air. Even as I've cut down the many people I follow on Twitter and other networks to a select group, if I try and read every one, I quickly fatigue from the inanity. It may not be all about "what you had for lunch", but it is often about where you've checked in on location based networks, discussions of preferred tools, brief updates of what people are thinking, or disjointed conversations between mutual followers. One of the hardest things to do for anyone is to find real value amidst the noise, and the massive volume means that people can get missed.

I follow Leo Laporte on Google Buzz. I also follow him on FriendFeed and Twitter. Did I notice that he had stopped posting to Buzz, due to a technical glitch? No. Not especially. Is it directly attributable to my being self-centered? I don't think so. Instead, it's due to the fact I follow many others as well. My Google Buzz and FriendFeed and Twitter and Facebook (and so on) are always full. There's always new content to get. And to be honest, even if I had noticed Leo had gone dark on one site, I likely would have attributed that to an unannounced August vacation, a change in how he prioritized networks, or a change in how he distributed content. I still follow him in other networks, and didn't pick up on the bug.

Adam Singer of the Future Buzz says it's "absurd" to give your social presence to the stream in entirety. I agree that for people who can provide longform content, this is absolutely true. There should be a place of permanence, a place for conversation, which you own outright, because no other platform is entirely safe. Companies go out of business, get sold and change their rules on data retention or discovery all the time.

I believe in authenticity. I believe that if you initiate a conversation in a far-flung place, be it a blog or a social network, you should be there to respond and engage. I believe Leo does this and I know I've seen him engage in my Buzz stream, so those saying he doesn't engage are wrong. Monitoring activity on your streams, no matter where they are, is a basic must-do for any social media participant. Respond to replies on Twitter. Follow up on conversations in FriendFeed, Google Buzz, Facebook or anywhere else they may be. It's common sense. But I also know not everybody spurs conversation, and a lack of activity on their items can be felt as a personal slight.

Meanwhile, the ease of counting reactions is contributing to the problem. If "top dogs" are seen to get dozens or hundreds of retweets, comments and shares, it's clear. And it's clear when you don't. If you do get a big hit that gets engagement, it's tempting to try and recreate the flurry of attention. Who doesn't like attention? But when the meter doesn't go past zero, or the numbers drop, there is a real feeling of lost self-worth.

Many people do post about themselves. It's what they do. The person who shouts the loudest can get a lot of attention over a short time, but shouting is hard to listen to for long periods, and it is hard to sustain. You cannot replace engagement, true conversation, a give and take of ideas, and an exchange with a real community. The answer is not to pick on a specific network or a group of people, or to abandon the entire practice of social media, but to adjust one's expectations accordingly.

Those who engage in these networks know who is all about themselves and who is all about growing the community and sharing ideas. You can't blame the tools, because at the end of the day, it's just code. This code can bring people together, or it can push them apart. And if the networks go away, we'll still be talking about ourselves, or engaging with friends. Offline or online, people want to feel desired and interesting and nobody likes being ignored.