Ambient Connectivity and the “Impending Social Crash”

image I’ve got a pile of work to do today that (unfortunately) has very little to do with writing blog posts directly. I’ve also got a number of “must write” blog posts that are timely and need to go out as soon as possible. And then Chris Brogan has to go out and write one of the most intriguing posts I’ve seen in weeks. The topic he address almost demands that I drop everything for the next hour or so and publish my thoughts on the topic.

The topic he brings up is something he’s termed the “impending social crash,” and rather than paraphrase his words, I’ll directly quote him:

Old days: I’d see you at a family event. We’d talk. I’d send a letter or call you some time after that. We’d not see each other for months.
New days: I post something on Facebook or Twitter. You see it. I don’t say something directly TO you, but you remember that I’m still out there. You realize that it’s been a while since we talked directly.

Human Math

  • If I talk to 100 people on twitter for 6 minutes each, that’s 10 hours.
  • If I respond personally to 120 of the 600 or so emails and contacts I get a day, that’s 2 hours.
  • If I call 10 people for six minutes each to “catch up,” that’s another hour.

100 small Twitter conversations.
120 emails.
10 phone calls.

13 hours.

That’s not work. That’s not necessarily business (though touch and networking aids business). That’s just contact.

13 hours a day on just that.

And that’s just 100 or so people. That’s not the 146,000 Twitter followers, the 58,000 RSS subscribers, the 11,000 LinkedIn connections, the 4550 Facebook friends, that I have right now.

That’s 100 or so people.

Is a Social Crash Coming?

We’re going to have to start contenting ourselves with more “ambient connectivity.” I think that lots of us already do understand and accept this. I believe that the frequency of touch requirements of the hyperconnected are much lower than the average human out there.

Is there a much more painful crash before us? A social crash?

It’s important to note exactly what perspective Chris Brogan writes this commentary from.  Most of you reading my words now are probably quite aware of who the man is, but for the two or three of you who aren’t, Chris is one of the guys who’s literally written the book on how to apply social media to the workplace, and consults regularly for Fortune 100-style companies. Chris, along with folks like Dave Winer, Adam Curry, John Furrier and myself, made his bones early on in the podcasting movement.

The take-a-way here is that not only is Chris an early adopter, like many of us who’ve been on the cusp of technology innovation, he’s inundated with communications requests from fans, readers, listeners, friends, business contacts, and co-workers. At that level of success, one really has to put serious thought into what their priorities are, how much of their own dogfood they can realistically eat, and how to best manage their time to achieve both short and long-term goals.

As an early adopter preaching practical application of the tools he evangelizes, he’s caught in-between use cases as well. On the one hand he’s used tools like Twitter since there were only a handful of users, and he can probably remember a day when the volume of flow that went through his timeline was manageable via SMS or a GTalk chat window. On the other hand, though, he now has far too many people in his social graph to ever reclaim that “personal touch” aspect to any service he’s using that made him fall in love with them in the first place.

It’s Clear that Social Media Scales, but Not Infinitely So

image If you look at the time required for various forms of conversation, it’s clear that as you move up the scale of social media and Web 2.0 style tools, you’re improving your ability to connect with more people in less time. 

– A Twitter conversation is succinct, quick, and in many cases doesn’t take a full six minutes.  Sometimes an occasional retweet is enough to signal to someone that they’re still on your radar. Sometimes a quick several minute back and forth is required to accomplish the thrust of the communication.

– An email conversation generally takes more time to hold up, but it definitely beats oral communication in terms of it’s ability to communicate the same thing to a medium sized group of people, or coordinate specific details that shouldn’t be full-on publicly available.

– Productivity tools such as collaborative calendaring (or even automation tools like Tungle or Aardvark) aid in the communication process.

– While it almost seems pedestrian in its antiquity, telepresence tools like video (or even strictly audio) conferencing tools (be they one to one or many to many) provide a times savings over the old methods of oral communication (which is to say, walking to someone’s physical location and talking to them).

– To that end, video conferencing, in many cases, provides a distinct advantage in communication since much of what we can communicate to others may require many strictly audio-only words, but can be reduced to many less words when supplemented by facial and hand gestures.

When looked at in the broader context of the evolution of communication, it’s clear that we’re on a curve that probably has some definable law that’s a cousin to Moore’s Law of transistor growth in computing devices.

