Social Media and Tool Creep

Last week, Mike Caulfield lamented that social media is poorly suited to enhancing human potential. If you think about it, this shouldn’t surprise one too much, since it wasn’t designed for that.  Facebook was, after all, first and foremost a social tool, a virtual version of the paper books new college students resorted to in ages past to figure out who that cute guy/girl in your English class was.

For the task for which they was originally designed, fostering social connections between people, Facebook, Twitter and other social platforms work well, but then something happened.  As social platforms moved to the center of our online lives we wanted them to be the hubs not just of our social interactions, but of our information gathering.  This dovetailed nicely with the platform creators quest to grab, quantify and monetize more and more of our attention, but, as Mike points out, was not necessarily good for us.

D’Arcy Norman quoted an old post that touched on the same issue.  In 2008  he wrote about what he recently dubbed real-time toll.

Every time I read an update by someone that I care about, I think about that person – if only for a second – and my sense of connection is strengthened.

But, I fear that the strengthened social connections are not worth the cost borne in superficial thinking.

This led me to a little experiment. I looked at my Facebook activity feed for the almost completed month. I’ve only interacted with about 75 entities, and two thirds of those are people in the county I live in.  This comes with the usual caveat that it includes outbound plus inbound tags but not inbound likes and reactions.

Maybe the key to managing D’Arcy’s real time toll is to only follow people you care about enough that whatever superficial thinking it causes is worth it.

I’m going to presuppose that social networking sites are not very good tools to expand human potential.  The ratio of signal to the noise of social interaction is just too low.  What would such a tool look like?  Is a good list of RSS feeds adequate, or is something like fedwiki, wikity, or a choral explanations platform necessary?  If you end up with something that isn’t extremely decentralized, how do you generate beneficial network effects while keeping the signal to noise ratio high enough to generate value?

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