Tom Webster, writing and speaking


Added on by Tom Webster.

Chris Brogan brought up a genuinely good point today about the power of the social web--we could do so much more. During his time at South by Southwest (SXSW), Chris noted the following:

Know what I saw more than anything else when I really took a moment to look around? Lonely people. I saw people not connecting. I saw lots of people who could’ve used a little attention. And I saw many people with lots of energy looking for a place to put it. And that means we have opportunities.

He's right, certainly. But it has ever been so. Unless I am speaking at an event, I typically eschew the larger gatherings like SXSW in favor of smaller conferences precisely for that reason--I'm an introvert (true!), and I'd just get lost at something as over-the-top as SXSW. That was true when I started making the conference circuit 20 years ago, and it's just as true now. The social web hasn't changed that. In some ways, it's made it worse. The "tyranny" of the follower count has raised expectations for the social web. Ten years ago if I went to a conference where I didn't know anyone, I'd find ways to cope by meeting other introverts, or giving an interesting talk and hoping you came to talk to me. Today I still do that--many of you do as well--but if you are blessed/cursed with having people "follow" you on Twitter and other asymmetrical networks it's probably given you a slightly altered sense of your social "reach."

Today, I still go to conferences and still struggle to meet people, but now I do so with the knowledge that I have nearly 4,000 followers on Twitter, and more reading this blog. The more those numbers grow, the more I feel like a loser when I don't make the effort to meet you at these events, and you in turn don't seek me out to bring me out of my shell. I'm grateful for "the number;" my hallucination is that it's because you've engaged with some of my ideas, and that's enough. But when you are connected with a few thousand people or more on social networks, you're straining the system. You can't possibly maintain meaningful relationships at that level--it just doesn't scale. So the higher the number grows over time, the greater the sense of failure when it doesn't translate into deeper and more numerous real human connections.

When Twitter first started, users were asked to fill in the blank on this question: "What are you doing?" For the handful of you that I count as genuine friends, that question really matters. You probably actually are interested in the fact that I got a new dog, or that my fantasy baseball team is going to suck again or that we redid our kitchen. I certainly want to know those things about the people in the nearest orbit of my social circle. Over time, however, I somehow got people--people I don't know--following me on Twitter. Those people aren't interested in the minutiae of what I am doing. The folks behind Twitter saw this as well, and changed the question from "What are you doing?" to "What's happening?" Maybe more of you care about my take on "what's happening," I couldn't say. But I do know that having about 25 times more followers than I probably deserve has changed what I post on Twitter--it's made me less personal, not more. My communications on the social web probably give people fewer hooks, fewer genuine glimpses into me as a person--and in turn, I don't know much about you either. I follow about 2,700 people, and I don't know squat about the vast majority of you.

I won't argue that social networking has brought some of us closer to some of us. Facebook has been a boon to many people, but for most Americans this is because it has facilitated re-connections, getting back in touch with people we already had genuine connections with in the past. Most of the connections I have made via Twitter, however, are not of the satisfying variety. They are retweets, clever ripostes, reciprocated links: getting "noticed" by someone--anyone--on an increasingly vast and impersonal community. We could be connected over Twitter, but too many of us are connecting about Twitter.

Consider this: the talk amongst the chattering classes at SXSW this year has been about what the "next" Twitter will be. I've seen posts by people proudly proclaiming that they haven't posted on Twitter "for two whole days!" because they've been busy "checking in" on Foursquare and Gowalla. My father has belonged to a car club for probably 40 years--he restores antique autos and has of late become a classic Corvette enthusiast. But he isn't wondering what the "next" iteration of the car club is going to be any more than Rotarians are wondering what the "next" Rotary Club is going to be. Those relationships are centered around genuine common interests, which is where human connections start. Those connections are based upon hundreds if not thousands of tiny data points that all add up to meaning and significance. We wonder what the next Twitter is going to be precisely because the old Twitter fails to satisfy. Over the next year we will move from "What are you doing" (Twitter) to "Where are you" (Foursquare) and "Where are you going to be" (Plancast). But those little snippets of information add up to little--mere proxies for actually knowing anything of meaning. The services are unsatisfying precisely because the data they transmit is inherently unsatisfying. Every day my inbox fills with notifications from a variety of these short-snippet-sharing services declaring that this person "wants to be your friend!" on Gowalla or Glue or FriendFeed (remember them?) or whatever is next. But why? So many of us "connect" with people on asymmetrical networks because it is easy to do so. But so few of us make the next step--to explore whether or not such a connection even makes sense.

So, this is a big, messy post and I certainly don't have the answers. But I do think that connecting over our shared use of a tool will ultimately be unsatisfying. Using that tool to facilitate smaller, deeply connected communities around genuine shared interests, however, will form the new churches, book clubs and Elks Lodges of a newly connected planet. "Bowling Alone" is not our long-term fate: as Francis Fukuyama often writes, old social norms disintegrate, yes, but they re-aggregate around new norms. This is happening around us, today. Services like Twitter and Plancast are facilitating the disaggregation, but they may not be around for the re-aggregation. Today's micro-sharing tools have indeed made the world smaller by making the "community" bigger. Over time, I wonder if the scale of these tools is only going to make us feel less significant, not more so, by comparison. Marketers love asymmetrical networks (that's why there are so many marketers on Twitter, certainly) but deeper connections require a different set of tools--more intimate communities, gentle but distinct barriers to entry. The next set of tools, the ones that really excite me, won't give me ways to build more relationships, but better relationships. For introverts like me (and, I suspect, a healthy number of extroverts as well), "retreating" to smaller communities won't be a sign of defeat--it will be how we truly make meaning in the future.