Social media's attention problem (or maybe it's just me)

Is social media getting too social for its own good? Editor Andrew Nusca explains why he's falling out of love with Facebook and others.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

Technology has always been about getting what you put into it.

In the early days, technology -- let's use code as an example, be it C++ or HTML -- was difficult to understand by the average person. There was a steep learning curve, but once you figured enough of it out, the reward was seeing what you could do with it.

That's how life is, of course, whether you're playing sports (few are first-time sluggers) or learning a new language. Practice makes perfect. Without this mantra, Malcolm Gladwell couldn't have written this book.

But the rise of social media has turned this phenomenon on its head. After a lifetime of trying hard to create, social services force you to try your best to ignore them.

You've heard this complaint, this idea that new technology is overwhelming, before. Your mother said it when you tried to get her to use a computer. For many of us, they simply chose not to use them. Why learn a new technology now? The implied trade-off they're making is that they'll save more time doing it the old way than learning a new one.

But social media, well, that's a different story. It used to be simple, really. Twitter was 140 characters and that was it. Facebook was a database of personal profiles and that was it. But as these services grew in popularity, size and scope, they began to challenge our attention span for them.

Again, you've heard this complaint before. Companies love to complain about how their employees are spending too much time on social media services, even if they're only replacing the social chatter of a physical workplace. And we all know how much a time suck it can be, in that addicting, check-what's-going-on-every-minute-type way.

But the latest wave of changes to popular social media services are, at least for me, reaching a saturation point:

  • Digg redesigned to allow publishers like us to flood the channels directly, without requiring a referral. They quickly reconsidered.
  • Reddit didn't do a damn thing, God bless 'em.
  • Foodspotting came into existence, killing off the actual social experience of a restaurant meal for a digital equivalent.
  • Twitter gradually added features, including a preview pane, that took away the reckless excitement of the unknown.
  • Google deployed an alternative to Facebook in Google+. We all signed up because we all have Gmail accounts. Then we all realized we have nothing to say we aren't already saying elsewhere. (I have yet to post anything to the service, and I actually like social media.)
  • Facebook revamped its homepage with even more real-time information, making the NYTimes.com homepage look like Tumblr in comparison. Long my favorite service (I've been a member since 2004), I find every visit to be increasingly paralyzing.

I don't mean to sound like a curmudgeon here. I'm a member of Generation Y, and I grew up with this stuff. But information has become so cheap and expendable that we are inundated with it on every level, wherever we go.

The problem: us. We're human. Our brains cannot handle all this, much less adequately process it. (You call yourself "good at multi-tasking," I call you delusional. Particularly when you're sending a BBM as you cut across three lanes on the New Jersey Turnpike.)

For the third time, you've heard this complaint before. It's why we all decide to "unplug" at the beach over a holiday weekend. But I'm beginning to think that, at least with regard to social media, it's beginning to detract from the experience that makes it so great.

With the latest Facebook redesign -- the current one, not the "Timeline" to be -- I have never felt less interested in visiting the site. What was once a lovely way to spend a mindless few minutes is now about as relaxing as a Bloomberg terminal. I used to visit Facebook as a mental break, a way to metaphorically come up for air from my work tasks. (Because that's what counts as a "break" when we spend 10+ hours in front of the LCD screen, people.) But now it's as painful as my ZDNet inbox -- 13,122 unread and growing faster than a cancerous tumor.

The problem: I find myself less willing to bear a visit to the site. That's a problem, since I'm someone who actually likes to use these things. Social media services have always turned off those who never wanted to participate; they kept off Facebook and poo-poohed Twitter from the outset. But I'm the complete opposite of that person, and I have never felt so apathetic about something I've so deeply integrated in my life.

I have no idea if this is a trend. It may just be me; perhaps I've hit my personal saturation point. (Although it seems Slate's Farhad Manjoo has, too.) But it's worrisome, from a business perspective, when your most fanatical users begin to find the service too much to bear. Sure, there's tremendous growth in the social space; but I wonder if any of these companies have a strategy to retain existing users, rather than acquire new ones. Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, Google+ -- they may be welcoming curious and excited new users from all over the world in the front door, but I wonder how many existing ones are slowly tip-toeing toward the back door, not in search of a new service or fad to adopt early but simply because the music at the party is too loud, there are too many people per square foot and it's hot as hell in there.

Maybe they just need to get some fresh air. Maybe I need to, too.

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