Social media outlets have certainly grabbed a significant share of attention, both from individuals and from organizations hoping to ride what many perceive to be a wave. I participate in three such (or four, if you count blogging), Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook, in declining order of value to me. As this is written, I have 382 "followers" on Twitter, 152 "connections" on LinkedIn, and 264 "friends" on Facebook. This compares to about 800 subcribers that FeedBurner says I have for this weblog. Modest levels all.
What motivates most of my Twitter "followers" is a mystery (in the last few months, some may have come from the follow link below left). They generally come in at a pretty steady clip -- one or two a day, though once in awhile there is a burst of 10-15 in a day. I recognize very few of the IDs. The 86 people I follow are of two types -- a handful people close to me (mostly family) whose tweets I like to get on my phone, and then everyone else who I read mostly using TweetDeck, which helpfully pushes tweets out. Those I follow are mostly favorites from my blogroll -- easier than scanning RSS feeds. No, you can't say much in 140 characters, but that's a good thing.
LinkedIn "connections" are almost entirely people with whom I've had a business relationship. I've used LinkedIn a few times to check "who is this person?" and a couple of times to look for potential hires. It's nice to have but not essential.
Then there's Facebook. Hope I don't come off as a misanthrope for the following -- I'm not -- but here goes...
In contrast to Twitter and LinkedIn, Facebook is increasingly annoying. "That's OK, grandpa," I imagine some of you saying, "it wasn't built for you in the first place." But when I read, as I did this morning in the Financial Times, that social sites are losing popularity with British 15-24's, I wonder if it's something more than what the author supposes is loss of the "cool" factor. Perhaps it's the underlying math of Facebook.
Think about your connections to other people. You have family and dear friends, casual friends, acquaintances, etc. As the circle of "friends" expands, you become less interested, frankly, in the stream of pictures and comments that come from them nor in the growing number of requests to join and support and hug and poke and to offer up your "friends" to causes and the like -- Facebook is full of goofy apps. It's set up like a big chain letter -- or rather a series of them -- only without the threat of harm if you break the chain. It's been ages since I actually did anything on Facebook other than respond to requests.
As your group of "friends" expands beyond your initial core group, you get more and more requests to "friend" new people. The longer you're on Facebook, the more common are requests to "friend" people who you barely know, or maybe met at a conference a long time ago, or in some cases don't recall ever hearing of. Yet they all come with some "friends" in common, so you want to be nice and include them in your circle. Maybe you had a great dinner or served on a committee with them five years ago and just forgot.
So, eventually, it seems that the math of Facebook becomes essentially a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game where almost everyone can be connected. Management of "friends" and their various requests becomes your primary reason to visit the site, but the value of the site as a true social glue diminishes in proportion to the number of more distant relationships you "friend."
So here's my theory -- feel free to knock it down: The reported declining use among teens and early 20s is because they've been through the "chain letter" earlier than the rest of us and have thus widened their circle of friends already, and that's led to declining value for them.
Oh, hold it... Kevin added you as a a friend on Facebook. We need to confirm that you know Kevin in order for you to be friends on Facebook.