Online social networking isn't for everyone

As we race headlong into a future full of opportunities for online social networking, as we try and build systems to engage students, scientists, librarians or others, we have to remember one thing.

When we build these systems, we need to build them for everyone. Not just the coolest and most technophilic. We have to build for who our audience really is, not who we wish they would be.

And sometimes we just have to recognize that not everyone will be interested in what we have to offer, even if they seem to fit our profile in other ways.

Wayne Bivens-Tatum does a very good job of reminding us of all that in his blog post about his own preferences in terms of online engagent.

Recently a couple of people have asked why I haven't joined some of the social networking services they find interesting or useful, particularly Twitter and Friendfeed, but the question could probably apply to more of them. The simple reason is, I don't see any way I would benefit from these services. Some people would consider that statement an incentive to either persuade me that I would benefit or dismiss me as a Luddite who just doesn't "get it." But I do get it. I know some of the ways people benefit from these services. It's just that I don't want those benefits. Partly, it's a personality issue. I'm not very social, and I don't have interests in common with many people. For example, I have almost no interest in: television, pop music, celebrities, fashion, food, cooking, new movies, sports, contemporary fiction, cars, gardening, crafts, diets, scandals, or the weather.

Wayne very helpfully identifies the online social networking "features" that he's not that interested in: Neophilia (love of the new), Diversion, Networking, Sharing and Discussion.

It's a great post, very thought provoking and stimulating. It's well worth reading the whole thing. I suspect a great many people sympathise with what he's saying but that they're not the people that are part of the blogging/twitter/friendfeed echo chamber.

Now, the message I take away from it is this: building community is very hard. Everybody wants to build a new Facebook for scientists or librarians, or a way of engaging a campus full of university students but the important thing to remember is what do your potential audience really want. Which of those five features are you trying to provide? What are the ways your audience are already fulfilling those needs? What are the potential gaps that you can fill? Is what you're offering very clearly better, easier to use, less disruptive to exisiting workflows? And most importantly, when you consider preaching to the unconverted, will enough people care?

More like this

"I have almost no interest in: television, pop music, celebrities, fashion, food, cooking, new movies, sports, contemporary fiction, cars, gardening, crafts, diets, scandals, or the weather."

Neither do I. Yet I find it as easy to ignore those things on the web as I do in non-web life, because I filter them out and engage only in discussions that interest me. If people truly don't see benefits then fine, but the opinion cited suggests ignorance concerning how the web can be used.

I haven't figured out what 'Facebook', 'MySpace', etc. are for. They do not seem to provide any functionality that email and a blog doesn't handle better. Email and blogs are pretty darn cool tools, but their functionality does not explain why 'Facebook', 'MySpace', etc. are so popular.

By oscar zoalaster (not verified) on 19 May 2009 #permalink

Neil, Thanks for the comment. I think the point Wayne is making is that he knows what the potential of social networking is, but choses to ignore it. One of the things he choses is also to not have to bother consciously filtering the pop culture stuff.

Neil, your comment really has me laughing. There's a huge difference in not understanding how something can be used and simply not being interested in using it that way.

Donna, I absolutely agree. I guess as a web enthusiast, I tend to assume that people "don't like it" because they "don't get it". But I often find it difficult to judge from opinion pieces whether people "get it".

Further -- a lot of people in science/academic communities have been online for a very long time (back before blogs existed, as it were.) So after experiencing usenet, IRC, listservs and all the rest, the raw potential of the web!!! does not feel like an end in itself. Which is not to say that the old timers avoid the new formats - but they aren't specially drawn to them either. Well, I avoid them personally. YMMV.

It looks like Wayne might find a home in a slower, more reflective medium, like discussion fora.

A larger issue is perhaps that social networking will have to become (somewhat) fragmented, because people want different things from it. But social networking seems to work by mass action, with applications building up enough users to dominate. So that works against the fragmentation.

I think I've just argued myself into a state of confusion. Must be time to clean the litter tray.

