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More Than Minutiae

September 1, 2009

Again and again I hear folks say that social media tools like Facebook and especially Twitter are really just people posting dumb, mundane minutiae about their lives, and who cares?

Well, some of it is mundane to be sure, but these tools do still add value — and lots of it.

In an excellent, if long, article by Clive Thomson in the NY Times, which appeared almost a year ago now (how time flies!), there’s a great explanation of how social media tools actually strengthen our ambient awareness and boost our weak ties, and why that matters, both personally and professionally.

More recently, I stumbled upon a post from another blogger, One Lucky Man, who explains very succinctly why he believes that Twitter is more than minutiae, and how it enriches his life.

In both cases, the pieces outline how it’s easy to dismiss the mundane and miss the real benefit. To save you from having to read the full text of either, here’s an excerpt of both that pretty much sums it up:

New York Times article: Why would you subject your friends to your daily minutiae? And conversely, how much of their trivia can you absorb? The growth of ambient intimacy can seem like modern narcissism taken to a new, supermetabolic extreme….[But] This is the paradox of ambient awareness. Each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting.

…As I interviewed some of the most aggressively social people online– people who follow hundreds or even thousands of others — it became clear that … their circle of true intimates, their very close friends and family, had not become bigger. Constant online contact had made those ties immeasurably richer, but it hadn’t actually increased the number of them; deep relationships are still predicated on face time, and there are only so many hours in the day for that.

But where their sociality had truly exploded was in their “weak ties”—loose acquaintances, people they knew less well. It might be someone they met at a conference, or someone from high school who recently “friended” them on Facebook, or somebody from last year’s holiday party. In their pre-Internet lives, these sorts of acquaintances would have quickly faded from their attention. But when one of these far-flung people suddenly posts a personal note to your feed, it is essentially a reminder that they exist.

…This rapid growth of weak ties can be a very good thing. Sociologists have long found that “weak ties” greatly expand your ability to solve problems. For example, if you’re looking for a job and ask your friends, they won’t be much help; they’re too similar to you, and thus probably won’t have any leads that you don’t already have yourself. Remote acquaintances will be much more useful, because they’re farther afield, yet still socially intimate enough to want to help you out.

One Lucky Man post: Take Twitter, for example. I don’t follow a ton of people, but those I do follow are pretty interesting folks. All day long they are cluing me in to websites I should check out, pointing me to some new trend in my business or my profession in general, or guiding me to a pertinent news story. These folks aren’t selling anything. They are simply giving me a small 140 character window into what they are thinking at that moment, and since many of us are in similar businesses or professions, I often find these tiny windows surprisingly illuminating. Perhaps that’s because, like most folks, I tend to build my networks around similar interests, and so those networks are often rich with pertinent information.

True, my network sometimes tells me things that may not be so illuminating — at least not in a professional way (though I do reap great benefit from my friend Laura’s irrepressible optimism). Some of the folks I follow on Twitter, like comedian Tim Siedell, are simply good for a laugh at random moments throughout the day. And some of my Twitter feeds are straight up news. (For my money, there’s no better way to get on-the-spot news.)

But here’s what intrigues me — it all seems to add up somehow. This blended stream of incoming information seems to create something unlike anything else I’ve known. If it were all professional all the time, I’d like process it with some corner of my brain that holds the “you-have-to-read-this-because-it’s-good-for-you” reflex. If it were all personal all the time, I’d process it with my “well-that’s-interesting-but-probably-not-particularly-useful” reflex. And in either case, I’d be missing out on something.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Laura Wray-Lake permalink
    September 11, 2009 12:14 am

    Hey Lauren! I just stumbled upon your blog recently via facebook, and I look forward to following it regularly. This discussion of how Facebook and Twitter strengthen intimacy and bolster weak ties is really intriguing. (I’m a developmental scientist studying values and civic engagement, so this stuff is relevant to my work.)

    I’m on FB myself (haven’t yet tried Twitter), but I think it remains to be seen just how beneficial the increased ties are to individuals. I am reminded of Kenneth Gergen’s book, The Saturated Self. In it, he argues that technology allows individuals to maintain ties with friends and acquaintances in a way that wasn’t possible before. However, he argues, humans (obviously) have limited time and resources, and the maintenance of so many relationships may be unsustainable, leading to oversaturation with constant communication and resulting in problems with identity formation and mental health. The book was written in 1992, and I’m sure I’m oversimplifying as I read it long ago, but the ideas seem quite relevant for today. As we start to understand social networking better scientifically, it may be a story of both benefits and costs.

    Anyway, just something I’ve been thinking about with these technologies. I definitely look forward to hearing more from you about social networking and its possibilities.

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