The Social Networking Implications of Social Networking Tools

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No one – least of all yours truly – would claim that I was a socially precocious child. Not when my parents could conceivably stop by here to contradict me on the subject, anyway. There is, however, one particular arena of interpersonal relationships that I would argue I had a firm grasp on at an early age.

In simple terms, my view was (and is) this: relationship volume and personal time are inversely proportional. As one rises, the other declines, more or less inevitably. In practical terms, this implies that the addition of relationships – be they personal, business or otherwise – unavoidably reduces the amount of time that you might allot to each. While a couple of the people that I’ve discussed this with have taken exception to the idea that interpersonal relationships have much in common with a shared broadband connection – there’s only so much bandwidth to go around, no one as yet has actively refuted it.

There are, of course, a variety of responses to this assertion, assuming that you believe it has some credence. My own has been to artificially limit – both personally and professionally – the number of relationships that I attempt to maintain. Not dramatically, of course: I know and interact with a great many people on a daily basis. But I studiously try and avoid the addition of relationships that I don’t feel that I’ll be able to effectively maintain, because I take the responsibilities that attend them quite seriously.

The advent of digital applications that facilitate the creation of relationships, then, has been very much a mixed bag for me.

Blogging, if you’ll indulge me and loosely group it as a tool with tangential social networking implications, has been a wonderful development. It’s central assumption of a 1:many connection versus the more demanding 1:1 interaction means that it scales exceptionally well across a large audience. Unlike personal relationships, my time is not diminished by the arrival of new readers. Not in a linear fashion, anyhow.

Contrast this with Twitter. Now Twitter fans, relax: the intent here is not to bash your favorite tool – quite the contrary. Twitter is in my view a marvelous tool, virtuous in its simplicity, and against some long odds it has become an integral part of my day to day existence online. That said, it remains a tool that introduces friction from time to time, highlighting some of the conflicts between relationships in an offline world and their online counterparts. Conflicts that, in my view, stem at least in part from different offline philosophies governing interpersonal interaction.

Case in point is this advice from GigaOm writer Larry Chiang:

Reciprocity is also a must. Guy Kawasaki, a top Twitter-er, takes this to the extreme, following every Tweeter who follows him. So do I. Use text message updates to keep tabs on those tweeting you.

In an offline setting, there’s room for ambiguity in relationships. Not so in the binary world of Twitter: you’re either following me, or you’re not, and vice versa. Therein lies the problem, and the compulsive need for many to follow those following them. Because if you don’t, you might offend.

Which I know, because I reciprocate with but a fraction (less than 1 in 5) of my own followers, and a few folks are upset with me because of that. Why am I so selective? Is it because I’m snobby? Because I’m insensitive? Because I’m a dick? Or is it possibly because – per the equation established above – the more Twitterers I follow, the less closely I can follow each one?

You can decide that one for yourself. Just do me a favor and don’t tell me if you choose “he’s a dick.” Especially via Twitter.

What isn’t in question, in any event, is the fact that given a preference to follow each person as closely as possible, the above advice from GigaOm is absolutely and fundamentally incompatible. If you follow 13,543 Twitter users, as one of the examples held up above does, how much time might you be able to spend listening to each one? I’m betting very little.

Which just wouldn’t work for me. One of the first things I do to start my day is page back to the last Twitter I read the night before, catching myself up. If you follow a 130 people, this is easily accomplished. 13,000, not so much.

This probably sounds like evangelism, but trust me: I have no intention whatsoever of trying to persuade you of the merits of my approach at the expense of others, maybe even yours. First, because that’s simply not how I do things, but more importantly because it’s not a popular approach. Near as I can determine, I’m the only one who uses Twitter in this fashion. Tim Bray, for example, clearly views Twitter as a volume tool, saying:

There’s one thing that’s become terribly clear to me: Twitter is inherently a river-of-news; when I come back to my computer after a while offline, I have no urge to look back at the missed tweets. If it’s important, it’ll come back.

So does Ric Hayman, who used almost the exact same wording when trying to persuade Lauren Cooney to Twitter (it worked):

Something to keep in mind – it’s a river of stuff, not a lake. If you miss something, or let it go by unnoticed – that’s OK. If it’s important it will usually come by again.

If I viewed Twitter primarily through a business lens, as a tool to keep me apprised of what might commonly be considered “important” information, I would probably agree with those assertions.

But I do not. Twitter is for me a personal tool first, business tool second. I’m not paging backwards through my Twitter history every morning to learn anything important; I’m paging backwards to learn the spectacularly unimportant. And that almost certainly won’t come around again.