I get into this discussion quite a bit, as I'm one of very few among my friends that doesn't "do" one of the big social networks. I blog occasionally, frequent a few fora, and comment on lots of blogs; I don't feel a need to expand my online presence beyond that, particularly because I use a pseudonym (though not a well-defended one) and want my privacy, and partially because I'm pretty much already connected to everyone I want to connect with. My wife uses Facebook and Myspace to talk to a few people, play games, and find old friends. I do the first two through other means, and I don't have many old friends left to find (I didn't like any of those bastards back then, why would I want to find them now?).

I think Karl and Bob O'H both make good points that reflect on users like myself. I prefer slower, more reflective media where I can compose a real thought. I've also been on the net for longer than a significant number of users have been alive. Hell, I remember when GOPHER was the best way to find info, and there are plenty of people who have been at it longer than me. I guess I just like a high signal-to-noise ratio, and the slower media afford me that. I've yet to see anything interesting (to me) on a Twitter feed that I haven't picked up elsewhere at greater depth. It sometimes feels like I'm yelling at those damn kids to get off my Internets.

Building a network to an audience can be a tricky thing. Friendster tanked in the USA after an initial burst of activity. Facebook is knocking out MySpace, which effectively killed Livejournal. Just because you target an audience doesn't mean that audience will stick with you. Using the categories above, you can never really hang on to the Neophiles -- so a solid app has to balance the other items. Twitter is Sharing-focused, with a dash of Diversion and Discussion. I'd argue that Facebook focuses on Networking, then Diversion, followed by Sharing.

In my opinion, an academic social app would have to focus on Discussion first, with emphasis on Sharing and Networking. You've got to be all about the info, and good info will engage the community. Then again, such a system is handled pretty well within the blogging community, so you have to make things more convienient to use, or simply more useful in some way. That'll be a bear to achieve, I think.

Search friendfeed for "facebook for scientists" and pretty much all you'll find is comment after comment saying "facebook for scientists" is a bad model and doesn't work. Richard Grant of F1000 explains things pretty clearly in his presentation.

We've already got a linkedin, and what linkedin does - host a professional profile - works well enough. Being also able to list your publications isn't enough to overcome the activation energy of filling out yet another profile. I'd like to see more things that do as Richard suggests and provide value up-front by doing something like what Mendeley does, managing your bibliography and organizing your PDFs, and then if you want to share something, they make it easier than, for example, mailing PDFs about.

That's another point that's been raised at friendfeed also - email was the original social network, and it worked because the barriers were low. Email wouldn't have been as quickly successful if it required people to use this one program available from this one provider to send and receive messages.

social networking will stay but the evolution will be towards niche networks unlike facebook and others which are just huge people feel bored they are using just for the hype surrounding all this, but web2.0 has moved on there are websites which pack more for every pixel than facebook...Social networks will be evolving along the lines of forum as a place of getting real connections which ends with some useful interactions and not just meaningless two way pokes.

John, it's my first visit to the new digs. Very nice!

As for "getting it," I get it. Really, I do. I'm just not interested in it. I keep up with most of this stuff, I give presentations and workshops on various emerging technologies. I evaluate things and use what I like. But short form social networking tools don't serve my needs or interests. The discussion I'm most interested in right now, for example, has been taking place in scholarly books and articles on political philosophy over the past 40 years. Am I going to get that level of discussion with Twitter? If I'm not, then I don't have time for it.

As a librarian, I've found blogs and the discussions that form around and between them interesting and useful, but only the ones that tend to be long for blogs, not the ones that just give you a link and a brief comment. On any issue of interest to me, I'm looking for thoughtful discussion with at least a bit of depth. Otherwise, I'm not going to spend my time bothering to read it.

Having said all that, if the right sort of social networking application came along, something more academic perhaps, allowing space for reflection and analysis, I'd probably be interested in it, but I haven't seen that yet. The sorts of things that interest me don't work well in some of these media. The few posts I've written on the topic have mostly been to dispel the widespread but false belief that if you're not using whatever the newest tool is it's because you don't "get it" or you're behind the times or you're not cutting edge enough or whatever. I'm writing from the perspective of someone who does understand it, who does get it, who adapts easily and learns this stuff quickly, who uses quite a bit of it selectively, and yet who chooses carefully how to dissipate my time.

