Social Website Dysphoria

Stage Two: Talk About Your Love

Recent converts to any religion will be the most enthusiastic ones, and this phenomenon is well-known. If the word “religion” bothers you, you can replace it with “fanatism”. I’m an SL fanatic, and I’m still enthusiastic about it 🙂 But people get enthusiastic about pretty much everything that makes them bond with a group of people that share the same interest.

I guess that the success of social web tools comes mostly from a very psychological need we have. Once we join one of those, it totally absorbs our attention — specially when we start following our friends there, people with whom we share a common interest. And now we find out we have a new interest to share: the social website itself.

So, what do we do? We talk about it. A lot. We blog about it, we pester friends on messengers to join, we email them, we talk about it over dinner or in the breaks at school, work, or when watching a movie. By spreading the word, all those social webtools grow and grow and grow and quickly reach a hundred million users.

And then, of course, analysts, journalists, and bloggers start writing about the “phenomenon” — which brings even more people to those sites, and, in turn, more people will talk about them.

All of a sudden, all that talk suddenly becomes the very medium where social websites thrive: they’re good to push information to your contacts. So, instead of Googling for information, you just follow your friends: they will point to more articles about social websites, which you will connect to, finding new friends there, that will talk even more about what this or that journalist wrote about site X or Y, which you will log to, and find even more friends… and so on, and so on…

This a tremendous success for all those sites. Word-of-mouth, when it reaches hundreds of millions, is incredibly powerful. And, of course, this means that at least two types will capitalise on that “power”: businesses for their advertising; and the ones that love to push “opinions” (including, of course, yours truly; as well as many journalists, critics, and even politicians). These two types are the ones that use mass media more effectively, and all they need to do is to adapt to these tools to pursue their agendas. And, obviously, they’re the ones trained to do so. The only difference between a TV station that broadcasts to a hundred million users and a Facebook profile is that Facebook reached “hundred million of users” in just 4 or 5 years, while TV took 30 or 40 years (the numbers depend on whom you ask). And while every week a “new Facebook” comes out, TV stations are quite more conservative. But the techniques are similar enough — or, well, at least the numbers are similar, even if the techniques of putting ads might be quite different and have, of course, totally different production costs — but also different metrics.

So, what I have been seeing is an incredible shift from journalists, but mostly about bloggers, towards a self-centred view on social websites. Let me try to explain a little bit more. If you’re interested in technology, you might have picked an author on a magazine that you found out interesting, as they wrote well about a specific theme. You look them up on the ‘net, and you’ll see they’ve got their own blog, and possibly even write for some e-zine or two. After a few years, you’ll see a shift in what they write: from covering a specific technology/product, they’ll suddenly hit on a social website that fascinates them (often, because a lot of people on that social website have something in common — e.g. they might be their readers, share interests, and so on). The author will now start talking about how social websites allowed them to get in touch with that “community” which they weren’t aware of. So the next series of articles will be about that website and how it allows to easily keep in touch with “interesting people”. Then, of course, the author will cover some more social websites. They will talk about the technology behind it, and the tools that integrate with that specific site. When writing about it, they will suddenly find out that site A or B actually integrates, in some miraculous way, with their favourite social website as well — and thus they will talk about A or B instead. And so on. Soon, all they will write about is centred around social websites.

I have (sadly) seen this happening with some major bloggers in Second Life. They started producing some of the best articles about SL (which is not a social website — but more about later), but after a couple of years or so, got derailed by one or two lovely applications that integrated SL with some social website they were curious about. Soon they found out how cool that social website was, and started to write a lot about it — and completely forget about SL. After all, everybody is writing about social websites, so they better catch up fast. What they didn’t notice is that their audience has shrunk — but, again, to explain that, I’ll need a bit more time 🙂

This kind of trend is actually becoming mainstream. Journalists that started writing about how computers would change the way they worked (in 1980), and covered all the possible technologies in the past three decades, now are eagerly tweeting around the clock about the conferences they attend — which are about how journalists should tweet more in conferences! You might think I’m bringing out extreme examples just to make a point, but the irony is that you and I are still reading blogs — at least spending a few minutes of our time doing so — while all our friends are happily tweeting, updating their status on Facebook and adding another cool application there, listening to music on MySpace or blip.fm, or, well, worrying about their sudden drop of karma on Plurk…

And this is pervasive. A site about, say, stamp collections, will feature articles on how cool Facebook is to share pictures of rare stamps. A fashion magazine will tell you to join Polyvore or StyleFeeder or any of those trendy social websites for the fashion-conscious (ack, yes, I’m subscribed to both…). A TV show about motorbikes will feature their MySpace page, and these days, there aren’t any musicians around without a MySpace account either. So people will read and discuss and meet and talk about the social website instead of, well, the topic that really brought them to it. I’m exaggerating, of course, but talking about social websites is, however, one of the major uses of the social websites themselves.

So why do I think this is not such a good thing?

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