Noise +1, Signal 0

Or, Where’s the Pony?

A couple decisions about my use of social media collided in my head this week. With a medium-weight sigh — definitely subtragic but not trivial, either — I finally decided to hide updates from the Author Guy, Chris Moore on Facebook.  I’m quite selective in what I associate with my FB profile, because so many users on that platform seem to treat it as a way to grab and retain ‘share of mind’ as the marketing types call it, more conventionally known as attention span. They want us to see & remember their names, and so they’ll post any- and everything to hook as much of our attention as they can. That’s an old and oddly still respected model of treating people with whom marketers want to maintain what passes for a relationship in their discipline.

I friended Moore because he’s a funny guy, and one with some substance in his message, as well. He clearly works hard to interact with his fans at an authentic, human level rather than being that marketing guy who pushes his name at them at every opportunity. His updates weren’t often directly relevant to me, but they were frequently amusing and worth the pause in my day. Then he started posting every single one of his book signing appearances and other events, the *vast* majority of which have no bearing on my life. That boost in the noise drowned out his signal, and he’s now off my FB radar screen.

Oh well, we all have to learn to take a few roughs with a smooth, as P.G. Wodehouse reminded us, but then in the same week, I had to deal with Google Plus. Consistency would have me ignore it as just one more set of signal-noise problems, but I never claimed to be especially consistent, and a new toy is a new toy. I tell myself that I need to understand it if I want to be any sort of information professional at all, because it’s under the big G, and anything with that brand commands attention. Plus, as a user, I’m sufficiently annoyed by the abrupt and intrusive variations in FB’s interface and terms of service to welcome an alternative. (The alternative of messing with neither and reclaiming that chunk of my day is still a viable one and probably the most likely long-term outcome, given the thin informational soup to be found at either source.) So I’ve set up circles and watched what bubbles up from my friends & acquaintances, and we’ll just see what the value is.

So far, what I’m getting is mostly reposts of tidbits from a friend who makes his living being an early adopter of these things. He’s a guru teaching others how to stay in touch with their customers across whatever channels make sense and nurture true, long-term, mutually supportive relationships. In other words, he’s one of the good guys leading the charge toward a better world than the bleak landscape I described of push-oriented marketers waving their names in our faces. But he’s also prolific as hell — which makes sense as this *is* his workday — and lots of what he passes along comes from others in that same space, which is peripheral to my own focus. That means, through no fault of his, a good chunk of his traffic is noise rather than signal to me.

So what’s the problem? I can tune my signal, look for people and sparks of ideas that do target my chosen range of the conceptual bandwidth. G+ looks like it’ll offer incrementally, but not dramatically, better tools for that than FB has provided. (FB still looks like it’ll keep a solid grasp of its killer app — sharing photos of the kids’ birthday parties with distant relatives & friends.) The problem is that I have connections to my friend at levels irrelevant to the content he may cast upon the G+ waters, and I don’t want to feel like those levels of connection are lost if I give up on the content stream. The noise still carries a sub-etha signal within it that says I care about the guy, even if I don’t want to follow the large bulk of the links he posts.

So what I’m wondering about is this: How do I gauge the parts of the stream that merit my attention? Already inundated with FB traffic of questionable precision, I’m now faced with a gigantic new transmitter of recall in G+, and I have to decide which firehoses to drink from. I’ve asked this question other ways before, and Google’s new toy has moved me farther from an answer, if anything. I think my friend would advise message-senders wise enough to hire him that they need to keep their streams honest and content-rich. I’ve said the same myself in meetings at my previous job, trying to get nuggets of valuable information added to the stream of old-school, outbound promotion that seems to be the default communication strategy behind most organizational uses of Facebook, Twitter, and similar. The problem is the variability in recipients’ standards for assaying the value of those nuggets versus the time spent screening so many rivers of incoming data to discover them. It’s fine to urge users of social media to foster conversation instead of continuing past tactics of shouting at people like a carnival barker. Where’s the quiet space you need for that conversation to happen? More specifically, how can senders moderate and plan their communication streams to create those opportunities?

But hey, the folks at Google have been betting on recall over precision from its beginning, and that seems to be working out for them. Somehow people keep finding the pony, or enough that seems sufficiently pony-like to them to keep them coming back.