Yesterday an article titled “How Facebook Ruins Friendships” predictably made the rounds of social media as people debated its pros and cons. The article’s argument hinges on three points: 1) that people say inappropriate things on social sites; 2) that much of it is trivia; and 3) this is annoying because no one wants to read all that.
This is another example of an overall social media backlash that is building steam. This is natural, as many of the shiny new social tools move along the Hype Cycle (pictured at right). After the initial glow, there’s a deep crash as disillusionment sets in, and finally technologies even out.
As people slide down into the Trough of Disillusionment, it’s useful to point out where criticism has merit and where it’s just froth. Much criticism at the moment is the latter.
In another article, I’ve pointed out how social media is very similar to the telephone when it was spreading through society. Similar criticisms abounded then — especially that inappropriate things were being shared, that it was all trivia, and who wants to hear that stuff anyway?
The thing that today’s criticisms do not appear to understand is that there is nothing inherently intrusive about social media. It’s opt-in. That is why it is a superior carrier of ephemera and trivia, and can foster a better connection between people than many other forms of at-a-distance communication. People can be free to share a wider variety of things (yes, including what they may be eating) and others have the option of tuning in or not.
Compare that to cute cat emails forwarded by Cousin Edna — which cannot be avoided in the same way. To Edna, she’s doing you a favor by sending you some positivity. To you (if you don’t like it), she’s cluttering your inbox. But if Edna were instead using social media (like Twitter or Facebook) you would not need to get cranky about the cat-mail. Just “hide” her feed in Facebook, or “unfollow” her on Twitter.
(I apologize to my friends named Edna for grabbing the name as an example. Uncle Horace is just as susceptible to such behavior.)
If you are like me, you have probably heard a number of friends complain bitterly about Twitter (and, to a lesser extent, Facebook status updates) by saying something like: “Why do you think I care what you had for lunch?” It’s a fair enough question if you discount the opt-in nature of most social media. That is, if your analogy is “Why would I want an email about what you had for lunch?”
But that’s a false analogy — I’m not emailing you, and if I were, I would definitely not email you my lunch menu. It would be rude. But, there may be some people who might find it interesting that I am eating at a particular restaurant, or eating a particular dish, or just that I’m having lunch. The transaction cost of letting them know is near zero, and the burden on others’ attention is near zero too.
The analogy, then, is not to email or the telephone — but to a public social event. In that situation, ephemera and trivia are welcome and tolerated. Some people will only want to talk business, and others will only want to talk cute cats. People at the event can gravitate to the people who interest them and contribute in ways that work for them, and everyone can get along.
So I tend to discount angry diatribes against Facebook and Twitter as just crankiness. Sure, there are good guidelines for effective use, but hard and fast rules make little sense and one person’s best practices are another person’s worst practices. So there’s room for all.
In case you wondered, I just had a container of cottage cheese for lunch.