Social media was crucial when I moved to Fort Wayne in 2008. Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and even MySpace helped me quickly get to know others in the area at the tap of a keyboard. I virtually shook hands with everyone I encountered, thrilled to meet so many new people. In high school, I was the type of person who flitted between several different social groups, able to talk to pretty much anyone (once I got to know them, albeit). The digital version of me was very much the same, perhaps even moreso.
But something happened along the way. My accepting, tolerant eye turned critical. As my social media feeds became more and more cluttered, my patience with irrelevant noise dwindled. My attention was scattered across so many entities–some of which didn’t even matter to me (or, worse, annoyed the hell out of me)–that the connections that did matter were starting to suffer.
Upon realizing this, I pulled back. I pruned my connections on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. I set up filters for TweetDeck (my client of choice for Twitter). I stopped saying “yes” to every event invite or friend request. And I’m not the only one.
FROM A HUM TO A ROAR
There’s a backlash-type wave swelling on the horizon of people who have just simply had enough. When social media was shiny and new, they added people here, connected there without a discerning thought about why. And that worked until an election year rolled around, a friend experienced a major life change like having a baby, or someone refused to stop auto-linking their Pinterest and FourSquare accounts to their Facebook. The meaningless noise of irrelevant content started out as a hum at first, but it’s grown to a roar.
“I quit Facebook.” “Pinterest? I haven’t been on there in months!” “I had to hide him/her from my feed because of those annoying posts.” “Too many weirdos were requesting to add me on FourSquare so I deleted it.” These are common coping mechanisms to the overwhelming stimuli of social media.
Instead of a knee-jerk reaction to the noise, what if we refocused our antennas? Cut out the junk that no longer provides value and stop haphazardly making connections just for the sake of growing our networks?
BIRDS OF A FEATHER
A recent study from Princeton University and the School of Biological Sciences at Royal Holloway revealed that Twitter contains cliques like high school, the workplace, or any other social stratum. The researchers analyzed language as indicators of group inclusion on the social media platform. The results indicated that we gravitate toward like-minded people–the folks with whom we share beliefs, interests, behavior, and cultural traits. We even form connections based on general mood: “Happy users tend to connect to happy users, whereas unhappy users tend to be predominantly connected to unhappy users.”
No big surprise, right? This is called homophily (or “love of the same”), and it’s ingrained in our nature. Similarity–on whatever level–facilitates connection, something the vast majority of human beings need for a healthy well-being.
In high school, your homophilic connections were the kids you sat with everyday at lunch. You coordinated your electives to make sure you were in the same classes each year. You wouldn’t attend the school dance or go to a party if they weren’t going to be there, too. We naturally make similar connections on social media. Think about your interactions in a given week. Do you find yourself interacting with the same handful of people on a regular basis? Odds are good this is your circle of homophily.
This is not to say that homophilic connections are exactly the same or should be. In fact, difference often helps us grow as individuals. Friends with different perspectives can inspire us to see something in a new way, discover a favorite new band or book, or try sushi for the first time. If our connections are too similar to ourselves, we go unchallenged. But if they are too different, we struggle to find common ground.
So where’s the line that clearly defines the two?
In short, there isn’t one. Well, not one that works for everyone. That’s something you need to figure out for yourself. What qualities in others tend to make you cautious or uneasy? If someone racks up a lot of points on your deal-breaker list, you probably shouldn’t connect with them on social media unless you are practicing your patience skills.
A SOCIAL MEDIA (R)EVOLUTION
One of the cool things about social media is that it lets us interact with many different types of people. But that’s also what contributes to the noise.
As social media grows and evolves, there will be a shift away from arbitrary connecting. We’ll come full-circle with a return to socializing with people more like we do offline, based on similarities that provide an instant thread of familiarity.
We’re already seeing a rise in niche social media networks that allow users to connect with others based on homophily. One of my favorite niche networks is Ravelry–a social media site for knitters and crocheters. It was somewhat ahead of its time with a 2007 beta launch, and it has exploded over the past six years. Sites like Ravelry succeed because they cut down on extraneous noise, allowing users to focus on what really matters to them.
But you don’t have to shift to a niche social media network to silence some of the racket now. You can modify how you handle existing accounts to refocus your attention. Some suggestions:
1) Evaluate which social networks are providing value to you and get rid of the ones that aren’t. MySpace will always have a sentimental place in my heart for connecting me to some kickass people in my life, but I jumped that ship a few years ago. One less distraction; more bandwidth for what’s important.
2) If you’re constantly rolling your eyes at a specific person’s latest post or hiding/filtering them out altogether, ask yourself why you’re even connected in the first place. If you can’t come up with a good reason, quietly cut ties. It feels a little shitty at first, but 1) all that contempt isn’t healthy and 2) if you’ve filtered them out, I’m betting they suspect it due to the absence of interaction.
3) Before making new connections, ask yourself the same question as above: why am I friending/following this person? What value do we offer each other? If you’re connecting with a discerning eye to begin with, you’re less likely to encounter unwanted static later.
“What if I’m adding them to get to know them better?” you ask. I’ve made many a new Twitter friend this way, so I get it. But make sure you don’t get caught up in #2 either. My friend Anthony Juliano had a lot of noise going on in his LinkedIn feed–some of it from folks he had never even met. His solution was to categorize his connections based on likelihood of value for both parties. Those on the “Hmmm, there might be value here, but I’m just not sure…” list get the boot if they haven’t panned out in 6-12 months.
The bottom line is that we should make deliberate connections that seek to add or enrich meaning–for both sides of the connection. Some people treat our natural proclivity toward the familiar–the homophilous–like a bad habit that holds us back in some way. I argue that thoughtless, random connections are what truly stunt our potential. They distract us from what’s really important and can bring out our nasty, snarky side. If you can’t figure out the purpose of all the noise surrounding you on social media, then it’s just a meaningless ruckus.