Social Network Saturation

by Mike Shea on 26 October 2009

Social networking has been good to me. I stay in touch with old friends. I find many new ones. I share my interests with those who are as passionate about it as I am.

Lately, however, I'm beginning to believe that Neal Stephenson is right. Too much social connectivity hurts your personal productivity. It costs a certain amount of a fixed resource - our attention - and often it is not worth that cost.

I have two Twitter accounts, one for my personal banter and one dedicated to my Dungeons and Dragons hobby. I have a Facebook account that I hate but use so I can keep up with friends and family not on Twitter. I'm on a hand full of message forums and some other social network sites. I also have dabbled with some things like Friendfeed, Del.icio.us, and Stumbleupon. That's far more than I want.

I'm saturated by social networks. Some of them, like my SlyFlourish Twitter feed, bring me great joy, useful information, and new friendships. Others, like Facebook, seem to bring in nothing but "Best Friend Forever" requests and quizzes about What Sort of Werewolf I Might Be or Which Pizza Topping I Like Best. I'm quickly finding out which of my family and friends have way too much time on their hands. Unfortunately, with the design of Facebook, their glut of time ends up taking time away from me.

I'm going to be writing a lot more about the concept of the "attention economy" but the general concept is that my attention actually has a monetary cost. If you take my attention, you're taking my money so make sure it's worth the cost. Pretend every 15 minutes you spend is actually worth $5. Would you give $5 a day to make sure your friend requests are handled?

Wizards of the Coast, the company that produces Dungeons and Dragons, made a big blunder by releasing a new social network focused website that quickly gained the nickname "Wizbook". It has forums, it has friends lists, it has blogs, it has private messaging, it has all the crap you'd expect from a social network site. Yet it doesn't tie to any of my other social networks. I can't pump my tweets to it. I can't force-feed my existing blog posts to it. I have to actually GO there to see if someone has sent me a private message. Given that all my D&D friends, including a few of the D&D designers and developers, are on Twitter, I don't see why it is worth my attention. The only thing I've used it for since its release is to check the forums like I have for years past. A threaded forum system is something I'll use that's different enough from Twitter and Facebook to be useful. Everything else is redundant and a waste of my attention.

When I started Sly Flourish, one of the first things I did was to join the RPG Bloggers Network. Unlike other social network sites that demand my attention, this one is automated. You submit your site and you're added to an aggregated list of all other roleplaying blogs on the net. It brought in about 25% of my traffic on Sly Flourish and I was very happy there. I personally found the feed to be too noisy for my own use but their 4th Edition D&D sub-feed was a lot more manageable.

Recently, the leaders of this network stepped down, leaving a gap for their service. A great amount of hand-wringing and political soapboxing took place. One of the results is the creation of the Role Play Media Network, yet another social network site with blogs and messaging and friends lists and all the same stuff every other network has. I signed up for it, poked around a little bit, and then removed my account after receiving my first "friend invite". I don't need more friend invites. I'm on Twitter, I'm on Facebook, and I have a blog. That should be enough. I don't want to be dismissive of anyone's attempt to help bring people together - I owe the best parts of my life to the benefits of social software - but my attention is a fixed commodity.

Not to get all Merlin Mann on the topic, but it comes down to two things: I can either be busy surfing websites checking for more friend invites and seeing status messages across fifteen different social networks, or I can create things. I can write stories or articles or DM tip tweets or build up my next D&D game or throw the tennis ball to my neglected dog. He's sure in more need of my attention than the seventeenth social network I joined.

The only new social networks I'm interested in at this point are the ones that require none of my attention to use. Let me focus my attention on making things, not consuming them.

Send comments to mike@mikeshea.net or follow @mshea on Twitter. If you enjoyed this article, please bookmark and use this link to Amazon.com for your next online purchase.