blogging

Growing Pains in the Web’s Social Revolution

I’ve observed these two things in last ten years of evolution in the “Social Web:”

  1. The Social Web has made huge changes to the way people express themselves and communicate in their daily lives, generally enhancing connections and making the world a lot smaller.
  2. That very same trend has also created more complexity from the sheer amount of information being shared through social platforms.

The actual nature of what we do in our lives hasn’t changed much; it’s just become so much more public and easily shared with the masses. In person, we can only have so much interaction, due to the limits of time and physical location.  But now technology has removed many of those barriers; we can now blast information to the masses regardless of our location or the availability of a captive, dedicated audience.

Personally, I find that these developments make it a lot harder parse all the information and isolate the stuff I find most relevant. Some of this is because people on the Social Web write for so many different audiences; one person might use Twitter to promote their business, ask people in their industry a question, post pictures of something random that happened, link to a popular meme, or just vent about what they’re feeling at the moment. (Or, God forbid, tell everyone what they had for breakfast.) To that person, it’s all self-expression of things they felt like sharing. But for the follower, it’s totally void of any personalization to deliver the content they personally care about the most. Some of my followers online are people in my industry, and some are friends or family. But they all get the entire stream, and are subject to reading whatever I decide is worth putting in their content stream.

Some of this problem can be solved by making more conscious decisions about the most relevant place to post different content online, or through the creation of more context- or audience-aware social platforms. But more than this, I think our society is just struggling to adapt to a very new kind of communication. As always, the young will find it easiest to adapt, so they will drive the changes before anyone else does.

I don’t know how things will turn out, but I’m pretty sure we’re going through a cultural revolution. A couple of decades from now, social interaction across the world will look very different, and I imagine that will also have serious implications in other spheres- especially world politics and economics.

Polyprogramy

Twice on this blog, I’ve written listings of the various software I use: one from when I owned a Dell laptop and worked in all-Microsoft shop, and one half a year after I switched to a MacBook Pro. But I’ve noticed that in just the five months since that last one, my technological behaviors and habits have changed in a less common way. Instead of having an application of choice for a given task, I’m no longer able to pick just one, instead using many similar programs because of their minor advantages over one another:

  • I constantly switch between Safari, Firefox and Chrome for browsing. Firefox has my beloved Firebug, Chrome does tabs exactly how I want, and Safari has the most adherence to the Mac OS UI guidelines and seems to hate Flash the least. (Their asynchronous release cycles often also make one browser temporarily less stable than the others.)
  • On my Mac, I use three apps for accessing Twitter and Facebook in slightly different ways. (Echofon is great if you view one feed at a time. TweetDeck presents it all but has either weak or no support for browsing and exploring different categories/lists/friends. Socialite is unparalleled at aggregating and organizing feeds from multiple sources, but only if you want to read every single item as short text or a link, and has quite a few buttons that don’t behave as you expect them to.) And on top of that, sometimes I can’t get any app to quite do what I want, so I have to – shudder – actually use the Facebook or Twitter web applications. I do the same thing on my phone, switching between HTC Peep/Friend Stream, Touiteur, and touch.facebook.com . (Not Facebook for Android, though. Whoever let that app see the light of the day needs to be taken out back and forced to use MySpace. Or their own app. I can’t decide which is worse.)

Those are just the most prominent examples, but I find myself app-hopping just as much with my text editors, word processors, SSH clients, video players and photo libraries. (I won’t even get into how I carry around an Android phone but still use my old iPhone on Wi-Fi for certain tasks.)

I think the “normal” behavior is to pick the application that best fits one’s needs and find workarounds for the needs it doesn’t satisfy, and to switch programs if a more fitting one comes along. I used to do this for sure. But I’m finding that recently, I’ve become so picky/anal/demanding that I am no longer willing to settle for an app that addresses 95% of my needs – that I’d rather manage two web browsers for their individual niceties than use one.

My new approach certainly isn’t a comfortable one; running so many programs in parallel is taxing both on my computer and on my multitasking-challenged brain. And then there’s that feeling I get every time I decide to switch from one program to another that does the same thing: the reminder that there isn’t one application that works quite the way I’d like. I guess I’ve done this in different ways in the past, like when I switched e-mail providers and addresses all the time, or when I was installing a different OS on my laptop each weekend. Maybe this is just an uncomfortable period of chaotic upheaval before I settle into something more predictable. Maybe I need to go super minimalist and do everything from a bash shell. One thing, though, is certain: I am too geeky for even my own taste.