The New Maelstrom of Social Media

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For the rest of the June 2009 issue of CRM magazine — The Social Media Issue — please click here.

"When I checked my Gmail inbox, I was shocked,” writes Pam Pastor, author of Dazed and Confused. “I had about five pages’ worth of Facebook notifications. Swimming in so many emails from the social networking site, I missed a few important messages. My lame response to agitated email writers? ‘Umm, I’m sorry, it was buried in Facebook crap.’ ”

Is it time to get off the grid and smash your iPhone to bits? Time to declare email bankruptcy, delete those 1,000 unread messages, issue a public mea culpa, and start over? With an ever-increasing chorus of “overload,” this social media stuff must be irretrievably broken, right?

Maybe not. Social media may be the hot new thing, but the kind of overload it’s creating isn’t new at all. In his groundbreaking book, Future Shock, Alvin Toffler described his titular phrase as “the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time.” He wrote that nearly 40 years ago, and it’s still true. Along with voicemail and email, we’re now awash in social networking data. We’re freaking out about how to deal with it at an individual level. And now we want to bring this stuff into our businesses. Are we nuts?

No, we’re not. We simply don’t yet have the facilities to deal with this new flood—we’re only at the primitive-tools stage. We’ve been given access to four kinds of information that were either obscured or simply not available in the past:

  • Profiles — Summaries of online identities;
  • Connections — Links between ourselves and others, or links between others in our network;
  • Content — The words, photos, and video we’re all publishing online; and
  • Activities — The things we’re doing in these networks, brought to the surface for all to see.

Until now, the only one of those four we needed to deal with was the content pillar. We dealt with content overload by reading trusted sources and, within those, only selecting items relevant to us. (Think of the Sunday New York Times: Do you read every word in it? Or just the sections and articles that you deem relevant?)

With the newly surfaced profiles, connections, and activities, we need to take a similar type of filtering approach. One doesn’t need to react to everything.

“Life’s too short, and this list of stuff is too long,” writes Doc Searls, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto. “If you’re waiting for me to respond to a poke or an invitation, or a burp or any of that other stuff, don’t hold your breath. Or take offense. I’ve got, forgive me, better things to do.”

While we struggle to come up with new types of filters, personal-productivity processes such as GTD (Getting Things Done), and other techniques to manage the deluge, we often overlook some very powerful tools that are already at our disposal, tools that are with us every day: our eyes and our brains.

Research presented in a recent article in Current Biology magazine suggests the human retina can transmit visual input at about 10 million bits per second—about the speed of a wired Ethernet connection. And yet we don’t suffer from visual overload every time we open our eyes. We filter on the auditory side, as well, picking out cocktail-party voices most relevant to our current conversation while keeping tabs on the peripheral ones. Our brains do this instinctively.

A few individuals—Dave Gray (xplane.com) and Dan Roam (thebackofthenapkin.com), to name just two—are starting to move business in this direction, and have shown that tapping more effectively into our visual centers simply makes good sense—and good business.

As we learn to use visuals to improve explanation of business concepts, the next steps will be to apply these techniques to better interpretation of the profiles, connections, content, and activities in our networks to understand how customers, vendors, and their shared communities interact. Watch for it. Literally.

Christopher Carfi (ccarfi@cerado.com) is the cofounder of Cerado, which helps companies understand what customers are thinking and competitors are doing. He can be found on Twitter at @ccarfi.

Every month, CRM magazine covers the customer relationship management industry and beyond. To subscribe, please visit http://www.destinationcrm.com/subscribe/.

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