Is The End of the Social Media Story Already Written Into Its Success?

Updated: March 31, 2011

In Italo Calvino's early 1970's book Invisible Cities, he describes a fictional city, where to establish relationships, the inhabitants stretch strings from their house, to the houses of others they have relationships with. Each string is white or black or gray or black-and-white to denote a relationship of blood, of trade, authority, or agency.

If we think of today's social media, our virtual worlds are denoted by such strings, creating an intricate web of relationships.* And as the popularity of social media increases, these strings become more numerous, often requiring more and more time to "navigate".

Calvino illuminates the tragedy of this society, for "When the strings become so numerous that you can no longer pass among them, the inhabitants leave: the houses are dismantled; only the strings and their supports remain."

Just think of the information overload from just our e-mail alone, exploding more than 2x in volume per year. To this, now add the real time pressure from social media, where a typical user receives hundreds of daily tweets, dozens of daily Facebook updates, dozens of LinkedIn updates and discussion group posts, blog article feeds … you get the picture.

Those of us who are already very active in social media feel the pressure of the real time Internet every day as we establish and cultivate social relationships, post content, and collaborate on new ideas. And as we are relatively early in the adoption of the medium, and especially early in the exploitation cycle, we know that this is only the start of the overload as even more folks sign-up, establishing even more relationships, and participating with much more vigor.

The value of the medium totally depends on a high level of participation, and the value of each social media channel increases tremendously as more relationships are established, connections enriched and knowledge shared. This is most often defined by
Metcalf's Law, which states that the "value" of a network increases in proportion to the square of the number of nodes on the network. But does Metcalf's law, which was developed to describe computer and telecom networks, and then applied to the Internet, hold true in an interactive and collaborative environment where people, with limited attention spans and computational limitations, are the nodes of the network?

Is there a tipping point where the participants get so overwhelmed that they realize the uselessness of continued participation? Is this then where the medium declines precipitously as users are ensnared in a web of noise?

Once this tipping point is reached, the story may be as Calvino narrated, "They rebuild the city elsewhere. They weave a similar pattern of strings which they would like to be more complex and at the same time more regular than the other. Then they abandon it and take themselves and their houses still farther away,"

Unless we figure out better ways to manage the information overload, Metcalf's law may not hold, and the end of social media may very well be written into its very success.

Is this the fate that awaits each social media channel.. it gets too popular and collapses in on itself and is abandoned? Are the future of Facebook or Twitter doomed by their increasing popularity and the limitations of the human participants?

Is there a way to overcome the overload and collapse, to realize the real-time information, collaboration and relationship values that social media can deliver, or will the exponential explosions in the connections themselves spell the end?

* Although in almost all social media channels, you only get one colored string for each relationship, compounding the overload issue.

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