The Problem with Social is Social

by francine Hardaway on June 17, 2011

For me, all the new social services are much like bars. There’s nothing I like more than to leave my home office at the end of a day and go to a neighborhood bar. There, I will know the bartenders, and some of the regulars. And I will often meet an interesting new person. I will have a few drinks, and then go home. So will most of the patrons, except the alcoholics. At best, I will have seen friends and discovered new people.

And that’s pretty typical human behavior, which some of the designers of popular social media sites don’t seem to understand. The problem with anything social — social networks, social media, social shopping, or hanging out in a bar — is time. If something becomes too intrusive for me, I have to give it up. After all, I have a life. And so do you. That’s why many busy people claim they have no use for Twitter and Facebook. They don’t go to bars, either.

Others learn the lesson of moderation. Myself, I have come to peace with Twitter and Facebook. They are no longer exciting, and no longer new. They are utilities. I’m glad they exist, but they don’t run my life. I’m not trying to learn them, dominate them, build my reputation on them, or even interact with them. I use them almost completely asynchronously, and thus they are no longer interruptive and no longer a time suck. For the first three years, they were. I said good morning and good night to Twitter every night. This morning, I won’t check it until I finish this post.

I no longer check my tweetstream every five minutes, or answer all my @replies as they come in. I no longer stalk people on Facebook that I haven’t seen since college. This is not to say I don’t use these services. I just use them differently. Ditto Foursquare, Turntable, Instagram. They all have a place in my life.

What have I learned?

First, I’ve learned that these services are best when they can be consumed both synchronously (I’m standing in line somewhere and I want someone to interact with to pass the time) and asynchronously (I want to know what the top news has been today when I finally get a moment to pick my head up and notice my surroundings). If there is no way to access a service on my schedule, it falls off my radar. For this reason, I don’t buy Groupons with expiration dates. In fact, I never go to Groupon, and I’ve turned off the email notifications.

Second, I’ve learned that not everything in life is a game, and that the gamification aspect of a service is the first thing that gets old for me. On Empire Avenue, I’m investing in my friends and interacting with new people. But I’m not trying to win anything; in fact I have never even bothered to find out HOW to win, although my buddy Chris Pirillo has published some kickass material on that. Instead, I treat Empire Avenue like a bar where I know my friends are hanging out; I will show up there to see them, and that’s WHY I show up. Occasionally, I will also show up to troll for new people as well.

Now, how do you build a sustainable business on something that is best done in moderation and sometimes asynchronously?

You design it to run in the background of an otherwise normal life. That way it crosses the chasm from eager geeks and teenagers who hop on the latest trends and then hop off, into real life. Pandora will do that, because you can listen to Pandora while doing something else. Turntable may or may not. Facebook has, because it’s there when you get there, and you don’t have to choose between Facebook and work (after the novelty wears off).


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