[qi:006] In response to a post by Steve Hodson, “Is Social Media Becoming a Social Mess?,” Elliot Ng said something that resonated with me deeply, even more than the valid question being asked by the original post. “My problem with social media is that it is […]

[qi:006] In response to a post by Steve Hodson, “Is Social Media Becoming a Social Mess?,” Elliot Ng said something that resonated with me deeply, even more than the valid question being asked by the original post.

“My problem with social media is that it is heavily focused on itself. Tweeting about Twitter. Blogging about blogging. You know what this reminds me of? The house of cards that our friends in Washington and Wall Street have created. Mortgages sliced and diced and resold many times….. This is exactly what the social media community is doing. Reverberating from one tool to the other. Reaggregating onto aggregator services.”

This is a sentiment echoed by some readers in response to my post, Social web’s big question: Federate or Aggregate. Dameon Welch-Abernathy was increduclous about the fact that “Companies are building services atop services without a proven business model. Has anyone taken a step back and realized just how crazy this is?” Another reader had an even more colorful metaphor and compared the rise of many social web apps to “building floating gas stations for the flying cars that are still in early prototype state.” Others emailed me privately with similar thoughts. I have been struggling to package up their skepticism in a way I could share it with you. As luck would have it, my friend Pip Coburn sent me his latest weekly newsletter, exposing me to Herbert Simon, a psychologist with roots in cognitive psychology, complexity theory and behavioral finance.

What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.

I think Simon, who by the way made this observation in 1971, was onto to something here. Many of these social web services are essentially a way for us to communicate among ourselves. In times before cheap broadband, cheaper telephony and affordable computers, we used our mouths to communicate. We went and saw our friends and family — sometimes in their homes, but mostly in restaurants, bars or coffee houses. The only people who made money off that conversation and bonhomie were perhaps those who ran the establishments that enabled our interactions. Places with something special about them remained successful for years, while others packed up and went home. Our post-broadband world is no different.

As I said, back in July:

If someone can become the Dolby of the web — remove the noise and give us clear sound — then they are going to make a lot of money. And when I say sound, I mean data that is truly useful. But that would just be the start.

Our communication and our attention is going to flow to a few services — the ones that make it easy to have those conversations. Twitter and Facebook seem to be in that camp… at least till something new comes around!

Update: Dave Winer thinks that there is room for something to come up that occupies the space between Twitter and Friendfeed. I would say Dave lets add Facebook to the mix as well :-)

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  1. Robert Kingston Monday, December 8, 2008

    Brilliant post, Om.

    You’re definitely right about being able to make a lot of money by removing the “noise” from the abundant data out there.

    One thing comes to mind: Google and their mission, ‘To organise the world’s information.’

  2. Social media at risk of self-referential implosion | socialmediainfluence.com Monday, December 8, 2008

    [...] that is. Om Malik at GigaOM has started a thought-provoking conversation with his post about the challenges facing the social web, itself inspired by Elliot Ng’s comment posted in response to the question posed by Steven [...]

  3. Om, there’s so much noise because most people have nothing to say, but talk anyway. Well-written blogs with *original* content always rise to the top.

  4. Heather Kennedy Monday, December 8, 2008

    In my mind, this discussion and my opinions on it are going forward on a few tracks. There is no one answer. First, people need to be indoctrinated in using these services. The easiest way and what social media has going for it now? Make them fun. The peril? They become a time waster, possibly even during work or school hours? Productivity anyone? I suppose that is the attention angle of the information argument. Or inattention.

    What is missing and I saw this in the ubiquitous early days of cell phone usage–place. Any kind of communication save the real thing will always being missing that element. I don’t want so much to be asked if I’m on Facebook or Twitter or Myspace or yet to be launched Social Media time suck as just simply and generically…… where can I find you online? That will be the question.

    We will get past the newness of Social Media and the “have you tried X” phase and the kind of discussions you’re aggregating will be the thing that pulls it all together.

