Social Media and the Limits to Growth

Social Media, Social Noise?

Social media provides a virtual firehose of content that surpasses anything we’ve had access to before. But is this sea of content becoming too much to manage and what does this mean for knowledge-driven enterprises as the barriers to content creation drop almost as low as they are for consumption?

I added some new friends to Facebook this week. To my knowledge, there weren’t any that left my roster. I also had quite a few new people follow me on Twitter. This blog was visited a few hundred times and even my other, less widely publicized blogs got some traffic. So too did millions of others. Despite there being holidays North and South of the Canada-US border, people still were reading and writing and so, too, was the rest of the world.

Dana Meadows’ classic work in system dynamics, The Limits to Growth, has served as a treatise on the problem of the “more of everything” mindset for a generation and continues to inspire work in the environmental movement. It may be time to dust off our copies of Meadows’ book (or pick up her newer, posthumously published one, Thinking in Systems) and consider what this means for social media.

The argument is pretty straightforward: “more of everything” thinking to solve problems leads to dynamic shifts in our system that have unintended consequences. If our current capacity to handle information — whether in quantity or quality — is a certain level now, adding more input will result in a change in this capacity. These changes are often non-linear in nature. Consider the example of lifting weights at the gym. You might do 10 repetitions of an exercise where the first 7 feel comparably similar and then grunt and push your way through the final three with difficulty that gets exponentially more difficult with each additional rep. This is an example of a type of distribution of experience that social media operates in.

Complex dynamic systems, of which social media is indeed one, frequently operate using Pareto distributions of activity, not the standard normal one.  What this means in complexity terms is that when we start to feel that it is hard to handle things, the gap between our current capacity and maximum capacity is actually very small not something far off. I believe we are getting close.

What this means is still a mystery. We humans are remarkably adaptive and if the information layer is too thick in one area of our life, we will compensate in others. Unfortunately, this means neglecting other activities, whether that be face-to-face relations with others, hobbies, other interests, travel and so on. Another compensatory response is to distribute attentional resources differently. That is, spend less time in depth on issues to allow for greater breadth.

All of these are problematic when many of the challenges we face require more sophisticated thinking, contemplative inquiry, and the space to bring diverse perspectives to bear. Complex problem solving is difficult because it often requires working with others, considering different perspectives, listening deeply and broadly; all of which take time, which is something we are taking less of more and more. In public health, we’re doing a bad job of serving as role models in caring for ourselves and giving us the time to contemplate these big problems. A fascination with social media, while helping us consider the role of relationships, could also be undermining our already fragile state of attentional awareness.

I recently experimented with the new service Path, which allows you to build a deep relationship with others using social media. It was among the shortest experiments of my social media career. Interesting idea, but the wave of content that it helped unleash was too much, too soon. What I am worrying about is spending less time on things, not more. In embracing social media as a tool to support complex decision making and learning I am realizing that there is an ironic twist in that it, in some cases, is reducing my ability to do so.

In striving to create better wayfinding strategies, I am getting lost.

These are design problems, wicked problems, and ones that we will need to tackle soon lest we have more of everything and wind up with lots of nothing.

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