To that end, there’s been a lot of charting of the raw and underlying technologies along logarithmic charts showing how communications technology allow an ever increasing amount of throughput, but I’ve yet to find anyone research and chart how these technologies allow us as humans to manage more connections to more people. I’d tentatively posit, though, that as our communications technologies have been innovated and iterated upon, our ability to maintain communicative relationships with more and more people has increased if not logarithmically, then by increasingly large multiples. In other words, we may not be far enough along the knee of the curve to determine how much further we can go.

What Needs to be Innovated Before We Leap Forward, Again?

Anything said here is purely speculative, of course, but it’s something I’ve spent a lot of time pondering and writing about here at SiliconANGLE.

A recent conversation with the brains behind Siri.

What we as early adopters have grown accustomed to is interacting with the “real time feed,” such that it is. For quite some time, I’ve taken the attitude that the feeds and real time data we create by interacting with blogs, Twitter, Facebook and the rest certainly has a limited amount of value when used directly, but has a great deal more value when looked at streams and pools of data to be applied else wise.

For example, take the technology application at work with the Siri application that was recently sold to Apple. Strictly speaking, it isn’t traditionally defined communication. Instead of speaking to other people, you’re speaking to a machine. When you’re speaking to that machine, it’s pulling together data from public data streams, private services and social media feeds to accomplish the tasks you speak to it.

Siri is truly a leap forward in that respect. Another leap forward on the software side is the the iPad application that recently came out called Flipboard. The first thing that strikes anyone who has any experience with Flipboard is the aesthetic quality with which it presents web-based content. Perhaps even more interesting than that is that it employs algorithms on your social graph to come up with a way of presenting the news that’s relevant to you as judged by the people you know.

These two are just examples of how advancements in software improve communication in a way that saves time. To get the same benefit you’d get from Flipboard, you’d be stuck for most of your day scanning your various social feeds for relevant content, using time and mental energy constructing raw filters to determine what you do and don’t find interesting. Having your social graph and algorithm do this for you lets you use image your time more efficiently, engaging with the content (and it’s producers), rather than simply hunting for it.

On the hardware side, we’ve seen amazing advances in the last three or four years in the field of mobile computing. We’re now able to consume (and interact) content and producers on the go in a myriad of ways that were previously impossible. We have e-Readers, mobile phones, tablets, netbooks and laptops, whereas a scant decade ago, most of us were limited to one fairly large desktop machine per household.

Those of us who live on the bleeding edge know that as amazing as these new technologies are, they aren’t particularly conducive to efficient two way communication. That’s why trends in information display and input devices are particularly interesting.

Enabling ubiquitous augmented reality and digital input further lowers the barrier to communication while simultaneously allowing us more “ambient awareness” and low-impact communications channels.

Will Communications Convergence Stay Ahead of Technology Adoption?

The question of “social media crash” that Chris Brogan originally brought up suddenly takes on a new meaning in this context. He’s asking as to whether we’re all headed for inevitable “social media crash.”

There are several factors to consider when answering that question. I think it’s clear that highly-connected early adopters live in a constant state of social media implosion. For folks like Chris and I, there is far too much going on in our social spheres for us to pay attention to all of it. We’ve all developed coping mechanism on how to deal with it, whether it’s a heavy reliance on automation and complex tools (my preferred method), or a minimalist approach like Jason Kownacki recently suggested with his #ReadItAll Challenge.

image Most users of social media don’t need these coping mechanisms, at least yet. I think the path that early adopters have paved is the eventual future for most of the web’s users.  Not only do we as users increasingly create scads of data in our wake, but our devices are increasingly doing the same. At some point in the future, it’ll be impossible not to use the real time web, if not directly than by abstraction.

Don’t believe me? Look to the past – remember when RSS was just a good idea, but we were told it would “never going to see mainstream adoption?”

Look around you – it’s impossible to go a day on the web to use a service that either serves up RSS directly or relies on RSS as a crucial component to its operation. Streams of standardized real time data will similarly form another central backbone to the way we all communicate. And just like most people don’t understand or care how streams of RSS data make it into their Facebook feed, we’ll similarly not care in the future how it is our Skin Display Unit finds out how to tell us that our friends are nearby and what they are doing, just that it doesn’t crash on a regular basis and that it stays connected with five nines of uptime.

Will these tools arrive ahead of the “impending social crash?” Will adoption of current tools spread quicker than innovations on top of them are made? I’d prefer to think not, but then I’m an optimist when it comes to these things.

[Editor’s Note: Some photo credits to Dan Patterson. –mrh]