Questioning social media

The recent arrival of a new social network in the form of Google+ has given cause for reflection from some long-serving social media users and advocates. Cammy Bean describes how she has been Taking a TechFast to relieve her symptoms of SoMeFat (social media fatigue), which has been “heightened now with the additional disorder of Multiple Social Network Disorder (Facebook, Twitter, and now Google+ to keep up with!).” Cammy should take a bow, because she seems to be matching Shakespeare in her ability to extend the English language.

More remarkably, George Siemens, the founding father of connectivism, reports how he is losing interest in social media:

Google+ was a bit of a breaking point for me. After recreating my online social network ( largely based on blogs from early 2000) in Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, and Quora, G+ was a chore. I spent a few weeks of responding to G+ friend requests, trying to engage with a few people, posting a few random links, all the while trying to upkeep (occasionally) Twitter and (almost never) Facebook. I’ve concluded that most of the hype around social media is nonsense and that people, particularly the self-proclaimed social media elite are clothing-less. Sure, I’ll still continue to participate in those spaces periodically – as soon as this post is done, I’ll tweet it and share it on G+. Beyond that, however, social media is getting credit for things it’s merely flowing, not actually creating.

I must admit to having felt similarly fatigued at the prospect of engaging with Google+. No way did my life need another social network. It’s hard enough as it is to keep up with Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. But the Google offering is significant. It contains some interesting innovations. And as someone who is expected to know about these things, I could not ignore it. Already I am in a network with several hundred people on Google+ who are doing the same as me – giving it a go.

For me there is a big distinction between social networking and social media in general. Blogging is a vital part of my life and, although very occasionally it seems like a chore, I could not do without it (see Blog Regularly, Sleep Easy). It stimulates reflection and amplifies the benefits I obtain from my professional experiences. Other social media activities, including podcasting, making and sharing videos, working collaboratively on wikis and even forum discussions, offer similar benefits. These are not fragmentary, attention-disturbing activities, as Nicholas Carr describes (see Life in the Shallows); in fact, they require sustained concentration and some serious thinking.

Blogging and similar forms of media creation are not for everyone. As the 90:9:1 rule suggests, only one in a hundred is going to be tempted to participate on a long-term basis. They are often professional or at least serious amateur activities (see Blogging is Journalism). Through their academic salaries, regular bloggers such as George Siemens and Stephen Downes are effectively paid to blog. Most people don’t have the time, the inclination or the talent.

Social networking on Twitter, Facebook and the like is, of course, very different. By comparison with blogging and similar acts of media creation, it is, of course, relatively superficial and disposable. It can become habitual, even sad (see Becoming Invisible). But it is the perfect counterpart to media creation. It is how those acts become visible to anyone other than the author’s regular followers. It builds audiences. It amplifies impact. By and large it also acts to successfully filter out the dross and bring the cream to the top.

Google may not be successful in introducing a new social network. Not because they don’t have a good product or a massive marketing pot, but because it’s not enough for a new product to be 10% better than what exists. It has to be twice as good for people to bother going through all that disruption to shift from their current supplier. But if it turns out to be twice as good, then the SoMeFat will have been worthwhile and we will all be re-energised.

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