In a blog post last week, Umair Haque put forward the idea that we’re currently experiencing a social media bubble, and he also explained why he thinks this is a bad thing:
Call it relationship inflation. Nominally, you have a lot more relationships — but in reality, few, if any, are actually valuable. Just as currency inflation debases money, so social inflation debases relationships. The very word “relationship” is being cheapened. It used to mean someone you could count on. Today, it means someone you can swap bits with.
He then says that this relationship inflation leads to inefficient allocation of attention, investment in low-quality content because that is what’s most popular, and a weakening of the internet as a force for good.
That’s pretty alarming.
As much as admire Haque’s work, I think there are a couple of flaws in his argument. I’m 100% with him in his desire for the creation and sustenance of thick, meaningful relationships and for the creation of awesome things that make our lives genuinely better. But I’m not convinced that social media is preventing progress towards these goals.
There are two parts of his argument that I’m not so sure about. The first is the contention that all ties within social media are weak ties. Now, social tools like facebook and twitter certainly do conflate genuine friends with acquaintances. But does it follow that because the tools do, that we do as well? I don’t think so. In a highly recommended post, Stowe Boyd responds:
He suggests that because we are creating and expending time on a growing number of weak ties then we are diminishing our involvement with intimates. I think this is debatable. While the time I spend writing this blog or twittering could in principle be applied to talking to loved ones directly, in reality many of my closest friends read this blog and my twitter stream to remain in contact with me, at no extra cost (here I am adopting Umair’s economics jargon). This in no way weakens my strongest ties, and certainly is the wellspring of thousands of weak ties.
And, as Erica Glasier points out, there are lots of valuable things that we can do with weak ties:
Thin relationships, or “weak connections” make these upper-Maslow interactions possible. You don’t need a high level of investment in someone to trade ideas. Their input is valuable precisely because they come from a different perspective, and aren’t bound by politeness or concern for your ego. I’ve mentioned the findings that novel input from new friends sparks more innovative, creative solutions. The more the merrier.
Weak ties can actually be pretty useful. There are tons of things we can do with our weak ties:
- We can get a job. The first use of the idea of strong and weak ties came through Mark Granovetter’s paper The Strength of Weak Ties (summarised here). His study showed that people are far more likely to find a job through weak ties than they are through strong ties, because people that we are less closely attached to are more likely to know things that we don’t already know ourselves.
- Like Erica says, we can use our weak ties to swap ideas, and to get ideas to spread. For examples of this, just look at the ways that Umair, Stowe and Erica use twitter, just for starters.
- Large numbers of weak ties can be incredibly useful for finding out specific information quickly. Paul Gillin has a good example in the comments to his recent post on search:
OK, I want to take a run after dark and avoid bad areas of town. In that case, recommendations from my Twitter followers would be my most useful source of advice. In fact, I probably couldn’t even find that kind of information on a search engine.
So, I agree with Boyd that having social tools equate strong and weak ties does not necessarily devalue weak ties. Furthermore, there are plenty of uses for weak ties, many of which actually do create thick value. I think that the key to this issue is ensuring that we keep the distinction between friends and acquaintances clear in our minds.
The second thing I’m not sure I agree with is the idea that bubbles are bad. They’re certainly inefficient, which is bad from a neo-classical economic view. But in many cases bubbles create an incubator for experimentation, which is often the only way we can discover the value in novel technologies. Here’s the way Jason Potts put it (a link to the pdf):
Bubbles are good because they promote variety and experimentation in an economic system. The bubble process facilitates the sort of structural change that economic growth always, in some form, requires. Economic systems, when they are open and therefore competitive, need bubbles to grow. So they require institutional systems and policy frameworks capable of (perhaps vigorous) interaction with bubbles.
A bubble works by concentrating financial liquidity and entrepreneurial attention onto an asset class and its forward prospects. Inside a bubble, the cost of experimentation, and therefore variety generation, is lowered and, by incentive effect, the process of structural change is accelerated. Access to finance is easy inside a bubble. Similarly, the cost of failure is reduced, and the uptake of novelty is high. The economy becomes energised around the bubble, as do the entrepreneurial spirits of agents who happen upon it. Learning is accelerated within a bubble, and radically new business ideas can get a start, as can radically new products. Real bubbles theory, then, is the idea that from a bubble environment there flows the incipient variety upon which the evolutionary economic process of enterprise and wealth creation feeds. Bubbles breed variety, and variety feeds economic evolution, and therefore growth.
Jason is talking about bubbles more like the dot.com boom than policy-driven bubbles like those in housing. The issue is that when we have something new, like the internet, or social media, we have to figure out what the best use of it will be. In the dot.com bubble, it is only obvious in retrospect that pets.com was a dumb idea (those huge shipping charges!) and amazon.com was brilliant. At the time, this was still an open question – and plenty of people thought that amazon was pretty stupid when it launched (Who buys books without seeing them first? How will we know what we’re looking for without book store clerks? etc.). It’s only through experimentation that we discover what the killer ideas are.
It’s the same with social media. It wasn’t obvious when it launched that twitter was going to work as it had – it couldn’t be because twitter is built on the network of connections within the tool. Bubbles are useful precisely because we can’t pick the winners in advance.
The issue that Umair might take with this is that growth isn’t by definition good. I agree with this, so in as far as bubbles drive growth, then they aren’t necessarily good. But I don’t think that they are by definition bad either. Our challenge is to figure out how to drive investment in creating things that have genuine sustainable value. This problem is the same whether or not the social media bubble exists. What we really need is an awesomeness bubble.