Again, different strokes for different folks. Ric had it exactly right, in my view, when he said says, “there’s no one ‘right way’ or ‘best practice’ – it’s what works for you.” That is true, in my opinion, and should be the end of it. But obviously is not, because of the aforementioned lack of ambiguity in the connections facilitated and the resulting offense you inadvertently and unintentionally trigger simply by being less promiscuous (in the technical sense) with your attention.

And Twitter is but one of many social networking applications. For all that I’ve discussed my approach to Twitter here, the rules vary – often widely from application to application. Or at least they do for me. I’ll accept connections on LinkedIn, as an example, that I would immediately dismiss on Facebook. Mostly because, like Twitter, each additional connection represents a potential drain – however slight – on my attention. And in these days of rampant continuous-partial-attention, I value that fairly highly.

My hope is that, over time, etiquette will evolve – much as it has with phones and subsequently mobile phones – to provide guidelines for what the expectations are on both sides of the social networking divide.

But until then, the social networking tools will continue to introduce some social networking friction for me.


  1. I think your approach makes sense because I take much the same view. At one point it was quantity over quality – now its the reverse. I reached several of my initial goals as to how many people I would be connected and then turn to what kind. There only some my recruiters and such being connected with makes sense to connect with.

    The real issue for me is that all social networking activities are functional – meaning that they are used in strategic ways to accomplish goals. They need to have just so much heff and then then targeting. So you are not along in believing the way you do. Thanks for giving our view a voice.

  2. This is the same approach I take with twitter. I really don’t get this ‘its a river’ approach. I follow people that I think might educate me on new stuff. Rarely does something come back around.

  3. It’s a bit of a ‘chicken and egg’ situation – I found that once I hit some magic number of people I followed, stuff DID come round again – partly because (almost by definition) there is some overlap of interests amongst at least some of those people. For instance, if you only follow two people whose tweeting bent is (eg) SOA (or MLB if that makes more sense, Steven!)- you might easily miss something useful. Follow a dozen or more, and you’ll probably see it again.

    Another key element for me is following people on multiple continents in multiple timezones – that also increases the chance of the river bringing a particular log (striper?) past your fishing spot (and incidentally helps avoid any insularity in my thinking).

    Ian – I follow people for their educational potential as well – but I couldn’t possibly know who they all might be BEFORE I follow them (obviously you start with people you already know, but serendipity is a wonderful thing!)

    Reputationist – I think I disagree that “all social networking activities are functional” – lots of them (and I think this is one of Steve’s points) are more personal – REAL friendships where there is no thought of commercial “goal” in the interaction.

    And finally, Steven – I guess I’ll have to work harder and be more interesting to get that follow-back … *grins wickedly*

  4. Ric,

    I actually don’t start with people I know. A lot of the people I follow I have never heard of before and I purposely don’t follow the Scoblizer’s of the world. Maybe that is why I don’t see a river. Of course people like sogrady is someone I follow. 🙂


  5. “sogrady is someone I follow” – given that we are trampling all over his blog, I sort of took that as read :’D

    I’ve never followed A-listers, and I’ve given up on aggregators (eg Techcrunch etc) because it’s more of an avalanche than a river, with lots of re-hashed stuff and little originality (twitter version of a PR release?) – Scoble is a bit scary, because he does seem to keep up with most of what’s going on around him (I assume he does little else but blog, vlog and tweet; either that or he has dicovered an extra 6 hrs/day!). I’ve met maybe a dozen of the people I follow on Twitter in real life … and most of them are on the other side of the world! BTW – when I used the word “you” I was speaking somewhat generically, rather than directing the comment at YOU.

    Nice discussion …. not everything happens in 140 characters!

  6. Maybe it makes sense for some people to have two twitter accounts or two sets of twitter friends:
    1 – one that they care about everything they do and want to know what they had for supper and when they got up. To me these are all people I know well “in real life”.
    2 – the larger group, the river. To me this is the coffee shop, the community at large, the feeling of working with a group of like minded people, discover new ideas and trends, etc.

  7. I really appreciate what you’ve said! I disagree that mobile phone etiquette has improved however. So many people let themselves be absorbed by the phone and become assholes in the process. It didn’t used to be this bad. Now theres always someone on the phone (concerts, movies etc) missing out on the experience because of it and ruining it often for the rest of us. See Wil Wheaton’s post here: http://wilwheaton.typepad.com/wwdnbackup/2008/05/bring-on-the-ni.html

    for a great example.

  8. […] why I agree with sogrady at Redmonk who […]

  9. […] the intimate details of my day to day existence. But I need to consider it, still, because as I’ve discussed in the past, Twitter is a personal tool for me first, professional tool second. A distant […]

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