Social media is probably THE word of 2012. Facebook goes public, Twitter takes off, and YouTube and LinkedIn are hitting their stride. Add mobile data to the equation and the prospects for a truly interconnected web (no pun intended) of humanity in real time is becoming close enough to imagine being real. The singularity indeed may be near and social media is helping lead the way to a new global brain.
Evolving our thinking and the role of social learning
We are at another inflection point in social cognition. We have evolved our thinking from units associated with families, to tribes, to institutions and more recently to networks. With each step, the complexity of the communications increases. Consider the Facebook status update and the myriad sets of relationships that are wrapped up in the audience for that post and the intricacies associated with deciding who should see that post or who should have access to it. (For the record, Google + is immensely more easy to navigate with its Circles, yet it still hasn’t quite caught on).
With every additional layer of connections so too does the complexity associated with those connections. It is no wonder that people are feeling overwhelmed, confused and disturbed by social media, and yet it is pulling us into a new (media) world order that is seemingly inevitable.
Let me unpack these ideas. Firstly, the move towards social media is as much a way forward, but also a return to the past when ‘news’ was transmitted socially. It is also a means of navigating complexity. When the abundance of information available to us is as great as it is, humans need ways to efficiently filter information for effective sense-making. To this end, recommendations from our peers and social learning is an efficient way to side-step this. We use a form of distributed cognition to mitigate the risk and assist in our decision making and use others as a proxy for thinking about problems. It’s not that we’re stupid or lazy, we’re being efficient.
Filter failure and the problem of information volume
Clay Shirky has argued: we are not living with information overload, but filter failure. This is true and not true, because we are exposed to more potentially meaningful bits of information than ever before, not just more information. While Shirky is correct that we have had more information than we could possibly consume at any one time for generations, the increase and ease of access to this information through electronic media and the personal relevance of this information makes our current circumstances different.
We now have tailored news services/apps like news.me and Zite that help filter information, but they also add to the number of sources that one regular checks to get news. I use Twitter as a primary news source, but as my list of followers increases along with those I follow, the number of engagements I have through that media increase every week. Add email, Facebook, Google +, my LinkedIn groups and connections and the RSS feeds I subscribe to and its amazing I am able to do anything with any of the information I get.
That is part of the problem. Contemplative inquiry and mindfulness is a potential solution.
This past week’s Opinionator column in the NY Times was on the busy trap that we find ourselves in. This was published the same week as The Atlantic published a piece on women’s challenge of ‘doing it all’ that I commented on in my last post. Both articles point to a trend toward expectations of having to do too much and not finding the time to squeeze it all in. Mitch Joel from Twist Image refers to this as the age of digital anxiety and points to some resources like calm.com that are designed to help people take themselves away from the fray, even for just a few minutes.
Another resource designed to help work with this complexity is Buddhify, a website and app designed to bring mindfulness into the everyday life of people on the go. I use this regularly and really enjoy it.
Yet, these are all ways to deal with the output of information and the complexity it produces in our lives (along with the attendant stress and time-pressure). What we are not doing is mindfully attending to this complexity as a whole, asking what it serves. Just as we humans created this social media landscape, so too can we re-create it. We are at a point in the evolution of our media ecology that Marshall McLuhan notes was at a point of serving us and is shifting to having us serve it, unless we engage in mindful (re)design of our system.
Before moving in this direction, we first must as a simple, but important design question: what was social media hired to do for us?
If we are to mindfully design our social media ecology and do it in a manner that promotes empathy and connection, rather than overwhelms us; engenders learning and insight over simple content absorption; and promotes creativity and innovation rather than just talks about it, we need to answer the question more intently and act accordingly.
Applying complexity questions and mindfulness to social media use
From a complexity perspective we can note a few things as we engage in contemplative inquiry on social media. Ask yourself the following questions:
- What are the boundaries of my (social) media ecological system?
- What are the attractors that organize my activity (what do I pay attention to voluntarily or involuntarily)?
- What new insights and patterns of behaviour emerge from these interactions?
- How have those new insights and behaviour patterns influenced what I do?
- How have the products of those changes been fed back into that media ecology (what have I taken away?, what have I given back?)
- What have I hired social media to do for me?
- Is this serving me and my interests (which include that of any social units — family, firm, community, network) ?
Contemplate that as you engage in social media use and you may find surprises. I’d love to hear about what those are.