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Nat Torkington

Nat Torkington

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?

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Comments: 9

Thomas Huhn   [10.09.07 03:50 AM]

Nat, I absolutely agree on all points. We see an evolving need to not only maintain your own lifestream(s) in one place, but also those of your friends, family, business colleagues etc.

On the other hand there should not only be aggregation, but also ways of interaction, preferably using the same communication channel that you received your life-update from.

E.g. when I receive a Facebook minifeed update from a friend, I want to be able to post back on this. The same thing could happen here: I read your blogpost in my dashboard and I would like to pingback your blog with a comment from there, without ever leaving my self-updating control-center / dashboard.

This and a lot more functionality will be available with the launch of I guess you will like it, because it can help you a lot with all the needs you described and save you time and effort. Let me know if you would like to join our beta.


Alexander van Elsas   [10.09.07 04:19 AM]

Hi Nat, interesting post. I think many of your questions could be answered by a move of social network developers to drop their walled garden approaches. By making the network more important than the user value we are stuck with services that need me to go there (instead of the service coming to me). By trying to keep me on their platform (instead of providing ways to make use of the best of all platforms) I'm forced to go there to update or communicate. A much greater efficiency (and lowering of transaction costs) would be feasible with open systems. In the end, I believe, services that focus on user value instead of network value will win. I have written a post earlier on the flaws of web 2.0 if interested:

Search☸ Engines WEB   [10.09.07 08:55 AM]

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?

If so, would efficiency mean they'd switch?

In a broad sense, this way the theory behind MySpace and the reason for it's success.

Conceivably, there could be a 'push' middle layer Web service that could track feeds and updates from various social networks a member belongs to - then combine all communications back and forth.

Would this model be acceptable to the advertisers on those individual social networks who react to visits and pageviews?

Would each of those social networks then offer a subscriber option for those who want this efficiency?

Would all major networks be willing to 'partner' with one service to allow this solution to be realized - thus taking away from their individual identities?

Chris Vail   [10.09.07 12:33 PM]

Don't discount evolution so quickly. A lot of species can maintain huge societies; Dunbar's number may represent an optimal situation for humans, and exceeding it could be problematic.

A recent news article pointed out research that correlated social isolation with immune system problems. If too few social relationships affect an individual so profoundly, what would too many do? Humans are not only neocortexes.

Eric Wu   [10.09.07 03:39 PM]

Nat, I think you've done a great job at articulating a problem that's actually been creeping up on us for a while...starting with the advent of people maintaining multiple email accounts. Typically these multiple email accounts represent different personas and purposes that the owner maintains as part of their overall digital presence. The multiple social web applications you mention are richer embodiments of the same composite identities.

I work for a new startup in Boulder, CO ( that's tackling the problem of aggregating both email and social web communications into a single web-based virtual command center.

As far as Questions #4 and #5, we're betting that the answer to both questions is a resounding "Yes" and we've done a little research to justify our position. We recently completed a survey of 13-42 year old Internet users and 82% of the 1100 people surveyed said they would use a free online tool to check their email and social networking accounts in one place. We're hoping that with a simple, usable tool we can help people start to reduce the amount of time they spend maintaining their digital presence (and maybe get to building some cool new piece of software).

Guillaume Riflet   [10.09.07 03:39 PM]

What an interesting perspective!

Lars Zapf   [10.10.07 02:45 AM]

I am quite sure that in the near future (and thanks to open APIs) there will be one product/portal that allows us to manage all social networks, blogs, Twitter, AIM, email, tasks, etc. Something like an RSS reader (that allows me to aggregate Flickr, delicious, etc.), but with the possibility to upstream.

Anthony Townsend   [10.10.07 04:16 PM]

There's an interesting collolary here in the growth of cities and mobility. People today spend about an hour a day travelling - just as they did in medieval London or industrial-era Pittsburgh. What's different is that the means of travel are faster. So yes, your social mobility will expand within the same time budget.

Until someone makes more time.

Hamish MacEwan   [10.14.07 08:00 PM]

Yes, along with the Gilder'ed age of expired scarcity and the benefit to wasting whatever is abundant, we are witnessing an inversion, where what once was plentiful is now scarce and vice versa.

Greed, so necessary in scarcity, is a disadvantage in a world where you can easily eat yourself to death.

But artificial scarcity, recreated with QoS and end to end control, is great for those who benefit from the margins inherent in scarcity, bugger the rest of us who might wag our long tail of improvement.

Coincidentally I caught this recently from Jon Udell:

"We understand these things because our industry began its life in a regime of scarcity. The critical resources — compute cycles, storage, pixels, bandwidth — were always in short supply. We always had to focus on doing more with less.

Until recently, that is. Efficiency still matters, but increasingly there are big payoffs for designs that assume resources are, or will soon become, abundant. (Excluding energy, of course, which we are now for the first time considering how to optimize.)

It’s a weird crossover because as we transition from scarcity to abundance, the disciplines that Amory Lovins concerns himself with — construction, heating and cooling, transportation — are going the other way. In those disciplines, designs could always assume resource abundance and now must adjust to scarcity."

Interesting times.

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