Just as I was reading Paul Carr’s latest column about quitting social media, my husband looked at his phone and broke into a huge smile. He is a graphic designer and has long been a fan of Chank Fonts. Earlier that day, he’d taken a picture of a retro-looking podiatrist office, posting it on Twitter with the word “Font-o-licious.” It didn’t go viral. It didn’t become a trending topic. It didn’t get him 1,000 new followers or even attract much attention at all. But it was noticed by Chank Diesel of Chank Fonts who Tweeted “I’m gonna dedicate my next font to that type-savvy podiatrist” and started following my husband.
Here in front of me was one of those serendipitous moments of social media collapsing space-and-time. These moments don’t change the world, but they’re exactly what made social media so addictive in the first place. Imagine an industry hero of yours who seemed untouchable creating a product just because of a random picture you posted on an ever-moving stream of colliding information that he happened to see. Here, in the guise of my beaming husband, was the perfect articulation for why I think people—even my close friends— who declare dramatic social media bankruptcy were just doing it wrong.
What made social media a phenomenon were moments like these. Passively connecting in-and-out of a persistent conversation with people you know and see everyday, people you know but have lost touch with, and people you don’t know but share interests with. People who in a more efficient world, you might have known. It’s about making relationships more efficient. My parents know what I’ve been up to by reading my Twitter feed, so when I call home I don’t have to answer a vague question like “What have you been up to?” I answer a specific question like “What country are you traveling to now?” If a friend is looking for a job at a given company, I can’t always remember who I know who works there, but with LinkedIn, I don’t have to. And seeing what an old flame looks like on Facebook never gets old.
If these selling points sound horribly cliché it’s because they are commonplace reasons most everyday people use these sites, and indeed, the same reasons why the founders of most social media companies started these sites. But the sites worked too well at amassing fans, friends and followers, creating micro-economies where people sought to cash in on their would-be fame and influence. And that is when the problems—and inevitably the fatigue— started. People competed for how many friends and followers they could rack up and how many RTs they could get in a day, seeing it as evidence of how cool or smart or influential they were. That’s when social media got mercenary and soulless.
Here’s a clue: If you find yourself saying “(Fill-in-the-blank-social-media-site) used to be soooooo much better before everyone was on it”– you are using the site wrong. You are following too many people, you are using it too much, you are strangling the pretty, little bunny. The beauty of these sites is you control how many friends you see, and how many of them see you. So if you used to love it and now hate it, well, you know what they say about when you point a finger. Three are pointing back at you.
Sometimes metrics can be a bad thing and beware of any so-called “social media consultant” who tells you otherwise. What’s the value of a Retweet or a Like? It’s roughly the equivalent to sitting next to someone during a keynote who nods his head at a salient point. Someone hitting a button in front of them is hardly a heady endorsement—nowhere near the impact of someone calling you to tell you about a story he read. That actually takes more than one-second of attention and work.
Everyone touts stats showing that recommendations are the most trusted form of advertising. That’s because in the old world recommendations were inefficient. I had to be so moved by, say, the service at a restaurant, that I proactively called people to tell them about it, or it stuck in the front of my mind solidly enough that when someone asked “Where should we go to dinner?” it came flying out. The power of personal recommendation doesn’t carry over in a world where it’s as easy as clicking a button because the caliber of that recommendation is necessarily lowered by taking out barriers.
Of course not everyone becoming fatigued with social media whored themselves out to anyone who would follow or friend them, bartering likes and retweeting anyone who said something nice about them. Indeed, Mr. Carr locked his account and only followed a core group of friends. His biggest complaint was simply that he used it too much—updating any thought in his head so that he didn’t take time to mull and form that idea or joke until it was perfect, and that he was distracted. That’s a fair point.
But I wonder whether the flood of apps may be making the problem worse, not better. You can have too much of a good thing. After some early security glitches when Twitter desktop apps published direct messages, I decided to only use Twitter.com and update by text message to interact with the service.
That’s downright luddite in my TechCrunch/iPhone world, but by going to Twitter, rather than Twitter always flooding to me, I forced myself to keep my Twitter feed as manageable to keep up with as email. What’s more, when I travel to places like China or have a big deadline, I don’t log onto Twitter for weeks. When I come back it’s still here. Both Twitter and I continue to go about our lives without one another just fine.
I don’t think changing an avatar to green saves Iran. But I wouldn’t say Twitter is making us all more detached and stupid either. I just like life with social media better than life without it, for silly little moments like the one my husband had with Chank Fonts. Same thing I’d say about email or a mobile phone or TiVo or a Blackberry.
I realize that doesn’t make gripping blog copy like Twitter-democratizing-the-world or Twitter-totally-sucking, but I think for most of the average users out there, that’s the Twitter they know and the Twitter that will continue to steadily grow, all this hype and backlash aside.