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Networks & Burnout – The Battle for Attention and Relevance

by Navin Ganeshan on August 31, 2011

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Burnout isn’t just a problem for us social butterflies. For networks like Facebook or Google Plus whose growth and monetization strategies are driven by user engagement time, one of the biggest challenges is how to connect more people with each other and content without crossing that line where the sheer volume of sharing causes users to disengage.

There’s a long-standing theory that this limit is 150 – referred to as the Dunbar number – that is, the cognitive limit of how many friends one can meaningfully engage with. So it should come as no surprise that for most us with a few hundred or thousand friends, the prospect of burnout is emerging as an issue.

Facebook and Google are taking this seriously. Beyond providing (and studiously honing) the ability to group contacts and conversations, there is also a lot effort going into filtering content and updates. On the surface, Facebook’s growth in new users as well as overall time spent appears to magically defy this trend. More and more people are spending more and more time on Facebook. But behind the scenes, this problem is being very actively managed in a way that may be transparent to most users.

It’s been fascinating to watch Facebook take on this massive, seemingly insurmountable challenge and concoct their secret sauce, the “EdgeRank”. Simply put, it’s a formula that determines how relevant a particular event (post, comment, update etc) is to a specific individual. The EdgeRank is the most critical factor that determines what you see on your feed. Have you ever wondered why some friends’ posts show up on your feed while others don’t, or why some of your posts seem to garner a lot of comments while others get nothing but crickets? The answer in most cases is the EdgeRank.

  • Affinity – how connected you are to the person doing the sharing
  • Weight – the importance of the sharing activity – whether it’s a Comment, a Like or a Post – essentially, the more work the activity took, the higher its weight.
  • Time – when the activity occurred, obviously newer activities taking more priority

So what can you do with this information? A few common-sense tips…

If you love somebody, “Like” them
That is, if you want to see more about someone, start liking their posts. Sounds obvious, but this requires active effort, not just good intentions. If you have the urge to chime in, go ahead and comment. Doing this helps to ensure that you see more of what you want, and connect with and less of what you don’t.

Actively manage your “circles”
It’s okay to have hundreds or thousands of friends as long as you realize they exist in concentric circles of closeness to you. Manage them accordingly – Family, Co-workers, Friends, Acquantainces etc – and then target your content accordingly. And in turn the flurry of information you see will be more customized for your tastes.

Get more visual
Pictures carry a lot more weight than text posts. And posted links are next in priority. So think of content beyond the pithy status-update.

Occasionally, go beyond your feed
One interesting, but largely academic, implication of all this is that it may encourage “cocooning” – the tendency to retreat into the comfort of the familiar instead of actively looking for new content and connections that may be outside of your conventional radar. To some extent, this may be directly at odds with all the other things you’re being encouraged to do – targeting, filtering and customizing what you see. But what you can keep in mind is that, occasionally, especially for new contacts, you may want to visit their page and review and engage with their posts over there to create that initial “edge”. Otherwise, you may end up ignoring new connections in favor of your existing feed.

Next up…what tools are available to help you sip from the firehouse of content coming at you from different social channels. Check back soon!  In the meantime, please vote for my panel discussion at SxSW 2012 with a dream team of small-biz and tech gurus on the topic of reinvigorating innovation without burning out – Entrepreneur Social Burnout – Grab the jumper cable!.  Voting closes next week, so please vote now.

Image via Flickr (creative commons) by afagen

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