Open Thread: Social Web & Its Challenges

[qi:006] In response to a post by Steve Hodson, “Is Social Media Becoming a Social Mess?,” Elliot Ng said something that resonated with me deeply, even more than the valid question being asked by the original post.

“My problem with social media is that it is heavily focused on itself. Tweeting about Twitter. Blogging about blogging. You know what this reminds me of? The house of cards that our friends in Washington and Wall Street have created. Mortgages sliced and diced and resold many times….. This is exactly what the social media community is doing. Reverberating from one tool to the other. Reaggregating onto aggregator services.”

This is a sentiment echoed by some readers in response to my post, Social web’s big question: Federate or Aggregate. Dameon Welch-Abernathy was increduclous about the fact that “Companies are building services atop services without a proven business model. Has anyone taken a step back and realized just how crazy this is?” Another reader had an even more colorful metaphor and compared the rise of many social web apps to “building floating gas stations for the flying cars that are still in early prototype state.” Others emailed me privately with similar thoughts. I have been struggling to package up their skepticism in a way I could share it with you. As luck would have it, my friend Pip Coburn sent me his latest weekly newsletter, exposing me to Herbert Simon, a psychologist with roots in cognitive psychology, complexity theory and behavioral finance.

What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.

I think Simon, who by the way made this observation in 1971, was onto to something here. Many of these social web services are essentially a way for us to communicate among ourselves. In times before cheap broadband, cheaper telephony and affordable computers, we used our mouths to communicate. We went and saw our friends and family — sometimes in their homes, but mostly in restaurants, bars or coffee houses. The only people who made money off that conversation and bonhomie were perhaps those who ran the establishments that enabled our interactions. Places with something special about them remained successful for years, while others packed up and went home. Our post-broadband world is no different.

As I said, back in July:

If someone can become the Dolby of the web — remove the noise and give us clear sound — then they are going to make a lot of money. And when I say sound, I mean data that is truly useful. But that would just be the start.

Our communication and our attention is going to flow to a few services — the ones that make it easy to have those conversations. Twitter and Facebook seem to be in that camp… at least till something new comes around!

Update: Dave Winer thinks that there is room for something to come up that occupies the space between Twitter and Friendfeed. I would say Dave lets add Facebook to the mix as well 🙂