One of the responses I often get from people who don’t really get the whole social media thing is that it takes a lot of time. They’ve got a point – I do a lot of things online, using a lot of different services, but it actually takes me less time to do more, and to generate more content, today than it did a year ago. There are two reasons for this: simplicity and openness.
Simplicity and automation: Many of the services I use are so simple to use – indeed, some are
entirely automated – that doing so takes me no more time than not using
When I take a photo using my
cameraphone, instead of simply asking me if I’d like to save the photo,
a piece of software called zonetag asks me if I’d like to save the
photo to flickr. If I agree, it then offers me the chance to tag the
photo. Agreeing to upload the photo to flickr takes no additional time
over that required to save the photo on my handset only.
Last.fm, which is a social network based around music and the sharing of musical preferences, is even easier to use. After signing up, I simply install a small piece of software – friendly spyware – that keeps a log of what tracks I listen to on my itunes and/or ipod. It then updates my profile accordingly and suggests other tracks I might be interested in as well as giving me the opportunity to meet others with similar musical preferences. I don’t have to do anything to participate although to get the most from the service I would need to be more proactive than I currently am.
I have long been a fan of del.icio.us, the social bookmarking service I use, that does something similar for bookmarks. Instead of saving a url to my favourites, I save it to del.icio.us. This has the benefit of being available to me regardless of what computer I’m using as well as enabling the sharing of links with others, the formation of networks around links and tags we might have in common, and more. Saving a bookmark to del.icio.us is little, if any, more time or labour intensive than adding a page to my browser’s favourites yet, when I do get the time to make use of them, the extended features enhance the utility of the service greatly.
I’ve also been experimenting with Plazes and, more recently, Jaiku (dopplr is another emerging service in this area). These services let users set their physical location and, in the case of Plazes and Jaiku, can actually track my location using my mobile phone or internet connection point, plotting me on a map for other users to see. This is useful because it can make it easier for users to meet up with other people they know who use the service, strengthening existing social networks. And even if users aren’t meeting up, they’re kept aware – with little, if any deliberate attempts to make contact directly – of their friend’s whereabouts and what they’re up to.
Twitter is a bit more labour intensive than the above, but not necessarily. Many people send text messages to individual friends to keep in touch. Twitter allows you to send that same message, via mobile or the twitter web interface, to all your friends and for them to do the same. The social utility here is that you keep many people updated as to the question "what are you doing now?" without the necessity of sending out multiple messages to multiple friends. Viewed that way, twitter can actually be time saving rather than time consuming. [more on twitter @ mediashift]
Open: Many of these services (and this is an inherent feature of "web 2.0" applications) have begun talk to each other, sharing bits and
pieces of my content, contacts and conversations between themselves in
ways that add value and efficiency for me.
In fact, all of the services listed above generate RSS feeds which can then be pulled in by other services, such as my blog (hosted by typepad) or my facebook profile, and re-displayed to a different audience.
The result? Friends, colleagues and others who want to keep up with what I’m doing can easily do so, but with very little effort required on either their part or mine. I certainly feel closer and more involved in the lives of my friends who use one or several of these services for exactly this reason – it’s easy to keep abreast of what they are up to, the things that are happening in their lives. It also means that, when I can mroe easily see when I need to go out of my way to make contact, whether it’s a simple facebook poke, a kind comment, an email, or a phone call.
Outputting RSS feeds is the key to most of this openness and sharing although there are some services, such as google maps or flickr, that make their API’s available to developers with the results being the many thousands of google maps mashups or services such as moo.com which sits on top of flickr.
Of course, some services still don’t talk to each other as easily or integrate as well as I’d like. For example, I think zonetag + flickr (see above) should talk to my calendar on upcoming (or, these days, facebook) so that when I attend an event my photos are automatically tagged appropriately [updated – looks like they may have something like this that I wasn’t aware of when writing]. And Last.fm doesn’t, as far as I’m aware, have the ability to alert me to concerts that my facebook friends might be attending, or to point me towards flickr photos or myspace pages of bands I’m interested in. All this could happen and, indeed, may soon happen with more and more services like facebook opening up to third party applications.
I like the way things are headed, with more and more simple, some would say "passive", ways to generate content and participate in social networking sites and with more and more of those services beginning to talk to each other in ways that enhance the overall functionality.
So does blogging and social networking take time? Of course it does, but the beauty of a many emergent social media services is that their simplicity and openness means that myself and other users can engage with them as much, or as little, as we want yet we’re still able to keep at least one foot in the conversation. Even true believers need not make a weekly pilgrimage.