If communication is a time thief, then connectivity is a communications prison where inmates are compelled to waste their lives communicating with other inmates, who have no opportunity to listen. In my previous life I was expected to attend a lot of meaningless meetings. I did so reluctantly. Fortunately, I was also given the opportunity to interact with a smaller group of young people, which was much more meaningful. Unfortunately, I also chose to engage in a lot of trivial Facebook communication, until I cut out 95% of it. This post attempts to explain why social connectivity, through social media, such as Facebook, is doomed to fail.
This post is divided into three sections, labeled assumptions, consequences and justifications, respectively. The first looks at a few important characteristics of social connectivity. The second attempts to explain what is happening, and is yet another pedantic homily. The third examines why, from a quasi-mathematical, semi-logical perspective.
Assume that there are different levels of communication. Keeping to the nearest order of magnitude, these are divided into four levels (A to D).
Level A. There are 10 people in the world where every individual wants regular contact. This probably includes members of their immediate family, possibly a few good friends. It feels natural to communicate with these people on a daily basis.
Level B. There are 100 people in the world that every individual feels inspired to communicate with.
Level C. There are 1000 people in the world that every individual feel some sort of an obligation to communicate with.
Level D. These are the zillion other people populating the world, with whom every individual will have almost no contact, and feels no obligation for more than fleeting contact, at best.
Assume each person is prepared to spend one hour a day communicating using social media. Further, assume she would want to spend most of her time communicating with people belonging to level A, and least with level C, and only incidentally with level D. For the sake of argument, let us put some values on the various types of communication. Assume that writing a message takes twice as long as reading and reacting to a message. Assume that a standard message takes 2 minutes to write, and 1 minute to read. Second, Assume that every person in each group acts precisely the same way.
Assume people would be willing to spend 30 minutes a day communicating with level A people, twenty minutes writing and ten minutes reading. For level B, they would only be prepared to spend 15 minutes a day, ten minutes writing and 5 minutes reading. For level C, they would probably not be prepared to spend much time at all, but here the same values as for level B will be used, ten minutes writing and 5 minutes reading.
There are two ways in which information can be disseminated: privately, directly to one specific person, or publicly, broadcast to everyone at that level. Private dissemination corresponds to sending an email, a private message or an sms. Public communication corresponds to writing on someone’s Facebook wall or publishing a blog post.
There is one important consequence of connectivity that I will attempt to express in three different ways (1a, 1b and 1c). In addition, there are two less important consequences (2 and 3).
1a. Facebook understands, and acts in accord to its understanding. Algorithms matter.
1b. Facebook consumers don’t understand, and through their actions show their lack of understanding.
1c. There is no way for people to engage in meaningful two-way communication, with a thousand other people. In fact, it doesn’t work with one hundred. It barely works with ten.
2. There are mechanisms to broadcast messages, but normally one wants to restrict communication to specific demographics. If I look at the ads I have been targeted with in the past few days, I seem to be in the market for: a) an older, single Russian woman; b) a Jeep Renegade from an Ottawa car dealer; c) windows and doors from a Norwegian supplier. Note: this ad was in The Independent, and I actually clicked on it because it was relevant! Pinterest seems to do the worst job of targeting me. Almost all of the pins they think I am interested in are related to soccer (that’s association football, for some of you readers).
3. There seems to be a gradual understanding that social media are using people for their own purposes. Facebook is not really interested in helping me connect with long-lost girlfriends from a previous century; they want me to focus on buying products and services that they have mediated. They find these by examining what I read and write on their media.
An aside. At the dawn of the computer age, in my student days when IBM 360 machines were the rage, I was encouraged to save myself time and money by filling in a form (and investing money) to get the names and telephone numbers of three women who, on the basis of a computer analysis, were ideally suited for me. What I hazily remember in the fifty years since then, is that I only actually met one of these ladies, spending half an hour drinking coffee at Brock Hall. It struck me that she was the least appealing woman I had ever met. She admitted, that she had been given over thirty names, and she was working her way through the list.
The minimum requirement for computer dating to work, is to have an approximately equal number of participants on each list. This just doesn’t happen. The Canadian dating service company, Ashley Madison, is infamous for its data breach. Annalee Newitz, Editor-in-Chief of Gizmodo, stated that there were only 12 000 regularly used female accounts, out of 5.5 million at Ashley Madison, but she has subsequently disavowed this analysis. Adultery seems to have gone out of fashion at Ashley Madison. Its motto has changed from “Life is short. Have an affair.” to “Live the Moment”.
Here are the results formulated as a matrix:
|Time to read all||10m||100m||5m||500m||5m||5000m|
|Days to wait||1||1||1||20||1||200|
What the results mean
In any situation dominated by private (one-on-one) communication, the number of communiques in, is equal to the number of communiques out. This applies at all three levels (A to C). There is no problem sending and receiving private communiques.
Difficulties arise when mass communication is used, such as writing a post on a wall, or sending out an email to everyone in one’s address book. Level A: With 10 people, 1h 40m has to be devoted to reading these public messages. Level B: With 100 people, reading increases to 8h 20m. Here one is sending and receiving messages at half intensity compared to level A. At the same intensity as level A, it would take 16h 40m. Level C: With 1 000 people, reading increases to 83h 20m. At the same intensity as level A, it would take 166h 40m. There are 168 hours in a week.
If the number of messages was to be reduced to correspond to the intended reading rate, then only one public message a day would be allowed at level A. This is reduced to one message every 20 days at level B, and to one message every 200 days at level C.
There is just no way in which everyone can engage in mass communication. This fact of life brings us back to reality. If mass communication is to occur, then algorithms have to be employed to limit who receives which communiques.