Posting into the Aether


A month ago I turned 40. I'm not particularly happy about the fact. I'm penniless, friendless (in the 'someone I can call to bail me out of jail' sense), companionless, and have generally failed to meet any of my personal or professional goals in life - even the downgraded ones after I realized I wasn't going to rule the world sometime in my early 30s. This would be bad enough, but I've also simultaneously watched a variety of people I've known personally become multimillionaires in the meantime, or at least enjoy great personal success. It's not only depressing, it's fucking annoying.

Anyways, after taking stock for a few days, I decided to begin my mid-life crisis in earnest. First, I bought a new car (mostly to replace my rapidly dying Saturn) but the fact that it's a low-end Kia and not a typical crisis Porsche didn't really help. I also decided to quit posting to Twitter and Facebook, as I decided they're really not doing much to improve my life and are actually quite poor substitutes for actual social interaction.

I didn't go on an all-out Mark Pilgrim pout and cancel all my accounts and try to disappear in some passive-aggressive cry for attention, I just simply stopped posting status updates, and chose to write to my blog instead. No, I'm not trying to recapture my blogging glory days, I just decided that if I've got something to say, I should write it on my own space, and in full sentences. Blogging is great practice for writing, and by not blogging regularly, I've lost both the capacity to quickly whip up my thoughts when needed, and the ever-so-enjoyable ability to say to someone, "Yeah, I thought of that years ago - here's the link." (And I wonder why I don't have friends...)

Now, I've been a pretty regular Twitterer (which reposts to FB) for the past couple years or so, with at least 3 or 4 links or comments a day. I've made thousands of updates over the past couple years and well over 7,000 since 2006. So with regular updates, 1,680 followers on Twitter and 250 friends on Facebook, one might think that after a few days of silence, someone might @ respond to me with a "what's up", message me or simply email and ask where I've been.

A month later, and I didn't get a single message.

This of course doesn't surprise me. A couple years ago I posted a detailed graph about the deluge of status updates that someone following a moderate amount of people would have to deal with - here's the link. (See what I did there?). In that post, I wrote about how someone following a couple hundred people would have to deal with over 600+ updates every day. That's one status update to read every 2 minutes or so, 24 hours a day - but as we all know most of the updates come in bursts during normal waking hours, so it's really even more.

I determined that most people using these services have what I called "Phased Attention" - meaning they pay attention to their incoming status stream for certain periods of time, and anything that doesn't pop up during that time is simply missed. In other words, social streams are used with the expectation that most updates are not going to be seen - both by the poster and the follower. What I didn't realize then is that this makes it almost impossible to notice something completely missing - as missing updates is the norm, not the exception. This is the reverse of what you might assume otherwise. In my case, I had been posting updates daily for years, and when I stopped, no one noticed (or was concerned enough to bother asking why).

It raises quite a few questions in my mind:

Was anyone really reading my updates in the first place? Obviously I've been wasting my time. There were so few people who actively tracked my status updates that my stopping of them caused literally no reaction. I'm sure a few posts were caught and appreciated over the years, but was the effort worth the reward?

Am I a typical user? If so, are there millions of people also simply wasting their time posting updates into the aether? Not in the "that's why the service is called 'Twitter'" sort of wasting time, but in the real, "no one is actually reading your posts" sense.

Am I an atypical user? I didn't just post about my current midlife-crisis just to whinge, but to point out that maybe if you have more close friends and family and an active social life, that a month-long absence would be more immediately noticed. Maybe there's only a certain type of Twitter user (middle-aged, divorced, ex-bloggers mostly) for whom this would be problem...

Is it just a numbers game at this point? I get the sense that social networks are really more like a social Ponzi scheme - as long as they keep growing, no one will ever notice this sort of thing. For every update that I don't post, there will be plenty of others to fill in that gap, and then some. In fact with the millions of people out there updating their status every day, there's simply a deluge of content that no one can keep up with, let alone notice if someone *isn't* updating.

Are social networks based on Pavlovian training? I didn't just keep posting to Twitter and Facebook for nothing. There was just enough feedback to keep me posting continually. The key to Pavlovian training is the eventual randomness and pace of the rewards. The pigeon will keep tapping that button until the pellet comes out, even when it happens more and more slowly - in fact the pigeon will increase its effort as the pellets slow. Same thing with status updates?

Is it a fad? I've never really gotten social networking at a deep-down core level, honestly. But experiences like this really make wonder about what the hell everyone is doing. Is everyone posting to Twitter and Facebook simply because everyone is posting to Twitter and Facebook? What happens when more people realize it's not really worth it?

I don't really have any answers to the above, but they were interesting enough that I thought I'd share. Feel free to send me an email if you have any thoughts or @ respond, or hell, you can even comment on the Facebook repost of this link... Or wait, would that just disprove the whole point of the post? Hmm... ;-)


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