Babel, Not Babble

Sorry about that typo, the title should have been Social Media Babel, although babble covers very similar ground.  If you aren't sure what we are talking about, you'll find the following definitions of babble helpful.

  • Inarticulate or meaningless talk or sounds.
  • Idle or foolish talk; chatter.
  • A continuous low, murmuring sound, as of flowing water.

As we explore the Social Media Babel, you'll find that babble is a big contributor to the current status of social media.  By social media, we include all online properties where individuals interact with one another.  That includes Facebook, Twitter, Forums, Wikis, blog comments and a variety of lesser forms.  These are all played out against a background of e-mail messages both from welcome correspondents and a flood of spammers, some merely irritating and others requiring careful handling.

If you aren't aware of the problems that occur in social media, then you just have not been paying attention.  Everyone has more and more time pressures and more and more ways of investing or wasting that time.

We will explore a big picture view of all this in greater detail and from that analysis, suggest what some owners of social media spaces may choose to do given current problems.

Babel Is No Game

babel rising

Although in a game you may be able to stop Babel rising, the Tower of Babel is no laughing matter.  Even though language may not be the main barrier to communication, people find it is difficult to communicate with all the people they might wish to.  More and more people join the throng all the time.

We're running out of Internet

Universe Closed by brianarn

As a signal of what is happening, we shortly will be in for a big internet crunch.

Within 18 months it is estimated that the number of new devices able to connect to the world wide web will plummet as we run out of "IP addresses" -- the unique codes that provide access to the internet for everything from PCs to smart phones.  ... Some estimate that by September 2011 the last large batches of addresses will be issued, meaning that months after that date there will be no new addresses available.

There are solutions, but nevertheless it is a strong signal of what is ahead.

Will Forums Survive

A striking indicator of the problem is the major navel-gazing going on in some of the Forums where people who should know how to handle social media congregate.  Cre8asite Forums, for example, is questioning its very existence.

Kim Krause-Berg, the owner of the Forums is asking, Time To Close Forums. New Gen Has No Need For Them.

Some of the most well known people in the search engine marketing, social networking and web design industries were once moderators at large forums. They gave back. They taught. They offered help to the community and the industries they love.

They asked for nothing in return, but nearly all of them now have their own businesses. Some are speakers at conferences. Several have turned to focus on their own local towns. As the Internet expands, some of them have found they are needed in new places, like schools or organizations.  When they leave, the forum or community they participated in suffers. There are not enough replacements.

Perhaps even more surprising is that the biggest Forum in this space, WebmasterWorld, is at this time encouraging its members to participate in Feedback Days.  Brett Tabke, CEO of WebmasterWorld, explains what he has in mind:

We are on a path to making the first significant changes to the website in over a decade. The template, the software, the forum format, forum content, advertising, paid subscriptions, and moderation policy are are on the table as valid options and agents of change.  We know there are many members that passionately value WebmasterWorld. We can't effectively take on these changes without considerable help and feedback from the community.

This will be a free flow of topics and ideas. We will not try to direct the discussions. Seeding the forum by senior members will be appreciated.  We don't care if feedback is positive or negative - it is just feedback and we want to hear it all. Your input will directly influence the future of this community. Don't be shy, these could be the most important messages you ever leave.

It seems to be a blank canvas, but it raises the question of why do this and why do this at this time.

The Big Picture

exquisite, extremely hi-def Earth by woodleywonderworks

In some ways, what is happening in this flood of communication and competing priorities and urgencies could best be pictured as an enormous Tower of Babel.  It is not language that is getting in the way, but rather that, with only 24 hours in the day, it is impossible to stay in touch with all the different contacts and communities that most of us have.

Of course no one is trying to stay in touch with everyone.  Everyone has their own corner of the cyber-world that they interact with from time to time.  Nevertheless if you are 'on the Internet' it is very easy to get overwhelmed.

Open Space Technology

One way of having a mental picture of this cyber-space is the approach adopted in what is called Open Space Technology.

