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Social Networking Fatigue

My thoughts on this began with a conversation I had with my friend Caitlyn where the two of us ranted that social networking is beginning to have more emphasis on the “working” and less on the “social.” Facebook is making all kinds of changes, prompting the usual outcry from people who don’t like different. I’m using “New Facebook” right now, and some of the changes may be great, but it seems to do little to offset the difficulty of simply using the network. A year ago I spent a lot of time trying to organize my friends on Facebook to make the network more useful for keeping up with people, and it seems that they’ve been attempting to facilitate that kind of sorting. However, I’m increasingly finding that I don’t really care. As the site has continued to develop, I’m just not interested in going back and rooting through pages of new settings, tweaking things yet another time to make use of the new feature. For a geek like me, this is cause to sit back and evaluate why I feel this way.

I know this has come up before when I’ve talked about social networks, but I don’t really worry about “privacy” when it comes to sharing. As a kid, there was directed person-to-person communication, and then the wider internet anybody could see with forums, and open chat channels. Social networks essentially are the equivalent of a public broadcast in my mind. Rather than relying on a network to keep information segregated, my privacy filter is primarily between myself and the computer. If something is targeted at specific individuals or small groups, I use directed forms of communication: a running Skype chatroom with some of my college buddies, IM conversations, email, shared Dropbox folders. Interestingly, the concept of privacy has been focused on this kind of sharing of late, with Diaspora, Google+, and now Facebook all focusing on ways to group people for targeted sharing. Honestly, I don’t really care about all that. I don’t have the time to painstakingly group my hundreds of contacts in every new network. Heck, I’m still trying to get my Google Contacts sorted out so I can quickly access the important numbers from my phone.

When I want to share something, it should be easy. I want to get it out to my people regardless of which network they prefer to use. Posterous, Tumblr, and Diaspora seem to gasp this idea, with users being able to send one post to multiple other networks. For it to truly be useful, sharing needs to be integrated into my life, so that no matter where I am or what application I am using—individual sites in a browser, RSS feeds in Google Reader, screenshots—I can share the interesting thing I found.

Facebook kind of understands this but constantly gets it wrong, implementing revision after revision that shares everything with people, causing a precipitous drop in the signal-to-noise ratio. This is a bad system because the value an individual adds by participating in social media is curation: selecting that which they find interesting and believe others will appreciate. If I agree, I follow them for more. I don’t want to tap into a constant stream of everything they do online, only what they felt was important enough to actively share.

I believe that the real granularity should come in at the level of the reader, rather than the sharer. This idea seems to have been barely addressed by any social network so far. We’ve been creating filters for email for years, and on Gmail I can quickly sort out junk from priority mail, controlling which ones are allowed to attempt to secure my immediate attention through notifications. In the same way, I want to sort out personal, original content from shared items, different categories of content, or information on specific events.

Simple, integrated, explicitly user-controlled sharing on one side, and powerful, reader-controlled filtering on the other. How might such a system look? I’d like to have a widget everywhere I could possibly find content with a simple hierarchical set of options:

Archive < Like < Share

Everything to the right includes the action to the left. When I see something I like, I can quietly add it to my personal archive; publicly give a kudos to the author without having to take a more time-intensive action, such a leaving a comment, and add it to my personal archive; or share it with my friends, give kudos, and add it to my personal archive.

Shared items could be automatically categorized at some basic level based on information contained in the shared item itself. This would allow readers to filter what kinds of items they see. One of the most obvious distinctions would be differentiating actual personal status updates from links and other content from around the web. It could also be used to filter out specific topics or sites.

At the same time, I don’t always know what categories I’d want to filter, or something in a filtered category might actually interest me, and my filter would cause me to miss it. What would be more helpful than basic categorization would be the ability to respond to the things I see in my various feeds. The same sharing widget applies here, with the responses used to provide a more finely tuned stream. Perhaps a simple point system:

Archive = 1, Like = 2, Share = 3

Combined with the previous content categorization, over time this could yield a feed that will contain information I am most likely to want.

Something else that would be helpful is detailed scanning and organization of incoming information. When something big happens (like the iPhone 5 announcement coming up hours from now) the news and opinions tend to show up on Twitter first, followed by blogs, and finally by major news outlets. As the news propagates, the feed fills with more and more of the same. Social networks should be able to take all of that raw information and condense it into a summary. “There was an earthquake on the US East Coast.” “The Dodgers won 3-1.” “The iPhone 5 was announced today.” That’s the gist of the story, something that might be worth notifying me about. Beneath that heading, there are the stories from Wired, Ars Technica, Gizmodo, CNN, and all the folks I’ve added on Facebook, Twitter, and whatnot. “These people said these things about the iPhone 5.” “These sites have articles about it.”

Finally, I want to go back to the issue of privacy. While I tend to prefer the concept of reader-directed filtering of content to directed sharing, privacy is still an issue. In fact, it’s the real privacy issue we’ve had with social networks all along—the directed sharing stuff is just a red herring. A social network, especially one that is able to be as predictive as I would like, is going to have access to a wealth of information on me, including all the things I archived without any public acknowledgement of the action. Allowing users to target shares at “Family” versus “Friends” is cool, but it is this information that must be dealt with responsibly, not sold for profit. This is where I hope an open source network like Diaspora will shine. Without a commercial interest, we can hope that they will make decisions for the benefit of the community rather than their business.

Today, there is a lot of stuff online that I might be interested in, but just don’t want to spend the time going through the noise to find; there are thousands of new stories every day that I have to wade through to get the information I crave. I want my computer to help do that for me so that I can spend my free time on the human aspect of all this data: sharing important information with other people, forming opinions, referencing facts, and simply talking about what is going on in the world around me. Facilitating this leads to a society that is more actively engaged in their environment, a disruptive force with the potential to engender truly great things.

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