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Open Thread: Social Web & Its Challenges

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[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 :-)

31 Responses to “Open Thread: Social Web & Its Challenges”

  1. Great post Om – I always appreciate your man-on-the-street perspective.

    It’s still early days as they just launched it but take a look at the Topics feature put out by the MyBlogLog team at Yahoo, they sift through the hundreds of thousands of social media feeds of their hyper-connected members to highlight the most active topics. Similar to what Techmeme does for blogs but on a much larger scale and across more than just blogs.

    Topics Page:

    Blog Post:

  2. @om

    Indeed, conversations is what I am talking about – connected conversations – which is as good a concise definition of social media as any out there I think. And it is the connectivity bit that makes the difference as @ike above points out. Am framing a post on this subject.

  3. Excellent post. I love the phrase “poverty of attention” – I wish I’d thought of that.

    I struggle to impress on people at my workplace (a warehouse, full of data, ironically), to be very careful not to mix up ‘data’ and ‘information’.
    Within that small area, I think, lies a lot of the muddled thinking around the various business models. They are all finding that it’s not enough to have oodles of data and fancy lip gloss and call it “the next big thing”. Just because someone or thing is talked about does not validate it. I can talk about the garbage outside – but it’s still garbage.

    The challenge of the social web for me is;
    Is social commentary (like this one of mine) data or information?
    Where’s the boundary?

    The wonderful phrase, ‘Poverty of Attention’, a sort-of-soundalike antonym for attention deficit syndrome, is like art. It has information derived from the component data of it’s letters. So maybe, like the beauty of art being in the eye of the beholder, the ‘value’ of the social web is personal and will always remain so – like Ronald says above, ‘social’ depends on your definition of friend.

    And next to that, I think we will always need people of real skill to make sense of the myriad of conversations and ideas. Otherwise, the conversational twitter remains as chatter, and as was said previously, what once happened in cafes now happens on the web and is essentially the same, but without the ambience.

  4. Let’s go back to try to teach a system the meaning of mean.
    First thing, there is a difference between being mean and by x I mean y.
    Then there is a difference in situation of how mean being mean is, which can differ widely between people and situation. And X might not mean the same to me or you, so Y can differ. Let alone all the other meanings like in math.
    It all boils down to context not equal context from person to person and for that persons situation.
    In other words context is learned and the meaning of the data depends on when, how and where you learned the data, same data can mean different things in different cultures.
    To build a filter which works for you, it has to learn your shared context, like a good assistant. But can today’s learning system create context autonomously so data can have meaning? A good start would be a definition what learning is, which is also testable. So we can test our systems if they learn, or just dump data somewhere and remember the location.

    For Google, if Information is data in context, then Google does not organize Information. They rank data according to the organization provided by people (links), take away the links and Google has no idea on how to organize the data.

    As to attention, I model it as a temporary context.

    But what that really all means is, you have to put Personal back into PC. Any cloud system will be slightly overwhelmed and as I have pointed out context/meaning is pretty much local. On the other hand as broader you go as less local it has to be, or it all depends on your definition of friend for social networks.

  5. birdsmack

    Human being haven’t changed that much. We’ve always had short attention spans. New pastimes just replace old ones. Posting on Facebook instead of making photo albums and writing Christmas letters. Tweeting instead of chatting at the water cooler. Is Tweeting about Twitter really more weird than water cooler chats about office politics?

  6. @om
    Hmm, did you get the mail with your headers which showed a problem on your site.
    My system basically is an adaptive firewall(checks network behavior, to identify bots), after that it’s just normal spam filtering for good measure. So it shouldn’t return that error message, you won’t see my network if your mailserver behaves like a bot. Since I got your mail before, it shouldn’t do that (famous last words).

    I’m running out of time, will try to expand later.

  7. @ronald

    I think it is presumptuous on your part to think I underestimate the problem. Actually I think it is one of the hardest problems facing Silicon Valley (Tech Industry) for we are beginning to mirror our offline societies online but don’t have the tools to manage all these issues. From that perspective, it is also an opportunity.

    As an aside, you need to expand on your comment.

    Lastly, my attempts to email you have returned with error messages — mailbox not found. Bummer!

  8. @richard stacey

    I think what you are calling social media is essentially conversations — which is a point I try and make it in the last paragraph. If you can keep up with thousands of conversations and bottle them and make sense of them, more power to you. It is not essentially media — it is a lot of communication (conversation.)

  9. 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?

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. Heather Kennedy

    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.

  14. 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.’