I'm reading Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. It's a surprisingly thought-provoking book, and I recommend it if you're interested in learning more about the "why" behind the ways Internet communications are changing not just how we communicate, but how we think about communicating.
The book explains in comfortable detail the major shift from scarcity to ubiquity across several historical industries. The art of the scribe was all but destroyed by the advent of the printing press. The art of the news reporter has similarly been disrupted by the ease and speed with which independent agents can publish information. A subtle but important corollary to this shift is the change in relationship between producers and consumers. We're all pretty used to being consumers, but many of us are just now figuring out how to be producers.
Shirky points out that the process of publishing information in the age of mass amateurization has changed from "filter, then publish", whereby information is specifically identified as noteworthy and worth sharing, to "publish, then filter", whereby the ease and convenience of sharing information combine with the relative low cost of such actions to make it easier for everyone, everywhere to share whatever is on their mind. The audience then selects which things deserve their attention.
This explains perfectly why so much "user generated content" is perceived as fatuous, or at least just plain boring.
It's simple. They're not talking to you.
We misread these seemingly inane posts because we're so unused to seeing written material in public that isn't intended for us. The people posting messages to one another in small groups are doing a different kind of communicating than people posting messages for hundreds or thousands of people to read. More is different, but less is different, too. An audience isn't just a big community; it can be more anonymous, with many fewer ties among users. A community isn't just a small audience either; it has a social density that audience lacks. The bloggers and social network users operating in small groups are part of a community, and they're enjoying something analogous to the privacy of the mall.
Shirky goes on to detail how you might overhear some portion of a conversation at the mall food court, but you'd be considered rude if you actively turned your attention to that conversation. You're not part of the audience, or the community.
This was one of those "Of course!" moments where the blindingly obvious suddenly makes sense to me. All the people posting stuff to Twitter aren't necessarily writing for you or me, specifically. If we lack the context of the community that cares about the information, we most likely lack the interest to place any value on that information. It's easy for us to deride the boring, trivial posts because we don't care about the content or its creator. This is not a failing of the social tools, but rather our own failure to adequately filter.
I don't care much for Westerns, so I'm unlikely to watch a Western movie that might be on television. I'm not going to spend any time in the Westerns section of any bookstore. I'm certainly not going to read a Louis L'Armor novel and then complain about the fact that it's a Western. I filter out Western input from the media I select. It's easy to do with television, movies, and books; but not always so easy to do with some of the social media sources I use.
If I overhear a conversation at the mall food court, I'm not likely to tell my friends about it unless something particularly noteworthy catches my interest. I'm not simply going to call all my friends and deride the boring, petty conversation I just overheard; nor am I going to make a blog post out of it. It takes too much effort to do that, and there's basically no benefit. But with the ease of perfect digital copies, it's trivial for us to excoriate some banal blog post, or some trite Twitter update.
I'm more than halfway through "Here Comes Everybody" and am really enjoying it. It's sparked a number of interesting lines of thought that I'm really looking forward to exploring. I highly recommend this book.
I'll just say it: I don't like the so-called "social media" aspects of the current Internet. Maybe it's because I've been engaged in online communities for more than twenty years; maybe it's because I'm a misanthrope. I don't use -- nor do I have any interest in -- Digg, Facebook, LinkedIn, LiveJournal, MySpace, Reddit, or whatever other "social networking" sites are currently in vogue. I'm not particularly interested in meeting new people through these venues, and I'm extremely wary of the so-called "value" they provide. I have my blog, and I'm satisfied with it.
There is a very rigid limit to my capacity for continuous partial attention, so I am extremely conscious about adding new things to follow. I intentionally limit the number of email lists to which I subscribe. I'm very selective about the feeds I add to my news reader. I'm even more selective about who I follow on Twitter; and I refuse to participate in more than one microblogging solution; so Jaiku and Pownce and Tumblr and whatever else is out there are right out.
I recently attended the first Columbus TweetUp, at which Columbus Twitter users had an opportunity to meet one another face-to-face. I felt a bit like an odd-man-out at this gathering in part because many of the attendees seemed to know one another already; but mostly because I wasn't following any of them on Twitter, nor was I likely to do so. I'm simply not interested in reading the goings-on of a dozen or more people just because they happen to live in the same city as me. The (very) occasional gem of insight I might glean from following one or more of them would be almost instantly drowned out in the noise of constant updates and replies to one another.
Don't get me wrong: I'm glad that these folks find Twitter (and similar services) so useful. I'm glad that they've found a way to extend their network of contacts. It's just that for me, it's too overwhelming. Maybe it's the pessimist in me, but I often approach signing up to receive quantities of new information from the "coming back from vacation" point of view. When I come back from vacation, is this stuff going to overwhelm me? Am I going to simply delete huge swaths of this stuff if I get too far behind on it? If so, why am I paying attention to it to begin with? Or maybe I'm simply too mercenary about the matter, looking for what benefit their Twittering and blogging will provide to me. Or maybe I really am just anti-social and not particularly interested in what folks have to say if I don't have an existing meaningful connection to them in some capacity (which begs the question: how do I establish said meaningful relationships with new folks?).
At the TweetUp I did have a very nice conversation with Denise. This was in part due to the seating arrangements -- she was the only person near me who wasn't already engaged in conversation with someone else -- but it was also due to a variety of similarities we share. It was nice to make an acquaintance, and I even started following her on Twitter when I got back to my computer. Thankfully, she updates as infrequently as I do, so I'm not drowning in updates I'm uninterested in reading.
It's ironic that I'm so ambivalent about local technology users communicating with one another, but so enthusiastic about global communications and the wonderful experiences it creates.
I finally signed up for Twitter, though I'm not entirely sure why. I'm following on Twitter all of the people I have in my feed reader; I have a few of them as IM contacts; and I see most of them in IRC #habari most of the day, too. The best analogy for Twitter that I can think of is "asynchronous public messaging". It can be used like instant messaging, where you chat back and forth with contacts, except that it's available for everyone to see and it doesn't happen in realtime.
Some folks use Twitter to post short updates about something that they want to share that might not merit a full blog post. Other folks use Twitter to ask the same question of a group of people. For example, ringmaster asks Philly folks about where to dine: rather than send the same IM or email to all of his contacts, he can put it on Twitter and the folks who follow his Twitter account can reply as they see fit: IM, email, Twitter response, etc. Ringmaster's use of twitter is one of the best that I've seen: he has several groups of online acquaintances and he communicates with them quickly and succinctly through Twitter. I'm not sure that I'll use it nearly as aggressively or effectively, but I'll give it a shot.
Looking around, I see that there are tons of similar ways to support ad-hoc communication for various purposes. In addition to Twitter, there's Tumblr. Some folks use Flickr for quick group chats. Then there are the bigger institutions like Facebook, MySpace, LiveJournal, etc.
I have a blog, a Flickr account, and now a Twitter account. I'm also on several IM networks. I'm left scratching my head at why I should pursue any of these other channels for connecting with my friends. I'm not interested in meeting new people, particularly, and I'm not a compulsive signer-upper for new online services. What do these new services offer me -- the user -- that is of substantial value over what I already have?
Perhaps I'm overly skeptical: I recognize that most of these online services are commercial ventures, and their driving motivator is to earn money. Some are more commercial than others; some aren't yet as commercial as they're likely to become. Are they truly offering me a new, valuable service, or are they merely offering me something in order to make money off of me, whether that's through paid upgrades, or my eyeballs on their partner's advertisements?