Left to myself, I would probably ignore social networks and twitter and wikis. They are tools that don't fill a need for me. But as a librarian (of the corporate variety), I realized that I need to understand what tools and technologies some of our customers/clients are using or expecting to use to share information.

So I have delved into the web 2.0 swamp. I signed up for the Special Libraries Association "23 Things" do-it-yourself program to try my hand at various technologies. I've pushed my team to blog internally at the company. And we are looking at participating in an existing corporate wiki. Among other things.

So I'm sort of in the middle: I definitely understand the lack of attraction social computing has for many people, but I have to push some of those same people toward it so we won't become irrelevant to much of our target audience (read: fuddy-duddies).

The problem with social networking sites that I have found, is that if you aren't on the same one as all your friends (or aren't on one at all), you get left out from events because you are essentially invisible. Of course this might be alleviated by having more considerate friends I suppose.

Of course this happens every time a new technology comes along. Email. Cellphones.

By Katherine (not verified) on 20 May 2009 #permalink


Community online is the overlap after everyone's killfiles* have functioned.
*in Newsgroup readers, e.g. "nn" -- called "nn" because "no news is good news"

Migod, Usenet figured this out: one of the most useful things technology can do is _ignore_crap_ for us.
Then the World Wide Advertiser displaced News, and the Internet took on the function of shoveling crap. At us.

Community? You know who you are. Mine would be people who look for what they want, ask for help when they need help finding it, and ignore what people try to push at them.

Science librarians rank high on that list.

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 20 May 2009 #permalink

Hi everyone, Thanks for the comments. Keep'em coming!

Wayne, welcome! Pretty cool, eh?

And you make a good point -- how to create a community that isn't potentially overwhelmed by the noise and trivia. For the most part, the communities themselves encourage the crap because it translates to easy page views, which translate to the ad dollars that are the only thing keeping them afloat. The challenge in building something for everyone is that the edge cases are hard to reconcile, so the mushy middle and noisy edge tend to win out, to everyone's despair sometimes. It's the same problem libraries have with quiet in physical spaces.

Also, I think the thing that spoke to me most about your original post is that I'm also not much of a social person in the non-online world but that I tend to de-hermit a bit online. In fact, de-hermiting only has actually helped me "network" a little better in person.

I'm probably more social online than in real life as well, partly because some of my closest friends are spread out around the country. But I IM with them most days, which is using a social networking tool of sorts.

As far as "23 things" type projects, by the time I saw one I actually knew about most of the things available, just because I do enjoy keeping up with new tools. I've even introduced some of these things into my workplace. We now have shared Google calendars and a departmental wiki because I suggested to colleagues how useful it could be to have these things, and then I set them up.

If I learn about a new tool or service, I'll usually spend some time checking it out and playing around with it. I do consider it part of my professional responsibility, but where I work I could ignore everything and still do just fine. I just happen to enjoy learning new things. However, this doesn't translate into wanting to use them.

At the risk of sounding heretical, I'm inclined to think that the occasional push back against apps like twitter and Facebook may actually be a good thing on balance, because it represents a stage in the maturation of Web 2.0.

A few years ago, when interactivity for all first started to become a reality, everybody grabbed everything that was released because, being natural neophiliacs, we wanted to be where the action was. But now the action is everywhere, and people are relaxed enough to sort and select the bits that suit them, and pass on the rest. This implies no criticism of the stuff we pass on, any more than a decision to subscribe to one dead tree magazine rather than another means anything more than that one has an editorial style more congenial to us as individuals.

As time passes, I expect that we'll see this more and more, and a good thing too. Plurality forever!

I'm all for plurality. The reason I don't use Twitter is just because I'm so busy with Plurk and One can't be everywhere at once.

Perhaps I am one of those who does not âget itâ, the avidity of some for social networking and instant communication tools. I am not an early adopter of anything, or a neophiliac, although I am typically way ahead of the curve on a lot of things, such as refusing grocery bags in the 1980s. (I just put my groceries or whatever into my backpack and rode off on my bicycle). Donât even have a cell phone: donât need one, donât want one, and even if I had one no-one would know about it since its existence is merely an invitation to interruption from what is really interesting me at the moment.

