Too Connected!: Social Media Overload

When I was shopping around for a new phone earlier this fall, I was tempted to make the leap. With my inbox bursting at its seams and daily texting on the rise, I needed a better way to deal with it all. I decided: it’s time to get a smartphone! I would finally join the Crackberry craze…and man, that iPhone is pretty…

But I ultimately decided against it. One look at prices did push me toward second thoughts though there also another, more important consideration: Would I just be a little too connected? Do I really need my email to follow me around on the bus? In the dining hall? On the treadmill? The nearly infinite nature of the Internet has created information overload, and the proliferation of social networking sites has also propagated a kind of social information overload.

By overload, I don’t mean the countless spam messages that get traded over social networking sites, but legitimate connections with friends and acquaintances. Now that social media has made it so easy to get in touch with one another, the communication seems almost incessant. It’s almost seems like a good problem – look at me, I’m so popular – but unread posts and unanswered messages become a source of anxiety. Does the creation of all these loose ties actually diminish the quality of our social interactions? I’ve had the experience of juggling multiple IM conversations, none of them being particularly committal. Humans are inherently social creatures, but there seems to be a point when it just becomes too much – when it becomes like work just to keep up with it all.

What makes this most interesting in the increasingly merged worlds of social and professional networking. Email, the most ubiquitous of workplace communication, is at least fairly easy to segregate – different email addresses for work and personal contact. But for professional with jobs that largely involve meeting new people or are deeply immersed in the tech industry, it becomes necessary to have an active online presence. Whereas my parents once only complained of having to power through massive chunks of email, the same type of overload now exists in messages exchanged on Facebook, Twitter, Pownce, LinkedIn, etc, etc. What are the implications of socialization overlapping with work? How to deal with it all?

I’m reminded of a Craigslist posting by Jason Kottke a few years back:

Permanent full-time position for a personal social coordinator for a New York-based web designer.
Your primary responsibility will be managing my accounts with various online social networking sites including, but not limited to, Friendster, LinkedIn, Tribe, Orkut, Ryze, Spoke, ZeroDegrees, Ecademy, RealContacts, Ringo, MySpace, Yafro, EveryonesConnected, Friendzy, FriendSurfer, Tickle, Evite, Plaxo, Squiby, and WhizSpark.

Future duties may include discouraging companies and individuals from starting new social networking sites so that additional staff won’t be necessary in the future. Past employment as a bouncer, “heavy”, or hired goon may be helpful in this regard.

Short of hiring people to deal with it for us, the trend seems to be toward meta-aggregation with services such as FriendFeed and SocialThing. These services funnel all of your activity – from Flickr to Amazon.com to Twitter to Pandora and everything in between – into one feed that your friends can follow. Still sound like massive social overload? The most compelling feature of FriendFeed is not aggregation but filtering. FriendFeed provides extremely detailed filtering options where you can hide all the updates from a specific user, from a specific service, from a specific user on a specific service, all updates without comments, etc. Very powerful when used discriminately.

What tools or strategies do you use to deal with social media overload? How do you walk the line between social and professional networking?

-Sarah Zhang