Social search, recommendation saturation, and how Google+ just strong-armed us

Over at Nieman Lab, Carrie Brown-Smith verbalized something that’s been weighing on me lately: the social media bubble may be bursting. But this isn’t about hostility toward social media, and she’s no retrenchment-minded Luddite. She says, in part:

But despite all of our excitement over its potential, I’m beginning to wonder about how big of a community can be meaningfully maintained online and how this affects news organizations.  For example, many early Twitter adopters such as myself report that their rate of responses, retweets and click-thrus have declined over time. I suspect this may have less to do with any change in behavior on our parts or that of our followers and more to do with the fact that the Twitter universe is now so large. Already overflowing streams are flooding. The likelihood that even your most interested followers will even see a tweet is ever lower. In order to develop engaged and loyal communities on social media, news organizations are going to have to work harder and smarter and try to find solutions to Shirky’s “filter failure” problem.

I echo what Carrie said; I don’t like the trajectory I’m seeing with Twitter and Facebook as my tools of choice, and size/filter failure is the primary culprit. In a small, personal group, each recommendation has great significance. As groups grow larger and more impersonal, each recommendation loses value – even if they’re coming from your most trusted sources.

Instead of having two stories to compete for your attention, you may have 20 stories competing for your attention. You may have clicked on both of your two choices, but faced with 20 choices, you’ll probably click on somewhere between zero and four.

That means the growth of these networks simultaneously expands our potential audience and makes it harder to reach them. I’ve experienced it in my own Twitter feed, where I’m now overwhelmed by following over 2,300 people. I often try to cut down, but it’s as futile as mowing the lawn. It quickly grows back.

So as everyone’s networks continue to grow, as we become close to more and more people we feel like we must keep tabs on, we may see people making drastic cutbacks in their social media diet. My solution has been to start a list of 300 people whose tweets I don’t want to miss, and I find myself watching that list far more than my larger stream. But what will happen when that turns into 500 people whose tweets I can’t miss, then 1,000? I’ll probably create a new list of 100 people I definitely can’t miss.

Facebook has already worked on this problem by more heavily promoting their algorithmically generated “top news” instead of a raw feed of all updates. That, I probably don’t need to tell you, hasn’t been perfect.

One potential solution for this is better search within our social networks, which is why the recent Google+ news is so important. I say this as far from a Google fanboy; I’ve been throughly uninterested in Google+ since its launch.

To review recent developments: If you were to search for Jon Huntsman, Google will now feature relevant results from what your friends are sharing on Google+. Twitter and Facebook don’t have that kind of referral engine. So if you wrote a reader’s guide to Jon Huntsman’s record, you better make sure everyone who searches for Jon Huntsman has a friend who recently shared your link on Google+. Since ProPublica’s Google+ account recently shared that story, it appeared No. 6 in my search results. We never would have been anywhere close to the front page beforehand.

In that sense, as far as news organizations are concerned, the value of an engaged Google+ user may have just rocketed past the value of an engaged Twitter or Facebook user, even if there are fewer of them.

Whatever your feelings may be on Google+, you have to be excited by the potential of search applied to social. Not only does it save our networks from potentially becoming more and more useless, but it could potentially make them more useful than they’ve ever been. As our networks grow, we may expect search to be part of our social networks in the same way we expect it to be part of our overall web use. We won’t want a raw feed of our network activity anymore than we’d want a raw feed of all new content on the Internet that day. And it’s possible we’ll start to search within our network first, and only if we don’t find our answer there will we search outside our network.

What I’m describing here is a totally different landscape than what we’re used to. Everything we’ve learned about whether to use a colon or a period at the end of our tweets goes out the window. New tips and tricks to game the system will come into style.

So how do we plan for the inevitability of a platform change, whatever form it may take? The key is creating strategies that don’t depend on specific tools. Don’t plan for more followers and retweets; plan for creating incentives that will gather the most significant contributions possible from non-staffers. Don’t focus on gimmicks to get more likes on Facebook; focus on how to best appeal to the specific communities who deeply care about your content.

Then you figure out how to fit specific tools like Twitter and Facebook and Google+ into that mission. The specific tools might change, but the mission won’t.

It isn’t a trivial difference. There are many card-houses being built right now in the form of accounts that drive traffic but aren’t aiding the journalistic process in any significant way. If you’re good at Twitter, you’ll be left cold when you have to figure out the next site. If you’re good at social journalism, you’ll be fully prepared.

So I’d suggest we focus on becoming more proficient in social journalism than we are in social tools. Examine the psychology of sharing more than the psychology of retweeting. Social media may fail us, but social concepts aren’t going anywhere.