The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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Social networks and symmetrical information

For some reason, I’ve been unsubscribed from Howard Weaver’s Twitter feed, which means I missed a bunch of great links. (I figured it out when he linked to my post on publishing from the other day, and my vanity alerts went off.)

Anyways, I thought this was a clever link: Dave Pell’s Top 25 Reasons We’re Fucked, which enumerates some of the most glaring asterisks to the claim “online social networks are terrific!”

Two in particular struck me as being both 1) true experiences and 2) symptomatic of a major (maybe THE major) problem of social networks: the illusion of control over the dissemination of what you write.

3. No Party Favors: You’re having a great time at the party? Well I didn’t get invited to the goddamn party and now I know about it and I know you’re having fun.
Solution: Shut the fuck up.

20. Diss-intermediate: Instead of being direct, you vent your loosely veiled personal (and even professional) attacks on the web. Here’s the bad news. The person on the receiving end of the attack also has a computer. And guess which one of you looks like a pussy?

(Note: For #20, I would substitute “asshole” for “pussy.”)

Both of these experiences suggest that when social networking fails, it’s due in no small part to either the excessive transitivity or the excessive symmetry of information. You write something intended for person or group A, but it winds up being broadcast to person or group B — either because someone in A relayed what you said to B, or because A and B are all part of the same undifferentiated audience.

NB: So far, this is just a different version of the old saw, “everything you write on the internet can be seen by everyone and stays there forever and will someday be used against you” — used to frighten teenagers and employees and grad students since the internet began.

What I’ve discovered, though, that social networks often experience the opposite problem. Here’s the scenario. You write something with the intent that EVERYONE — all of your Twitter followers, or Facebook friends, or blog subscribers — will read it. Inevitably, however, it winds up missing some of them. I might even add, it winds up missing MOST of them.

This is because for most people, messages on social networks aren’t actually messages, discrete items with a sender and recipient, but a broadcast. Facebook is like a television that’s always turned on. Sometimes you watch it intently, absorbed in what you see; sometimes you’re staring at it, bored, waiting for something good to come on; sometimes, it’s just background noise; and sometimes, you leave it on while you go on vacation so that people think someone is home. If you’re trying to reach the reader/viewer of a social network as broadcast, your status update or blog post or heartfelt plea for help is just as likely to reach a blank couch as it is a living, breathing person at the other end.

For example; I haven’t blogged about this here, but:

About a month ago, I was in a very serious accident. I broke my leg, broke my arm very badly (requiring multiple surgeries to repair), broke several ribs, took a gash to my forehead, etc… I’m actually quite lucky to be alive. However, the prognosis is good, and with hard work in rehab (and TLC for the parts still healing), I’m expected to make a full recovery.

I was in a hospital for a few weeks, during which you saw reduced Tim-activity on the Snarkmarket. I re-learned how to type left-handed (thanks to Robin for correcting typos), and I’m now in an inpatient intensive rehab facility, working on getting all of my functions back. I can walk using a walker (although I have to use a special platform to put weight on my elbow rather than my wrist), and I’m a whiz in a wheelchair. Now, I can even type right-handed again. I’m still in a fair amount of pain, and I’ve got swelling around a bruise on my back that won’t quite go away — but I’m in good spirits and actually doing quite well.

(Now, that is on the internet forever; readable by everyone. Please don’t use it against me.)

A week or so ago, I posted a statement very similar to the one above, and sent it to all of my Facebook friends. Many people responded instantly with surprise, well-wishes or concern. Most said nothing.

Then, a week or so later, when I started posting status updates again, including some which made reference to hospitals and injuries, I got a flurry of messages. “What happened?” “Are you okay?” And again and again: “Did I miss something? What’s going on?”

In some cases, people were away, or at least away from Facebook — and my message had dropped beyond the circumference of attention. In most cases, my quite-startling, very serious message had simply been filtered out — lost in a sea of viral videos, reunion invitations, and petty complaints. I might as well have written: “I had a great run today!” — just omitting the key coordinating clause, “until I got hit by that car.”

It turns out that social networks are actually terrible places to try to send a message en masse. At some point in their development, they stopped being a high-function version of your email address book, and became a kind of low-power broadcast antenna. It might be a great station, but it’s static-y, there’s too much filler, and it’s all too easy to drive out of range.


Jake says…

I’d say the point of no return was the introduction of Facebook’s news feed (I joined a Facebook group in protest, and, later, another called “I liked Facebook when it was minimalistic”). Prior to that, if you wanted to get fucked in most of the ways enumerated, you used LJ or similar, but I think there was no expectation that friends were or ought to be reading your personal blog. Even now you’ve probably heard somebody mock “I posted it on my blaaawg!” Yet the expectation is apparently different for Facebook, because “everybody’s on Facebook.”

Get well soon!

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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