Uses and Abuses of Social Networking

A lot of people are talking about the downfall of Facebook and the need for newer, better social networks. This talk, roughly coincident with the rise of a new social net called ello, has me thinking a lot about how these social networks operate, what we can hope to derive from them, and why so often things go wrong.

Everyone seems to assume that because social networks start out small, and there’s not a lot of money to be made, the founders tend to be idealistic and focused on human-scale goals, such as creating a solid user experience and giving people a compelling virtual environment in which to reconnect with old friends and meet new ones.

Then the story goes, with the growth of a user base and monetization of the attention of millions (eventually tens or hundreds of millions) of members, focus shifts from optimizing user experience to maximizing revenue growth. I agree this is true. Part of what went wrong with MySpace and what’s going wrong with Facebook has to do with what I perceive to be management seeing their user base increasingly as a very large data set, rather than human beings.

The more I think about this and look at how things work on Facebook and Twitter and others, though, the more I become convinced that the biggest problem, the greatest factor which causes the deterioration of the user experience on a social network, is us.

You might imagine that we would primarily “follow” or “friend” a person on a social network because we want to interact with that person, be entertained by them, or get to know them. Increasingly, though, people send out friend/follow requests on a wholesale, indiscriminate basis, not looking for what interaction might be had, but instead seeking what they can gain by receiving that person’s attention in return.

On Twitter, the “follow-back” seems to be almost a given for most people. They follow you, not because they want to see what you post in their Twitter feed, but because they expect you will follow them back, and they can then impose their promotional efforts upon you in spam-like fashion.

At the very least, even if they don’t think you’ll see or notice their posts, you’re increasing their “followers” number, which actually seems to be important to many people. I’ve seen self-published writers, or “indie” bands, whose work clearly is not widely-known or “bestselling,” yet they have a number of followers in the tens or hundreds of thousands. There is simply no way to achieve that number of followers, if you’re not a famous person, except by gaming the system. These people either “buy” sham followers from services who sell them, or they mass-follow huge numbers of people with the expectation of receiving an automatic “follow-back.”

On Facebook, the problem is different, because the “one-way” connection is almost unknown. If you send me a friend request and I accept it, then we are BOTH friends. So if someone reaches out to you and sends you what seems like a friendly gesture, seems to say “I want to know you,” the friendly thing would seem to be acceptance. Then you’re friends. The problem is, most people are not sending you friend requests because they want to get to know you. In many cases they’re doing it because they want to promote themselves and want a large audience to receive their message.

The problem of accumulating numbers of followers as on Twitter is less of an issue on Facebook, because personal accounts can’t have more than 5,000 friends. What happens a lot, though, is total strangers sending out lots of friend requests, then as soon as the request is accepted, firing off a request to “like” their page. Again, the transaction feels very much like spam or junk mail, nothing like what a true social interaction is supposed to feel like.

The newest thing is ello, a new, comparatively small and minimal social network. I was an early member there, and during the first week, it felt like such a breath of fresh air. I only had a few “friends” there, but everything that I saw posted in my friends feed was interesting, relevant, funny, or something. Generally, it felt like socializing. We goofed around with ello, posted things, talked about the interface and features. It was so refreshing, I felt tempted to believe that the problem was the system itself, and not the users.

But with the initial success of ello, much publicity has followed. Suddenly there’s an influx of spam type accounts, mass-following everyone in sight. If someone has an account just 8 hours old and is already following 3,000+ people, that’s a fairly good clue that the person didn’t create an account to socialize. They’re finding random lists of people and clicking “friend, friend, friend, friend” all the way down the list, for hours on end.

These people are operating completely in bad faith, hoping the tricks that allowed them to game the system with Twitter and Facebook will apply with ello. In fact, it could be worse, as there’s no 5,000 friend limit. It’s my intention not to follow anybody who can’t approach ello like a true social network, trying to get to know people and communicate with them one on one, rather than just harvesting a huge mailing list to spam their self-promotional bullshit.

This lesson learned through ello is something I’m taking back to Twitter and Facebook. I’ve been going through Twitter and unfollowing several dozen people every day. On Facebook, I’m doing some unfriending, some un-liking, and some un-following. It’s partly my own fault that the experience on these networks has become so unpleasant. My news feed is full of garbage and spam because I have allowed people like that to hook me into their “I’ll follow you, so you follow me” game. That’s a recipe that ends up ruining the whole thing for everyone. From now on, I opt out.