Open Space is known for its apparent lack of structure and welcoming of surprises but it turns out that the Open Space meeting or organization is actually very structured.  Open Space works best when the work to be done is complex, the people and ideas involved are diverse, the passion for resolution (and potential for conflict) are high, and the time to get it done was yesterday. It's been called passion bounded by responsibility, the energy of a good coffee break, intentional self-organization, spirit at work, chaos and creativity, evolution in organization, and a simple, powerful way to get people and organizations moving -- when and where it's needed most.

In a large open space where people can easily move around, people will flock to the topics which they feel are important and on which they want to work.  Some topics cannot attract adherents and will gradually die once the proponent of that topic feels it is no longer worth trying to get traction for his/her idea with others.

Open CyberSpace Technology

That ebb and flow of people is exactly what happens with social media.  However in a physical space you can see people moving around.  You can see where people with whom you might have an affinity are clustering.  That is much more difficult in cyberspace.  How many of your friends are seeing what you see?  What are the other people who are drawn to this website like?  How many other people go there?  None of this is very clear.

How Can You Decide Whether A Particular Social Medium Is For You?

Jump on the social media bandwagon by Matt Hamm.

How will any given individual decide whether to stick with a particular social medium.  Do they have friends who participate there? Is there sufficient activity to justify visiting from time to time?  Are most of the people there somewhat different with different tastes?  There are a number of factors that come into play.

The Signal to Noise Ratio

One person's signal can be another person's noise.  However the proportion of 'stuff' you want to hear (the signal) versus the proportion of 'stuff' you don't want to hear (the noise) will be a big determinant in whether that social medium is for you.  This factor is a very black and white kind of indicator.  If you really want to cover up your ears, then that's not the place for you.

Measuring the Signal Flow

bad signal, 1 month by Mulad.

Looking more precisely at the Signal, some other factors come into play.  All of them are to an extent subjective and will be perceived by different people in different ways.  Information comes to you in 'packets'.  For example in Twitter it's a maximum of 140 characters and spaces.  An article in a blog may be significantly longer.  What is also important is the value of the content in that information packet.  We thus see that there are three important factors here:

  • Time between Packets - how long must you wait between packets of content - minutes or months
  • Size of the Packets - is it a tweet or an article
  • Value of the Packet - a very personal judgment but how valuable to you is this particular packet

As a quick summary measure of any social medium for a given individual, you might consider combining the three in what we will call the Babble Rank, calculated as follows:

Babble Rank  = Size * Value / Time

where time is measured in seconds, size is measured in bytes and value is on a judgement scale from 0 to 100.

If a Babble Rank is low, then the individual is unlikely to stick with that social medium.  If the Babble Rank is high, then that social medium is likely to continue to attract visits from that individual.

Let's consider two examples to illustrate how Babble Rank works.

For Twittering suppose a typical time between useful packets is  say 3 minutes = 180 seconds,
            average size = 120 bytes ( maximum is 140 bytes) 
            value of a typical packet = 3 
Babble Rank = 3 * 120 / 180 = 2

For a Forum suppose a typical time between useful packets is say 10 minutes = 600 seconds
            average  size = 500 bytes 
            value = 30 
Babble Rank = 500 * 30 / 600 = 25

For this individual, clearly the Forum content is much more valuable than the Twitter content.  However if the Forum content slows down and replies only come in say every 2 hours then the Babble Rank of the Forum and Twitter are almost  identical.  If the Forum is even slower, then it may be abandoned.

What should social media owners or hosts do to ensure their properties survive and grow?

Clearly given the speed of change on the Internet, you can never assume that what has worked yesterday will work tomorrow.  Any social medium owner would be well advised to assume that constant improvement is necessary, versus the ever-changing competition.  Tom Peter's advice is perhaps appropriate here;

If it ain't broke, break it.

If you accept that Babble Rank is a useful social medium performance measure then there are obvious steps to take:

Make sure that

  • new information is coming along at a satisfactory pace.
  • content has good value (cut out the spam and the noise)
  • items are adequately long and meaty

You only know you have succeeded if you create a community of adequate size to maintain the pace.  You don't need to have a huge community, only one that is interacting on a sufficiently timely basis that you maintain the community's allegiance.