  5. Graeme Thickins Monday, December 8, 2008

    We were just talking about this very thing on our podcast yesterday at http://www.minnov8.com — social media fatigue… too many tools, so little time.


  6. Alan Wilensky Monday, December 8, 2008

    You play where I play and earn with the SMB, we have to fight companies that offer Whitebox services for basics like paid profiles and other things that are no-brainers for small businesses trying to adapt paid models to social.

    So we are getting tired of explaining to the platform vendors, whether it be media engines like Kick Apps, or community engines etc, that we can’t keep banging them over the head. We are not intersted in ad models, we are interested in feature-pay couplings for specialist and verticals.

    Either they will have to listen up to us consultants that are actually in the trenches, or they can go out of business. Then we will have to take the best tools and code we can find and build to order. But as of now, the Valley ( in the broadest sense of the High Tech community) does not understand specialty markets for Social anything, and is completely clueless.

  7. Scott Hoffman Monday, December 8, 2008

    OM, very well stated, Social Media still needs time to evolve. Today Social Media is at the very beginning of it’s evolution (READ: Revolution). Social Media will change the way the way that communicate forever, according to a study done by Universal McCann 70% of us use Electronic means more than “in person methods” to communicate with each other in the work place, and almost 40% do the same in our personal lives! Those %’s are going to continue to grow. In my own personal experience I have many electronic friends that I have never met in person.

    Social Media is like the adolescent that has grown too quickly and is in it’s awkward phase.

    It is true that a large % of the conversations inside social media today are about Social Media but I feel that is because a large % of users have a personal or professional stake in Social Media (Your very well written Blog is an Example). Even so, Today Social Media is useful, and it will grow in usefulness as more diverse users begin to embrace Social Media and more diverse conversations start to make their way into the fold.

    The noise will only grow, if you have ever been to a Rock Concert, you know that before the show begins the noise keeps growing and growing…conversations fly all around you. Most people figure out a way…I personally like shouting with may hands cupped over my mouth at the people that I cam to the concert with. Today a huge amount of information is being exchanged, ideas are being shared, relationships are being fostered and Social Media is just starting to show it’s usefulness to the non-social media loyalist. I love to listen to my wife, who didn’t understand Facebook until recently explain the usefulness of Facebook to her friends and relatives not yet using the service.

    The increased usefulness will lead to increased opportunity. Revenue streams that haven’t been tapped will be created, membership fees, business 2 business connections, marketing, etc. If the opportunity is there people will build for it.

    In a very small way the times that we are in, can be best paralleled with the times of the gold rush. There is opportunity “in them there hills”, but someone has got to build better equipment to find the gold, better equipment to extract the gold, better suited clothing and food the labor…and even after that some of the people heading to the hills will return successful and some won’t.

  8. Dolby of the Web – exactly!

    The issue is no longer search or aggregation, its filtering!

    I wrote up some thoughts on the Twitter v Friendfeed debate as well, I don’t think there is a gap – simple wins.


  9. I don’t actually think the Dolby analogy works. Social media is about the noise – as soon as we try and narrow it down or filter it out and institutionalise it, it becomes traditional media again. Social media is a process (not an institution) and noise is its fuel. We don’t need to filter it out, we need to harness it and aggregate it.

  10. I think you underestimate the problem of removing noise.
    How many years are people talking about cognitive science, 100, 200, 300 years.
    Is there a clear model we can test our systems against?

    Take a look at Google, ask yourself what is Information and when,how and why it’s formed. Let me know if you find a clear definition of that process at Google or DARPA or where ever.

    Does autonomous storing and retrieving of data qualify as learning? Or does learning require context, even in reflex (sport) training?

    What is context and how does one create it autonomously?

    If context is needed to remove noise, it’s also something very personal since it’s learned. Therefore filtering without learning will not work.

    BTW I agree with Herbert Simon. The problem is, what is attention and how does one model it?

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