The web’s social bubble

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This is a post that has been brewing for a while. I guess the catalyst that spurred me into writing it was’s announcement that they would be shuttering Bloglines to focus on their new Q+A service; I deconstructed that in a bit more depth at the time. But the thought had been bubbling under for a good while and Bloglines was just the fissure that allowed to reach the surface.

Social has almost become the web’s own version of black tulips and I think that it merits a little reflection.
social bubble

Social talk and action

I am inclined to think that some of the talk about social has grossly overstepped the the delivery mark. A classic example of this is Steve Gillmor’s pre-emptive announcement on the death of RSS. Gillmor is a longtime ‘Valley technology journalist and former contributing editor to ZDNet. He has a gang of acquaintances that to do a regular talk show | podcast with that including of some the great and good of social media.

Gillmor followed his acquaintances via Twitter and found that he didn’t need to go to his RSS reader anymore instead grazing off the curation provided by his chums. He had become a trough-fed consumer picking up the scraps his social circle throw him, or less charitably he had become a content tape worm consuming media off the back off other people’s curation – a digital equivalent of a shoulder-surfing newspaper reader.

Now Twitter has its advantages, I find it exceedingly handy. As I type this paragraph, I have my email open, Tweetie for the Mac open and FastLadder RSS reader open in another browser tab. I get somewhere between 10 and 20 per cent of my blog traffic from Twitter. Of course, how my blog finds its way on to Twitter is that an RSS feed is converted into tweets. Readers then have to click through to read the post on the site.

If they followed my RSS feed they could have the whole post in their reader without the requirement to visit the site. In order for Gillmor’s trough-fed model to work there has to be curators, people shoveling interesting content into the trough for him to chow down on. Some of that content is from media companies who have done what I did and hooked up an RSS feed to Twitter, other people are like myself: content polyvores who consume email newsletters, tweets, IM messages from friends and RSS feeds. RSS hasn’t died it has become the preserve of apex content predators when poop out curated tweets and blog posts into the social sphere to be consumed by the content trough feeders.

Secondly, research doesn’t support Gillmor’s hypothesis. AT Internet Institute did a survey of French news sources, admittedly not the biggest sample, but more thorough than Gillmor’s personal experience. In this research 0.1 per cent of traffic to news sites surveyed comes from Twitter and just 1.3 per cent from Facebook, hardly the numbers which indicate that social is likely to replace RSS any time soon.

So maybe social whilst it is very powerful isn’t as big as its talked up to be.

Me time

Secondly, there is the context of social. If you look at companies like Google they are trying to imbue all their products with social. But if we think about our personal lives we need me-time sometimes. Think about the typical middle-class American household and there will be a den. The den in American media often had wood paneled walls, maybe a stuffed animal head or two – where the man of the house reads books, probably sips a beer or six and watches sports on a large television.

The den was also where the home computer went in first, the cable connection (and internet went in). So you have a space and a context that has blazed a technological trail in the house which is now being ignored by internet media companies in terms of advertising and content because they are all focused on social. What gives?

When I was in Hong Kong I wandered along the water front by the Hong Kong conference centre in Wan Chai and there were men fishing. Victoria harbour isn’t the most promising place to catch a fish. In fact, when The Dark Knight was shot in Hong Kong the health and safety staff attached to the shoot wouldn’t allow a stunt man to emerge from the water due to the various nasties in it like tuberculosis. So even if you caught a fish you may not want to eat your catch. So the fishing was obviously symbolic, it bought the men time to themselves, to decompress.

Its probably the same for anglers in Greater Manchester as it is in Hong Kong island. There are places where a social experience shouldn’t intrude. I’d go out on a limb and say that all the web probably doesn’t need to be social either.

Social contexts

If we think about work, our relationships and the way we relate to people is different to our personal lives. We play many roles son | daughter, parent, friend, sports team member, music fan – I think you can see many more permutations than I want to write at the present time.

Facebook tries to deal with this by getting you to ‘group’ your friends in different categories: work, school, family etc. Flickr tries to do the same thing with three groupings: family, friends and contacts. But as Reid Hoffman recently pointed out the Facebook model of getting people to assign groups fails, I must admit I haven’t even bothered to use Flickr’s simplified model.

So just in the same way that there are contexts where we use social, there also contexts for different types of social depending where we are and according different rules and levels of openness and truthiness as Stephen Colbert would say. But social networks are either ignoring the context or trying to embrace it all.

Social design

Whilst we are social creatures, I haven’t seen that many social services that have shown the kind of indepth thinking about social interaction that comes out of good social system design. You could argue that Facebook gets it, but look at all the agitation and angst Facebook has caused as it rolled out services like Beacon or new privacy settings. Google has some of the smartest people in the room and people like Bradley Horowitz have given a lot of time to it, yet they’ve had product failures too that were at least partly due to bad social design.

It’s easy to sit back and criticise, so be in no doubt great social design is hard. Some of the best social design has been with relatively ‘unambitious’ objectives: Flickr and delicious. This goes back to clarity of purpose and elegant design mantras that sat at the centre of many of the original web 2.0 businesses and still sits at the core approach that the likes of 37 Signals take.

Delicious is particularly interesting because Joshua Schachter realised that people may want to follow experts bookmarks (in the same way that people like to know where stylish celebrities shop for clothes and how to get their look), but that these people aren’t friends or even acquaintances. That might sound like common sense but many of the social products that I tried and dropped like it was hot required symmetrical relationships when it wasn’t appropriate.

Others like Google seemed to be based on the assumption that you already led a complete Google lifestyle and consequently this was yet another way of extending your life through Google. So someone like me who uses a different email provider and has a plethora of contacts across different platforms (almost like layers of fossils on ethnographic dig through my online life) these products didn’t appeal.

Finally, different cultures have different social and legal norms around aspects of privacy, these are evolving but reflect why a one-size fits all social network ‘the black tulip’ of the current internet business seems to be a mistake. For instance Germans tend to be more conscious of privacy, as do Japanese people. For various historic reasons many countries citizens have appreciated the anonymity that the web provides. I work with healthcare clients and there would be conditions from the mild to the serious where protecting ones identity may be socially desirable. For instance, how would you feel if a friend started a discussion on their Facebook page about their hemorrhoids?

Driven by expectation, not by strategy

Social has become a strategic fad, internet companies become undervalued if they don’t have a social strategy so there is an expectation that by default every product has social pixie dust sprinkled on it. Yet as a marketer I would take a more pragmatic approach, if a client’s objectives weren’t best served with social tools they wouldn’t be in a plan. The tail is wagging the dog as companies strive to match the buzzword compliance required by influential stakeholders.

In conclusion

In conclusion, I realise that this has been a bit of a keyboard vomit but I wanted to get the ideas out there so they can be commented, berated, poked and prodded by other people. Social media is powerful but it isn’t omnipotent online. In fact this obsession with social by internet companies could harm the web, in the same that Tulip Mania harmed the European economy centuries ago.