Sunday, March 28, 2010

Jack Of All Friends

I have to admit that as much as I love shiny new tech, I tend to be a skeptic when it comes to technology fads. I straight-up don't understand the appeal of Facebook, to this day. Maybe it's the way it emphasizes the quantity of your connections over any of the activities it enables once you have those connections in the system. The mad land rush to grab as many friends as possible back around 2005, when Facebook was still exclusive to those with email accounts from selected colleges, left my contact list cluttered with way too many contacts with whom I'm not really interested in sharing the kinds of things Facebook wants me to share. I'm left with a choice of either telling a bunch of people that I'm not really their friend -- honest, but potentially quite rude -- or not using the service at all.

The problem I have at its core is with indiscriminately broadcasting information about myself all over the Internet. Certain things obviously are more okay than others. Blogging, apparently, is one of those things that I don't have a problem with, mostly because it's filtered and limited to stuff that I don't mind saying to anyone. Obviously this results in a different type of output than something filtered, so while I enjoy putting this work out there it's not going to be an outlet for everything I want to say. Despite the fact that almost nobody will see it, the fact that literally anybody potentially could is enough to limit the utility of the medium for me.

Facebook provides filters, though. I currently have everything locked down to "friends only" mode, so it's not a question of blocking information from strangers. I think it's more a question of partitions and groups. I want an output where the purpose is more limited, that gives the communication a more definite context. Long form communication like blogging makes sense because it takes some more thought to write a full post. Facebook communication is shorter, more off the cuff, and as such I want some kind of filter that I can consider once and rely on the next time I'm saying random things.

Only then we get to the problem that I really have with Facebook and so many other "social media" systems. The group I want to allow to see one set of things may be very different than for another set. And conversely, the people who are interested in seeing one set of things I broadcast may not care at all about the rest of my nonsense. But doing just one thing doesn't serve Facebook's desire to grow, so they fall into the common trap of trying to do everything for everybody, and the system becomes impossible to control.

As much as I dislike Facebook, I've come to rely very heavily on Twitter. It does one thing, and one thing only, but it does it extremely well, and that is provide idle chatter. On the sending side I've found this invaluable, as it's a perfect place to act as a brain dump for all the things I don't want to say in polite company. Not necessarily inappropriate things, but everybody has a bunch of random thoughts that occur during the day and knock around in their heads until they tell somebody. Without an outlet, you become that creepy person at the office who's constantly making odd out-of-context statements without invitation (or you go quietly insane through years of bottling them up without release). The context of Twitter is that everybody is doing exactly the same thing, at the same time, as fast as they can. It's a black hole of inane babble, and it's a lot of fun.

It's also something you can control very, very closely. Not only can you easily make everything private except for the people you allow, but you don't even have to establish a two-way relationship. If there's somebody whose babble you find entertaining you can follow them, and they don't have to listen to your rambling. You also don't get access to anything other than what they put into this particular service. The context is clean, and focused.

Recently I've started using another single purpose system, Foursquare, which is basically location updates plus virtual local communication. Because you have a friends list you can see what people are up to, as well as what other users in the same place are saying at the time. The "local chatter" bit doesn't seem to be as locked down as Twitter, but I haven't really seen many people using it yet. The friends piece is able to be quite restrictive, which is good given the privacy implications. And again, the context is very clean -- where am I, and what do I want other people to know about this place? Focused, private, and clean.

There's been some talk with Foursquare's recent popularity of Twitter trying to expand into some of the location aware space. And indeed you can attach location to posts now, but I have to say I haven't seen anyone use the feature well. To me, Twitter is a content stream for ideas rather than facts. The set of people I'm interested in sharing ideas with and the set I'm interested in sharing facts about location with are not at all the same set, nor should they be. A lot of the potential benefit of Foursquare (which I admittedly haven't seen happen yet) is that you can end up being in the same place as people you might want to engage with in person. This obviously requires that you be in roughly the same area, since I'm not at all interested in connecting with thirty people from out of town in anticipation of an eventual visit at the cost of seeing their irrelevant updates for the eleven months we aren't in the same state.

This isn't the conclusion I started out intending to hit, but I think the best summary I can give is that the context of social media matters a lot more than most social media systems realize. I suppose it's not surprising since the same thing is true of all products, but maybe the idea that even a system around something as human-centered as "socializing" needs more limitation and direction to avoid becoming mediocre at a lot of things at once.

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