Posted by: Jenn Deering Davis | March 16, 2008

Network fatigue?

A recurring theme at SXSWi this year was network fatigue. As in, a person is on so many social sites - FlickrFacebookMySpaceTwitterLinkedInPownceDopplrYelp, and so on – that she can’t keep up with all of them. She’s overloaded, and definitely not communicating and connecting efficiently.

So in response to this problem, some smart folks have come up with some clever solutions - FriendFeed and Socialthing! two of hottest. Just in time, too, because I was about to be buried under my growing pile of network connections. The idea behind FriendFeed, Socialthing! and other services like them is that you can get one account to track all your other accounts. So on your FriendFeed site, you are notified whenever a friend posts something to one of the various social sites; instead of having to log into potentially dozens of other sites, you can log into one.

I do think this is a good idea. Probably an inevitable one, too. For the past four or five years, more and more of these social sites have been popping up, each offering an interesting angle or different community. But the more we sign up for, the harder it gets to manage. Imagine having 15 different cell phones – one for each set of people you want to talk to or topic you want to talk about. I’d have one phone to talk about photography, another to talk about work stuff, another to talk to people I knew in high school, plus a dozen more. That would be a mess! So it’s great to have one cell phone, one central space to manage all the others.

Or is it? How many people actually suffer from this network fatigue? Facebook has approximately 68 million users. There are somewhere between 6 and 7 billion people in the world. Which means somewhere around 0.1% of the world uses Facebook. Of course this is a silly argument – there are billions of people who don’t or can’t use even the internet, let alone a social networking site – but it provides a little perspective. And of course, any business would be happy to have 68 million customers; that is still a ridiculously huge number of people. But how many of those 68 million people have accounts on multiple other social sites?

At South by Southwest, it would appear that everyone does. They also all have iPhones and MacBooks. The people who attend the interactive conference are a very specific group, and they do use multiple social sites. They use them a lot. But when I leave the wonderful little bubble of SXSW, I don’t see as many people using all of these sites. In fact, I see most people using only a couple.  Almost everyone has a Facebook or MySpace account and then one or two others (usually LinkedIn, Flickr or Yelp). And these are middle class, well-educated Americans in their 20s and early 30s – one of the main demographics for social networking sites. If these people aren’t using much more than Facebook and MySpace, why do they need FriendFeed? And if they don’t, who does? Besides the group of early-adopting super-users who frequent conferences like SXSW, of course.

I’m going to do an experiment. I teach a class of 60 undergraduates. Tomorrow I’m going to find out which sites they use, which sites they’ve heard of, and how they feel about network fatigue. Because I do think sites like Socialthing! and FriendFeed are very interesting, and will personally help me manage my networks. But I just wonder how prevalent this network fatigue actually is.

An update on this experiment soon…

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