Thursday, November 02, 2006

Online community burnout

According to the SF Chronicle, a lot of people are getting burnt out on social networking sites such as MySpace, YouTube, Friendster, Facebook, etc. The article states that
...even as the phenomenon continues to swell, the effort to maintain an active social life on the Web is taking its toll. Some have grown tired of what once was novel. Some feel bombarded by unsolicited messages, friend requests and advertisements. And some are cutting back.

This suggests that as much as people want to connect through the Internet, the practice also can have the opposite effect: social networking fatigue.
I think there is some validity to that, and a lot of it is caused by mismanagement of those online communities.

I was very interested in MySpace for a short while as a social networking platform, but quickly tired of it. Not because the concept is flawed, or that it doesn't work, but because of the lack of controls. Either the system is over-run with spammers, or there are an awful lot of 18 year old girls who are anxious to be my friend so that they can share their private, naked web-cam photos with me.

Another point of the article is that while we may be interested in trying out each different networking platform that comes along, we basically only have the attention span to really participate in one and still have some sort of off-line life. For me, the one is currently YouTube. First off, every "friend" request and subscription I've received there is genuine: no spam. And mostly, I just love seeing the people I'm communicating with. For me, YouTube works as an online community at least as well, if not better than, any other I've been a part of.

The part of the article I disagree with is a quote from Fred Stutzman, an Internet entrepreneur and graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:
"Social networking Web sites are relevant to people at different times in their lives," Stutzman said. "The more structure you have in your life, the less you need it as a crutch to understand the world around you. You already know what your friends are like. It's fun to look up their profile once in a while and check up on people, but it's not something you need every day."

Yet even as one group outgrows it, another comes on board. "There's a whole generation, a younger subset, coming in," Stutzman said. "There is an exodus that goes on, but there are a ton of people just a couple of years younger who have those same needs."
There are two bones I'd like to pick with Mr. Stutzman. The first is that social networking sites are some sort of "crutch" for people with unstructured lives (or, implied, no life). The second is the implication that it is something normal people outgrow and that they are really just for younger (unstructured) people.

My situation is that I work at home, alone. I can go many days in a row and the only person I speak with face-to-face is my wife. Having "conversations" with my new YouTube friends is not to make up for a lack of structure in my life. It's a substitute for the office water-cooler or coffee pot. In a "normal" work situation, I'd get my mid-day breaks and interaction with these traditional methods. Using YouTube is not a symptom of my social disorder; it's a symptom of my being human.

Now, I'm a "shut-in by choice." I chose to be a writer/consultant and give up the daily contact and interaction that a regular job brings. There are many people, however, who are shut-ins by no choice of their own. Health or other issues entrap them in their own homes. For them these social networking sites are the greatest technological innovations since home grocery delivery. It has literally saved the lives, or at least the sanity, of people around the world. This is nothing they want to outgrow and leave to a younger generation.

Okay, off my soapbox. I love online communities; it's a bit of an obsession of mine, has been for many years.

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