Social Network Fatigue: Part 1
“Microbonding” is a term I coined in the late 90s to describe the experience of discovering that someone else shares a particular minor interest or experience with you. It happens at parties, around the water cooler, and on first dates. Every time it gives us a tiny little thrill. “You know that cafe down the alley off of Aoyama-dori in Omotesando?! Wow! I go there every time I’m in Tokyo!” Often, the size of the thrill is pretty much in inverse proportion to the size of the bond. In other words, the more arcane, secret, or unlikely the shared experience, the more excited we humans are to discover its existence. Recently, I’ve begun to view microbonding as a canary in the coal mine vis a vie the evolving dynamics of friendship in an increasingly socially networked world.
During the first phase of mass consumer Internet adoption in the 90s, the Web emerged as a microbonding machine par excellence. Sites like eCircles, Craigslist, Ryze, and GeoCities enabled people to connect in new vertically-defined ways. These directed socialization forums paved the way for the discovery of shared interpersonal experiences at unprecedented rates.
Fast-forward to Web 2.0 and the social networking revolution - Facebook and Twitter in particular. The sheer volume of personal information that is syndicated into the ether by these two sites has shifted the microbonding terrain. Not only can I now discover what we both know that little cafe in Tokyo, I can see that you were there yesterday afternoon having the seasonal sansai salad. With Hiro. While listening to Love Psychedelico. In the rain.
While useful for discovering new content and keeping up with the interests and activities of people you care about, this information barrage dilutes the power of a microbond. It feels less special to discover our unique points of overlap when that experience becomes more frequent to the point of commoditization. It is even less thrilling still to discover it solo, asynchronously, via digital artifacts left in someone’s activity wake rather than organically and in person. Microblogging is killing microbonding.
Socialization in general is similarly affected by this ambient awareness. Some of the technorati that publish more of their lives to the statusphere than the average, have already begun to lament the effects of this dynamic on real-world conversation. The social Web is ironically sucking the juice out of actually being social. One of Clay Shirky’s “new downsides” I guess - the phatic equivalent of a star on/off Sneetch machine.
But, isn’t this just a phase the youngsters will grow out of? Cue inter-generational ‘kids these days!’ rant. Git off ma lawn with yer new fangled facey-spaces and tweet-o-bloggies. Social networking has grown way beyond the baggy jeans set though. Why? It is damn useful - that’s why. The fastest growing segment on Facebook is over 35. Same with Twitter.
Not only are the older folks piling in, the young‘uns see the world as it is now as normal. What happened way back in the dark ages before social networking is as quaint and dusty as an Atari 2600. Having hundreds of friends on MySpace and following an equal number on Twitter is routine. Dunbar number be damned!
That said, I don’t think we’re somehow creating fresh space in our heads for new friends in the truest sense of the word. Rather, according to Facebook data, we’re inventing more advanced ways of harnessing weak ties:
“Put differently, people who are members of online social networks are not so much “networking” as they are “broadcasting their lives to an outer tier of acquaintances who aren’t necessarily inside the Dunbar circle,” says Lee Rainie, the director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, a polling organisation. Humans may be advertising themselves more efficiently. But they still have the same small circles of intimacy as ever.”
And therein lies the rub. With the wide-spread realization in the Web industry that weak ties act as a viral gateway, marketers and product designers are stacking more and more weight on them in hopes of ‘going viral’. But it isn’t just the marketers who are broadcasting incessantly to us anymore. Now, so is everyone else we know. So, at the same time Facebook and Twitter enable us to make more of our weakest ties, they can also serve to unintentionally fatigue both our weakest and strongest ties. Microbonds are a case in point.