But I think I am perhaps one who really does get it. A long time ago everyone who was anyone just âhadâ to have a pager. Even before that, you just had to have a calculator, prominently slung at the hip (âmineâs bigger than yourâs, doncha see?â). Even further back it was pocket protectors. Nowadays, youâre a nobody without a blogsite, or a Facebook profile (I have one â itâs blank, just to bugger up the system), or a Twitter ID. See the pattern? Symbols of social status, everyone of them. In an age of general anonymity and mass consumer culture, these symbols are a demand for attention.

These symbols and claims are usually unwarranted, though, because most participating people are just egotistical and narcissistic. Actually, most participants have no business being online at all since they have bugger all to say. That is because most people are too dim-witted to have anything interesting to listen to, and that is because they are either natively stupid, or lacking in curiousity, or adequate education, or suffering a surfeit of sentimentality.

When most peopleâs Facebook âfriendsâ are no more real friends that birdersâ book are but lists of sightings for bragging ârightsâ, who gives a tweet about what any Jack Dawe is doing right now? I live in SWOntario. If my best friend in Yellowknife NWT tells me heâs making curried chicken, there had better be some really good reason why heâs telling me that, or else itâs meaningless. Meaningfulness is a function of propinquity and concern: lacking either of these, a datum merely evokes a proper âso what?â So, propinquity is not a matter of physical or temporal distance, but of connection, as when a geneaologist discovers that an ancestor absconded with a fortune in County funds a century and half ago and half a continent away. Had my County sued the State of Washington (or whomever) for recovery of the funds, you can bet that the geneaologist and every one of his friends would have been concerned at this bit of history: out of the blue, it would have been meaningful to them. (True case, except we never did sue.)

It is no surprise that most social traffic on the web is as shallow as spit, vapid, ill-informed, and utterly without consequence. So, why I should I pay the slightest attention to social networking when I am already surrounded with stupidity and stuportstition?

By Doug the Primate (not verified) on 22 May 2009 #permalink

Although I'll admit I actually do use Facebook and Myspace - to promote my music as well as to keep in touch with friends who live far away, and in a voyeuristic fashion keep up on those friends who I'm not super close with, but kinda want to know what they're doing.. however, I really wish Twitter would just go away. It's only useful if you are willing to sit there with your text-phone and type every single thing that you do.. and then again, only useful if somebody cares after that. Plus their character count limitation encourages the nonsensical abbreviations, poor spelling and such that already dominate the internet. Of course, I suppose the same could be said of social networking sites that I use.. I think I'm just tired of the news phenomenon surrounding Twitter.

In academia you probably should just create your own network, and the social networks like Facebook probably play (at least at the moment) merely an auxiliary role in this. For more details see my post on academic networking.

I like what Doug the Primate had to say, and Dawn after him. Good discussion that should be had, with the amount of time being spent on social networking. It must seriously cut into our national GDP. It tells us just how bored and underutilized and advantaged people really are. As a blogger and facebooker myself, I sometimes feel like visiting my blog or facebook page is like looking in the mirror, and I do it too much. On the other hand, I feel like I do produce material, do put some worthwhile and timely thoughts out there albeit sometimes in short form, and I am someone who is willing to push on behalf of others in my network. Being in touch with others online often leads to great in-person meet-ups that might not have otherwise been possible. I feel a strong sense of comraderie with my friends and fellow bloggers.

However, I also do question the amount of nonsense I encounter, the amount of time spent primping our digital images that would be better spent tending to our real lives, and most of all the shortage of actual results from any of it in real terms. Though sharing information that would help someone in their network only takes a minute and costs nothing, few seem to "get it" that they're supposed to be helpful to their friends! There is a great deal more "sharing" and "diversion" and self serving taking place than actual networking on these things.

And, I've had it up to here with people I know who remind me every chance they get that online interaction is a poor substitute for in-person interaction. And yet I can go to a party that someone like that gives, and he doesn't have more than two words to say to me the entire time nor does he introduce me to anyone! Socially speaking, I have found that a great many people truly lack social skills in any arena, including myself at times, and neither online nor offline "networking" is likely to be a panacea.

Glad to have a chance to get some of this off my chest! Thanks.