Erosion of Social Media: Fragmentation Rising
I remember the good old days of social media, around 2009. Back then, you really only had two real choices, Twitter, Facebook, or a combination of both. Sure you could hang around on LinkedIn, but why? Unless you were trolling for a job. Most of your friends, business colleagues, or tech pundits were on one of those two social networks. The challenge back then was managing your “social stream”, especially if you were one of those social media “mavens” who had hundreds, maybe thousands of friends or followers. The stress back then was how to keep abreast of the sheer volume of tweets, status updates, photos, and other media postings. All the other social media properties like Foursquare or Tumblr realized early on that they had to syndicate or somehow integrate their offerings with the larger tweetstream or Facebook news feed. Thus the check-in got cross-posted to those services. Syndication was all the rage.
Fast forward to today. Now, we are playing a different game, and one that has the potential to pull apart our previous strategies for managing the chaos. One of the primary causes of this shift has been the emergence of the iPhone and other mobile devices as the platform of choice. This gave new startups the idea that social sharing could be location-based, and contextual. Along with this device shift was the realization that something had to be done about the “noise” factor (separating and isolating the social media updates that were of particular value from all the surrounding meaningless tweets and Facebook updates). Attempts have been made to automatically extract relevant content either through algorithmic techniques, filtering options, lists, use of specialized twitter clients, hashtags, and so forth.
But now a new class of apps has launched which seemingly rejects the notion that they must serve a greater master. With projects like Chatter, Diaspora, Chime.in, Path, Oink, and Quora, users are taking their content to private islands that may connect with the mainstream, but mostly to see if one’s existing Facebook or Twitter friends are using the new platform. Thus what is happening is that one’s social graph is fragmenting, and this is causing a greater problem in my opinion, than merely information overload. You are now faced with following multiple autonomous communities with varying overlap of your individual networks.
Let’s take a look at Path, for example. This is an iPhone app that lets you share photos and status updates with a limited set of friends (150). Thus if you have a large number of Facebook friends, it forces you to choose those friends of most importance or closeness to you. That’s fine in and of itself, but now the game is to get those friends to install a new app and join you on Path, where you will sharing things that no one outside of your Path network gets to see. Now, you can do this same thing on Facebook by setting up lists, (but who creates lists on FB anyway? exactly). You might get a few game friends to try out Path and join you there, but likely the majority of the friends you wish would make an exodus out of Facebook with you will not, probably due mostly to laziness and inertia. So now you have a fragmented situation. Will you just update Path, content that the majority of friends on FB will never see it? Or do you try and syndicate, but if you do that, what is the point of using Path in the first place? What makes this more pernicious is that even if friend X joins you on Path, the onus now is on him/her to convince THEIR social graph to make a similar exodus. After all, no matter how much you want to believe that you are the center of their world, they likely have a bunch of friends not connected to you at all that they really want to keep in touch with.
Now let’s look at Oink, another new app. This is a niche sort of community that allows you rate things, mainly food menu items at local restaurants. When you first join, it lets you scan your existing social networks to see if your friends are already on there. For me, as someone with over 1000 twitter followers, it was no surprise to see only a handful of those folks on there. Granted, the service just launched and I’m an early adopter type, but the point remains that I have to decide A) which of those handful I really want to follow on a new network (a small fraction), and B) whether I want to invest the time with Oink until it either grows and reaches critical mass or flames out. (Note for all those folks who were invested in Gowalla, how ya like that Facebook buyout announced today?)
Now I have to say that many of these new apps are rather iPhone/iPad friendly, its easier to try it out and see what happens, but I suspect that like my initial interest in Google Plus, as time passes I will become less and less interested.
So here we are, circa 2011, and faced with the prospect of visiting not two social network to get our status update fixes, but more like 5? 10? 20? And we can’t rely on a crutch like an RSS reader to keep up. They’re getting rid of those anyway. I’m torn - I don’t want to have to suck it up and accept Twitter and Facebook as the twin towers of social media that have to be constantly fed alms and nurtured like a mighty emperor. I like the idea of a cozy and tranquil peaceable hidden kingdom like Path where I can kibbitz with my homies. But I still need to check everything else because I still need my breaking news, sports chatter, and odd meme fix. I guess I won’t be catching up on sleep, OR my hundreds of movies backlogged in my Netflix queue anytime soon.
Next up: Where do you go online to have serious conversations? (It’s not Quora).