Maxed out on social software

My friend Roger Dennis pointed me to a post on the Institute For The Future blog where the author bemoaned running out of time to manage the social networks. I’ve also been thinking about this, as every four months or so I build up enough inputs that I need to purge again.

I use social networks like Facebook in the same way as I use blogs, Twitter, AIM, and email: to stay in touch with people. They let me leapfrog Dunbar’s Number. They do this in several ways:

  1. Many forms of social software give me many-to-one broadcast ability (e.g., Twitter). Offline, I rarely get a lot of my friends together and even when we are all in the one place it’s impossible to speak to everybody at once. Conversations have 5 or 6 people before you’re too far away or too diluted in the social mix to feel like effective communication. Online scales communication in a way that face-to-face does not.
  2. Social software lowers the transaction costs (the overhead) of communication. Think how hard it is to arrange a time to meet with a friend vs how hard it is to send email to them. If it takes less time to communicate, we can get in more communication.

However, the more we use these things, the more overwhelming the pressure to maintain the network feels. I had blog burnout eighteen months ago, with an enormous subscription list that was consuming all my time. I just went twelve months without using an RSS reader, I simply used delicious network, TechMeme, and Digg to get what my friends were reading, what the tech bloggers were saying, and what the masses were thinking. I wish I could say that I used the extra time to develop a brilliant piece of software, but actually I spent it detoxing from Silicon Valley by fishing. Regardless of how you would spend the extra time, though, most people feel like they need more time even though they have all these high-scaling low-transaction-cost methods of communication.

I see it as Dunbar’s Number (expanded by social software) clashing with a literally astronomical upper bound—there are only a finite number of hours in a day. Even when software lets us use our hours more productively, we simply expand the number of tools we use and the number of people we communicate with until we’re out of time again. The effects industry knows that the time it takes to calculate an effects frame of a movie hasn’t materially changed since Tron. The computers of today can do much more than those of 1980, and they do. The upper bound on rendering is the director’s time, not something technical. Similarly, Trade Me (NZ’s eBay) found that no matter what they did, people were on the Trade Me web site for 15 minutes. That was how long each day people would spend grooming their inventory. Trade Me could get them to buy more stuff by speeding up page loads and optimizing the buying process, but never to spend more time.

The acquisition drive for social contacts reminds me of the acquisition drive for material goods. At the risk of diving into the highly questionable field of evolutionary psychology, it’s because we were limited for millennia. We could only have so many friends, there was only so much “stuff” to have. Those with a drive to collect friends or material possessions prospered and spread their genes. Now, thanks to Twitter and Wal-Mart, there’s an endless supply of people to interact with and plastic objects to accumulate. Facebook is the candy bar of the 21st century—it tastes good because for millennia it was rare and necessary, not because in the modern day and age we actually need it. And, like sugar, it won’t go away no matter how much we fret about it.

Where does that leave us? With some interesting questions for social software:

  1. What’s the Nutrasweet of social software?
  2. Can the transaction cost be lowered any further?
  3. Can decentralized conversations scale quality with size?
  4. If you assume someone has x minutes to spend a day grooming their social network, will they use their time more effectively if all the Twitter/AIM/Facebook/etc. services are aggregated into a single point of call?
  5. If so, would efficiency mean they’d switch?
  6. People accumulate physical objects and periodically sell them off to make room for more—is LinkedIn the eBay of social networks?
  7. Does someone brewing beer, or running a fish and chip shop, or selling lumber benefit in the same ways from maintaining a 500-person social network as you (the reader of this blog and therefore on the glittering top rung of the technological ladder) do?
  8. How smooth can we make the transition from real world acquaintance (i.e., someone you just met or had a phone call with) to online “friend”?
  9. How can you lower the transaction costs of real-world interaction?