Eternal sunshine of the social site

by Tom Albrighton 10 November 2011 Digital and social

Recently, Twitter has made some changes to the user experience at its website. All activity relevant to the user (@ replies, retweets, favourites and follows) is now collected in a single tab, and a new tab titled ‘Activity’ presents events from people that the user follows – including following other users and ‘favouriting’ their tweets.

In my view, these sorts of tweak reflect social sites’ implicit bias towards increase and accumulation: more followers, more content, more activity. Arguably, just giving such prominence to follower/followed numbers encourages the ‘bigger is better’ mindset of quantification and comparison. In the world of Twitter, we’re always gaining, always growing, always getting more.

More ≠ better

However, from a user experience viewpoint, growth is not necessarily improvement. It can just as easily mean dilution, or fragmentation. Building a quality Twitter feed is as much about filtering and rejecting as it is about adding and exploring.

Nothing stays the same for long, particularly in digital. Personally, I want my Twitter feed to be more like a ‘current faves’ playlist than a monolithic, ever-growing collection of every CD I’ve ever heard.

When it added the lists feature, Twitter seemed to be conceding that many people’s feeds had become too large and unwieldy to be useful without some sort of filtering or categorisation. Yet the overall focus is still on ‘more’ rather than ‘better’ (let alone ‘less’).

Negative news

A notification of who someone else has followed is of limited interest really. All it indicates is that someone is trying out someone’s feed – so by definition, it’s far from being a recommendation based on full knowledge. In a way, ‘negative’ news – notifications of other people’s unfollows or blocks – would be far more useful (as would an ‘#unfollowfriday’ hashtag).

This sort of social ebb and flow is part of life. We meet people, join groups, hang out, and see how things go. Sometimes we stay together, and sometimes we drift apart. With research showing that most people have only five really good friends, it’s clear that we need to let go of the less-valuable relationships to devote our attention to the ones that matter. Severing a tie that helps neither party isn’t ‘negative’ – quite the opposite, in fact.

Argument amplification

Also, hearing about ‘negative’ events would appeal to our very human desire for gossip, disagreement and conflict – both observing others, and participating ourselves. Social sites are curiously prudish about the ‘dark’ side of their experiences, preferring to pretend that we are all happily following and retweeting each other with never a cross word spoken. But, again, argument and anger are part of our lives – so why shouldn’t they be a part of Twitter?

Now, some people would rightly argue that the dark side of social media has been all too apparent on occasion, with people jumping on hater bandwagons without thinking. (I documented one such occasion in this post.) But maybe people would think twice if sites had built-in mechanics to highlight their more ‘negative’ actions. And, at the end of the day, a website is just a medium – people write the Tweets.

Digital insulation

The ultimate step would be providing news of our own ‘dislikes’ – the people who’d decided to unfollow or block us. Some people in my feed seemed unsure about this, and I can see how it might be upsetting.

But the reality is that some people like us, others don’t. Some people stick with us, and others drift away. While there’s no need to obsess over our ex-friends (or outright enemies), it’s equally unhealthy to shut them out of our worldview completely, just because a digital platform allows it. In the real world, we’d probably still have to deal with them on some level – seeing them down the pub, or hearing people talk about them. Why should the digital world be so different? Is it really healthy to want sunshine all the time?

A balanced view of the world takes in decline as well as growth, dark as well as light and, yes, death as well as life. The social sites, and our experience of them, should reflect that.

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