Like Me? Follow Me.
It looks like Manchester's getting it's own Social Media Cafe. I'll hold off on judging the usefulness of such a venture until they have time to get up and running (the first meeting is 11th November, if you're in Manchester) but the early discussions got me thinking about whether or not social media addicts have a rather rose-coloured vision of what social media achieves.
Certainly social media is a powerful tool for communication and expression. Businesses who make effective use of social media outlets can improve their brand recognition and create goodwill. But does social media really allow people who would normally never enter each other's social circles to communite and connect more effectively?
A couple of weeks ago everyone I knew was suddenly subscribing to Stephen Fry's Twitter feed. Within days he was having to admonish followers for hassling him:
People seem to feel that the addition of these "celebs" to the Twitterverse means that they're able to engage with them on the same level as their "friends". The thing is, what is a "friend" in the virtual world, and what sort of communication can we possibly have with people in 140 characters when they are "communicating" with hundreds of others at the same time?
A clever scientist by the name of Robin Dunbar produced some research saying that the average human could not cope with a social circle bigger than 150 people. As ReadWriteWeb pointed out, however, that's a generous estimate as I struggle to follow the roughly 50 in my personal Twitter feed and that's before taking time to connect with the people on Facebook or MySpace who only use one social network.
Stephen Fry follows 7,692 people on Twitter. Britney Spears follows 1,544 (and doesn't appear to update her feed herself). So what sort of communication is really occurring? Yes, people get the odd direct response, but probably only if something happens to be at the top of the list.
How many of us have "friends" on social networks that we haven't spoken to even virtually in months? How many people have "friends" that aren't even acquaintances?
It seems that much of the intrinsic value of social media lies in allowing information to be disseminated quickly. Yet who decides what information is most important? Communication may be a secondary benefit - yet even where communication occurs, often written language without the benefit of body language encourages as much misunderstanding as understanding.
In order to effectively maintain the numbers of relationships that social media opens up to us, as we expand our online networks we will need to spend an inordinate amount of time online cultivating them. The people able to do this effectively are going to be the people who guide the development of this form of communication and who will set the standards for how people interact online. They'll also be the people who are managing to make a living through their online social networks - or the businesses with enough money to pay people to spend all day building those online relationships.