Social Website Dysphoria

RPXIt has been a terribly busy three weeks for me, with little time free for posting… between a round of Second Life® Evangelisation and attending to some clients who are physically away from my home city, I’ve been on the road (well, mostly on the train really…) across my tiny country, but still managed to do close to 5,000 km or so. Incredibly tiring!! And, of course, I couldn’t help but wondering: how many of those trips were really necessary and couldn’t have been done much more comfortably via Second Life? 🙂

As a matter of fact, most could have been avoided… but I would have missed the fun of hearing what other people have been saying about the “state of the art” of the Internet. And strangely enough, it felt like 1999 again.

Brave New World

On one of the sessions I was in, I was a bit tired of repeatedly listening to the same things over and over again (more on that later), so I decided to be provocative to wake up the audience. I don’t think I was very successful, but let me explain a little bit about what I had in mind.

These days, if you read around the media, it has been promoting “social websites” almost non-stop since, well, 2003 or so. In fact, the so-called “Web 2.0” is seen as the child of the dot-com bubble: the little that survived the catastrophic failure of some so many bright ideas that never caught on. On the post-bubble days, social websites are in, and they’re the only thing worth exploring. That and mobile phone applications, of course.

If you pick a random conference, it’s certain that someone will be either talking about their favourite social website and how they’re making a lot of money out of it (namely, by getting paid doing conferences about it — something which, of course, they will not tell!) or, well, how cool it is to develop applications for Android. If you paid attention in 2006 or so, they would be talking about hi5 or Friendster. In 2007, very likely they’d be talking about MySpace. Since 2008, of course, they’ll be talking about Twitter or Facebook. Or even both. Or, well, on how cool their newest application (or plugin, or mashup) integrates with either.

They will be eager to show you anecdotal evidence about how fantastic the reach of those tools are — about a 100 million for either Twitter or Facebook (although Twitter is growing faster), or 150 million for MySpace (although nobody ever goes there) — and how easy and cheap it is to push your message through those social networks: great for advertising. A speaker I recently heard was even bolder and claimed that he was able to change society by pushing his ideas to the many elected representatives, who, bored with endlesss hours in Parliament, spend their time chatting with friends on Twitter — and sometimes reply to complete strangers.

I’m not going to endlessly rant about the “cool factor” of all those social tools. You can just Google a bit for them, and you’ll see thousands, hundreds of thousands, tens of millions of blog posts and newspaper articles writing about the massive change of our society as people spend, well, all their time on social websites. Consumers exchange information about products; politicians keep in touch with “concerned citizens”; businesses look for new employees or new markets to explore. Every day someone has a new idea on how to use one social networking tool to push their idea/product ahead, and reaching “millions”. Take your pick. There are millions of examples.

It’s a Brave New World out there, and if you haven’t yet signed up to any of those Web 2.0 sites, you’re square. Or, well, worth of compassion and pity for being “left out”.

In the last 5 years, I believe that I have subscribed to about 250 different social websites, and I continue to subscribe to them, as new ones pop up every day. Obviously, it’s completely and absolutely impossible to keep track of all. In fact, after Twitter dropped their GTalk gateway, honestly, I don’t keep in touch with any, which will, undoubtedly, raise a few eyebrows from my vast audience of millions of readers — uh, I meant, handful readers. Yes, I cheat, using Ping.fm to post updates with around 20 or so microblogging sites (and I’m including Facebook on that…), but I do not log in to each of those separately to see if I got any answers. Which is a pity, really. I wish I had time for that. (The Twitter-to-GTalk gateway had the huge advantage of doing that very easily without any need to add Yet Another Application to my poor overcrowded desktop) Sorry to disappoint you all!

/me watches as her karma on Plurk drops and her status as part of the Twitter Grader Second Life Elite disappears after all those followers just remove me from their lists and disappear, shaking their heads

I’m not going to say that there is no worth on all those social thingies. I love Twitter because I see it as a “RSS reader with human intelligence”. I don’t use any RSS readers at all (surprise, surprise!) for a very simple reason: I can’t deal with a thousand emails a day, much less a thousand articles to read every day from those millions of so very interesting blogs. On the other hand, by following my friends on Twitter, and knowing that they share my interests, I’m quite sure they will be posting awesome articles about what they like. So you can view my list of friends as a very complex cloud computing grid with infinite amounts of raw pattern-matching power, searching every day through millions of articles, and spewing out a handful that I really will like to read. So that’s how I keep myself informed 🙂

Granted, you could use Facebook for that as well. Or Plurk. Or identi.ca. Or, well, the Yet-Unnamed-Microblogging-Tool-Of-Next-Week. The principle would be the same. It’s just a question of what design and interface you’d like best to use 🙂

And there is some use for LinkedIn, too. People ask often for my CV (resumee for you Americans), and although I have a more formal document somewhere lying around my MacBook, sometimes it’s easier just to point them to my account on LinkedIn. And since computers tend to break and require reformatting — yes, even Macs will break apart and melt down after a decade or two — and I’m never sure if the backups will work, I’m happy to post my pictures somewhere on Flickr and a few videos on YouTube. At least, if my Macs break down, I won’t lose everything.

So does that mean that I’d be happy with just a handful of social websites? Very likely not; after all, anyone might read the above paragraph and say: “oh, well, you can do all the above on a single site: Facebook”. Or MySpace. Or Friendster. Or Multiply. Or Netlog. Or… or… or… any of thousand different services. And, guess what, they would be right!

So the point here is… you cannot avoid to join any of those social websites. Even the most anti-social-website person I know — my roomie Moon Adamant — joined Twitter a while ago. And I’m sure she has a Picasa account somewhere. With so many different services floaing over there, it’s impossible that you don’t find at least one which, well, suits a very specific need you have. And once you register for one… you’ll soon start linking it to another… and discuss about it on a forum somewhere… and probably find a tool that will help you out with something… which requires a registration for, say, Facebook…. and since you’ve had to register for it, you might as well flesh out your profile… and then it starts spamming all your friends, who all of a sudden will find that you’re on that service… and, well, the snowball starts to roll. It’s unavoidable. You cannot avoid having a virtual identity on the social Web — sooner or later, it will catch up with you and beg your attention, no matter how anti-social-website you are. And it’s pointless to resist: you will be assimilated.

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