Social Media Overload


In the aftermath of the recent SXSW event, Alexandra Samuel wrote on the HBR blog about five unsolved problems facing Social Media. She enumerated contact list overload, search overload, information overload, brand overload, and apathy overload. It’s not clear to me, however, whether these are pressing issues, and whether universal solutions to them would constitute an improvement over the current chaos.

Contact list overload. Each social network manages its own contact list, and while SN sites all encourage the people to build up their in-site networks by importing contacts, it’s a lot of work to manage each network independently. Of course there are lots of good reasons to keep the data segregated in the first place. Perils of mixing social networks can range from job loss to becoming a victim of governmental repression. Given the inescapable urge that governments businesses have to put federated data to further their own — rather than their citizens’ or customers’ — benefit, the less pooling of contact lists we see, the better.

Search overload. Alexandra laments the lack of influence that “the social web” has on search results, but one of the issues raised at the recent Search in Social Media workshop (SSM2010) was the question of utility of mixing in realtime and social data into search results. Getting too much influence from people who are like you is more likely to lead to “group think” than to true insight.

Information overload. RSS-based content aggregation has become a victim of its own success, drowning us in data. The unstated implication is that the social web (presumably through collaborative filtering) can help reduce the amount of information that we need to read. It may. On the other hand, it seems like people are actually pretty good at deciding what to spend time on, and social media is as much a contributor to the feed as a filter for it.

Brand overload. It seems that marketeers have discovered Twitter and Facebook, and are subverting the medium for their own purposes. This is akin to the cries of dismay when corporations started acquiring a web presence in the mid 1990s. My take on marketing presence in social media? That’s how you know it’s a medium!

Apathy overload. Apparently Social Media is not solving the world’s social ills. As far as I know, in the history of humanity one has yet to see an effective technological solution to a social problem. Social media is the current fashion, but there is already ample evidence that it, like many other technologies, can be used for pernicious purposes as readily as for positive ones.

Perhaps a sixth item on this list should be Expectation overload.

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  1. Gene, you have just found the two words that could have shaved 3 years off my grad school experience and 5 years off psychotherapy: Expectation Overload. Love it!

    You’ve put your finger on something really crucial, and I suspect endemic to early social media adopters like me: many of those who got into the field early did so because it seemed like social media had the power to transform a huge range of personal, professional and social challenges. From staying in touch with friends to finding the info we need, from transforming a company to transforming the world, social media seemed to tackle it all.

    But six (seven? eight?) years on, it’s clear that many of the problems we were hoping to solve are more social than technical, and while social media might make some of those easier to solve (think: large-scale, self-organizing communities unbounded by geography) it introduces fresh obstacles.

    What you highlight very effectively is that there are different strategies for dealing with those obstacles. My piece took a “solutions wanted” approach, but you’re noting that for some people the so-called solutions (like contact integration, or social search) could produce more problems — and that for those people, it may be better to relegate social media to a more limited role instead.

    I suspect we could have a very interesting (if heated) debate about some of these items — in particular, the brand overload comment you made — but it’s all great food for thought. You’ve certainly made me face up to the Expectation Overload problem — although if there’s one expectation I’ve given up, it’s the expectation of curing my expectation overload.

  2. Alexandra, thanks for the detailed comment! Sorry if my tone came across as overly curmudgeonly — it was one of those days!

    I agree with you that there is a sense of excitement in the early adopter crowd of the potential of a new technology to transform the human condition. Unfortunately, the number of such transformations that “cross the chasm” is low. Some of the reasons for this failure are undoubtedly technological, but many are rooted in more human or social factors. Of course there are examples that fit both conditions — personal flying cars come to mind, but either point of failure is sufficient.

    I am interested in taking the branding issue further: it seems to me that media marketing these days is pretty agile at inserting messages/content/presence/whatever where-ever there is an opportunity to reach people. My sense is that social media is no different: as long as people pay attention to something, that represents an selling or “mind-share” opportunity. To prevent this from happening requires structural barriers to participation — such as legal restrictions or policies enforced through ownership — but the temptation to monetize should not be underestimated.

    One example that comes to mind is craigslist — they’ve managed to build a community of sorts while not allowing third-party ads. But that decision is rooted in political philosophy, not necessarily in economics. And it’s hard to know whether Craig’s approach can be adopted easily to other contexts.

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