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Places Where My Book Reviews Go

I always read a lot. Lately I’ve been writing reviews of almost everything I read, and posting those reviews in several different places. Here’s where they go, in case you’re a reader interested in seeking out other places to read book reviews, a writer whose work I’ve reviewed who wants to see all the places those reviews appear, or an amateur book reviewer looking for places to put your own reviews.

GOODREADS – (Goodreads profile)
In most cases I post the review first to Goodreads. Serious readers and book lovers who don’t know about Goodreads should check it out. It’s a place to see what other people are reading, and many members post reviews, which in some cases are useful. There are lists, suggestions, book groups, all kinds of stuff. Some of it’s good, some of it’s self-promotional and lame (lots of self-published people spamming groups with announcements and sales efforts) but I really like Goodreads.

AMAZON – (My reviews on Amazon)
I crosspost the same reviews to the book’s Amazon product listing, assuming it has one. If you see a review of mine that you like, remember to mark my review “helpful,” which increases Amazon’s ranking of my reviews’ influence. This way my review will be shown more prominently, with other reviews considered helpful. One way you can help influence how the books you like (or don’t like) are perceived is by rating Amazon reviews “helpful” or “not helpful,” which will make them more or less likely to be viewed by other shoppers. I prefer my reviews to be seen by as many people as possible so I like those “helpful” ratings.

BLOG – Livejournal – (griffinwords.livejournal.com)
This began as my main blog, the one I usually told people about, but I’ve gradually evolved to having the same blog entries cross-posted to three blog platforms. More and more, I’m pointing people to my WordPress just because it looks better. That, and Livejournal seems to be a dying community.

BLOG – WordPress – (griffinwords.wordpress.com)
As mentioned above, this has the same entries as my Livejournal, but WordPress looks better and has nicer tools for announcing posts to Facebook and Twitter in a nice, automated way. Increasingly I direct people toward the WordPress blog, and I may eventually narrow it down to just this one blog.

BLOG – Dreamwidth – )griffinwords.dreamwidth.org)
Dreamwidth began as an offshoot of Livejournal, and there was some indication that DW might carry forward some of LJ’s community or “social network lite” benefits. In the old days, the real benefit to LJ was the “friends list” and the centralized way it let you review all your friends’ recent blog entries on one page. Not many people ended up switching over to Dreamwidth, though I suppose it could still happen.

FACEBOOK – (Facebook profile) and TWITTER – (Twitter profile)
I don’t post the reviews themselves here (at least not in full), but links to some of the above do appear. I have fun with these things, make smart-ass little remarks, post pictures, but neither one of them is really built for posting serious or even half-serious writing. Obviously the benefit here is reaching a larger number of people quickly, so I use these for announcements and links to heartier content at the various places above.

I welcome “friends” and “followers,” especially people who share similar interests.

Google Minus

For a while I really thought Google Plus AKA Google+ was going to rise up and become the next big social network after Myspace and then Facebook. Half the people I know signed up for G+ during a short period of time, and there were even a few who said “Screw Facebook, I’m outta there — it’s just G+ for me from now on.” Facebook was certainly showing signs of losing their shit.

And for a while I crossposted all my Twitter and Facebook stuff to Google+ and it looked like the whole world might gradually shift on over, just like many people did from Myspace to Facebook half a decade ago.

Somehow Facebook managed to pull back from the brink, stem the tide of pissed off people shutting down accounts, and G+ saw a sudden and gigantic surge of spammy-looking traffic. When I first went to G+ I had only a small number of people in my circles and not many more than that add me to their circles, but soon I was had twenty or thirty people adding me per day, almost none of whom I actually knew in real life. It works OK to have a mix of people you know in the real world along with some virtual friends and a few people you don’t actually know or even understand why they’ve added you. But at some point if the number of people to whom you have no connection start adding you, it starts to feel like a big spamfest. It feels like Myspace all over again, people mass-adding friends as quickly as they can to promote their business or their band or their self-published novel.

Now I haven’t been to Google Plus in a week or two. I check the email notifications and see if any of the people who have added me are people I know in real life, or at least “friends of friends” that I could justify adding to a circle. Most of them are just complete strangers who seem to lack any reason to have added me to their circles. 

I always figured social networks had an inevitable curve, where they grow until they become too big to remain manageable. At that point the incentive for spamming, self-promotion and deceit become too great, and they become a mess of ads, spam and junk . Is it possible Google Plus will be the first social network to reach that point without ever having actually succeeded first? That it might go straight from growing new network, to totally washed-up commercial wasteland?