Monday, October 24, 2011

The Future of Social Media Data vs Information: Sharing More, Consuming Less

I recently mocked a friend because Spotify revealed on his Facebook page that he was listening to the 2010 Ibiza Party Workout. (I accused him of being a metrosexual several years too late.) Turns out that he, like many others, had no idea Spotify shared every single tune to which he was listening, and we discussed whether this much sharing made sense. The answer is no today but yes tomorrow, because the future of social media depends on smarter tools that permit us to share more but consume less.

How can more sharing become less consumption? Think of it this way: If you drive a newer auto, it is constantly collecting information about the status of the vehicle, but what do you see on your dashboard? Are you presented with the tire pressure in all four tires and the voltage running through each fuse? That is data you just don't need; however, your vehicle monitors that data and alerts you the moment your tire pressure is too low or a fuse is blown. Your car is always sharing, but your dashboard allows you to consume only the information you need in the moment--speed, fuel level and the like.

That's the difference between data and information--data is raw facts, while information informs, entertains, enlightens and alerts us. We rarely want raw data, and we crave information.

Social networking sites strive to be dashboards, but they're really fire hoses of data. That's not a criticism--we tend to forget how nascent social media still is today, and among the problems of this immature medium is that we have too much data and too little information. How many of you have missed essential tweets or posts about a friend's job change or pregnancy while being distracted by a barrage of noise about lunch selections, checkins at gas stations, gripes about jobs or FDAs (Facebook Displays of Affection)? My (safe) guess is that everyone reading this post has experienced this problem. 

Clearly, no one really needs to know every song their friends are hearing at every moment--that is simply too much data--but if Spotify, Facebook or other parties collect that data and convert it into useful information, we could learn: 
  • To what song have your different sets of friends listened most this week? The next time you hang with your work associates or school pals, you can be prepared to chat about the tune everyone has top of mind.
  • What new song is trending? Don't be the only one left out when your friends are in the know about a hot new single.
  • Who is listening to the same music I am? I may not care to be alerted to every song my friends hear, but it would be cool to know if we're listening to the same CD at the same time and chat about our opinions.
The social media data overload problem is hardly limited to Spotify. Checkins on Foursquare and Facebook are another excellent example. I really don't need to see every grocery store, gas station, gym, barber, doctor, dentist, bar or restaurant visited by my friends. But if Foursquare, Yelp or Facebook could take this data and turn it into relevant real-time information, I'd welcome the chance to know that:
  • My friends are eating at a place I've rated highly or poorly: "Man, that's a favorite of mine--what did you think?"
  • My friends are nearby: "Hey, you're a block away--want to catch a cup of coffee?"
  • My friends are at a restaurant at which I've dined a lot: "If you haven't ordered yet, avoid the lasagna and order the Risotto!"
  • My friends rated a business considerably different than I did: "I hated that barber shop, but maybe I just got the wrong barber; let me know who you had and I'll give it a second chance!"
Facebook and Twitter are dumb and they need to get smarter if they hope to retain users. When people get too much social data and not enough information, they experience "social media fatigue." The problem isn't with social media per se; after all, we're social creatures and spend most of our lives interacting with others. Instead, the problem is with our social tools furnishing too much noise and too little information.

Facebook is trying, at least. The latest round of changes caused many people to gripe that they were missing some posts they used to see, but that's exactly the point--Facebook must evolve to present you with things you want to know while filtering the stuff you wouldn't care about.

Perhaps you don't trust Facebook to decide what you should and shouldn't see, and I'd be the first to admit their algorithm needs work. Still, we must recognize that the last thing we want is to be presented with every one of our friends' posts, locations, songs heard, websites visited, articles read, (are you getting tired yet?) TV shows watched, books completed, magazines perused, shoes purchased, (seriously, isn't this tiring?) games played, documents created, videos viewed, (please make it stop!) products rated, concerts attended, celebrities liked--you get the idea. You may not know it yet, but you do NOT want to see everything your friends share; instead, you want all this data collected and turned into information you can use.

This point was made for me recently when my niece complained that Facebook's new interface was making it more difficult for her to see everything all of her friends posted. She has 675 Facebook friends (substantially more than the average of 103). I calculated that if each of her friends posted 15 items every 24 hours and it took my niece an average of five seconds to review each item, she'd need 14 hours every day to consume all of friends' social media. (That's okay--she's young and doesn't need much sleep.)

There are already excellent examples of services that turn social media data into usable information. For example, I'm fond of The Tweeted Times, which does the same thing within a browser that Zite and Flipboard do on the iPad--turning thousands of my peers' tweets into a personalized magazine of relevant news. Klout and PeerIndex turn individuals' social data into a measure of influence. And Twylah is the reverse of The Tweeted Times, turning your shared content into a personalized brand page.

In the future, we'll not only be sharing more but sharing more automatically rather than manually. That doesn't mean more social media fatigue; it means that our apps, sites and features must convert social media data into information. If there is a battle between Facebook and Google+ (and I'm not convinced there is, at least not yet) that is the key--not what games are available or how many video streams can be accommodated simultaneously on the competing platforms, but instead which social media service does a better job of surfacing the social media signals we want and filtering out the noise we don't.


Davina K. Brewer said...

Read someone a while back talking about this, the overshare, that consumption is not curation, not everything we consume being worth sharing. This type of overload - too much data, not a lot of information - is what will make a difference as social marketing moves forward.

Google may have the filters in place but hasn't attracted the masses -yet; agree that FB and Twitter have work to do. And it is the filter, that's what I want more automated.. the apps making the constant stream more manageable and more relevant to me. FWIW.

Unknown said...

To a certain extent, i agree with what you say. But i disagree on one important point. It is not that social media is meant only for sharing personal updates. It has the potential to facilitate organisational data sharing. This is one important (and growing) area of utility of such platforms.

I did not know this till i happened to read a wonderful paper on the Outreach On Social Networks: Strategy For Companies In The Service Sector by Aditya Ranade. Going forth, I'd see far more potential in this area than on the personal front.