With 800 million users on Facebook, 116 million on Twitter, and 116 million on LinkedIn, it seems that literally everyone and their dog has an account. Every few months a new player emerges to try to grab a slice of the social network pie; a pie that seems to be growing at a staggering rate month over month. According to Twitter numbers in March an average of 450,000 new accounts were being added every month. It took Twitter more than three years to reach the 1 billion tweets milestones. Today it takes less than a week to reach the same number.
The same time period that saw the rise of social networks also saw a drastic rise in smart phones. This has not only allowed us to become connected to the Internet from anywhere at any time, but also our “Social Graph” (a Facebook term referring to their user base).
The combination of smartphones and social networks has also allowed social media to become the first sources of news and information. President Obama’s announcement of Osama Bin Laden’s death racked up over 4000 tweets per second. I personally learned about the death while sitting in a restaurant with four friends. In comparison it took the four of us more than 15 minutes to find a reference to the death on any news site.
Social Networks: More “Social” and Less “Social”
As our network grows so does the volume and speed of information that flows through it, and there lies the problem. The growth of our social network is making it inherently less social. When Facebook began it was a way for us to connect with our classmates, talk about how terrible a certain class was, make plans for the weekend, and see pictures of last night’s epic party. Facebook was truly “social” in the traditional sense of the word. What began with close “friends” and classmates we knew well grew to a much larger group of “acquaintances” some of whom we may have interacted for just a fleeting moment. With the average Facebook user having approximately 130 friends we are quickly approaching the Dunbar number: the theoretical cognitive limit of the number people we can maintain a stable social relationship with. Though one could argue that social networks may potentially increase that number, there must still be a limit.
“Friends” on Social Networks
The explosive growth of the social network naturally attracted the interests of commercial business. It wasn’t long before all pop culture trends, brands, celebrities, retail stores, were sharing the same space as our “friends.” Social media is one of the most effective ways for companies to communicate more directly with their consumers. As more organizations started establishing a social media presence, we began showcasing our “likes” for these organizations in an attempt to share our mutual interests with friends.
Social Noise in Social Networks
The increase number of Facebook friends and all the organizations trying to communicate with has resulted to an overwhelming noise on the social network.
Our news feeds are being polluted with information we are often not interested in. More active users begin to overshadow more important events by people we are more interested in. Fan pages are constantly pushing out information that is usually irrelevant to us. Ads are becoming more intelligently targeted. All of these distractions and noise has started to make the experience progressively less social. We are paying less attention to all the links, videos, and comments our friends are posting. Just like at a crowded and noisy pub, it becomes difficult to pay attention to the people we are with.
Even with the constant innovations from Facebook to keep your news feed relevant, it becomes inherently difficult as your network grows. It is due to this deterioration of being “social” that new niche market social networks gain popularity. Maintaining one’s network, professional relationships and identity is crucial to many people. Having less important personal events overshadow developments in one’s professional circle can be detrimental. It is this basic concept that gave birth to the popular professional social network, LinkedIn. While on LinkedIn, we are less exposed to the noise from our personal networks. By that virtue the information we are exposed to is more relevant for the purpose of that network.
The Future of Social Networks: Social Niches
I believe users are joining different services in an effort to filter out the noise of larger networks and partake in more relevant social activities. This has resulted in numerous new networks such as foodspotting for discussing food and restaurants Foursquare for your location-based connections, Color for sharing pictures from social events, and many more.
By our very nature humans are social creatures. Social interaction is crucial for our development from a young age. We naturally seek out social interactions even when placed in a room of complete strangers. Technology has only made it easier for us to be social even when we are not in direct contact with the other person. It is allowing us to be social in almost every activity in our daily life. But as certain social networks grow that level and quality of an interaction is becoming less social. I believe we will continue to seek out new social networks that allow us to interact in more specific activities. This is not to say that Facebook or Twitter are going away any time soon for our general day to day interaction, but rather that we will use more niche social networks for interacting around certain activities.