Management of our growing social network, a variant of information overload: interaction overload

Internet increases people’s social capital by facilitating connections among people. This social aspect has recently taken off with the web 2.0 phenomena and the proliferation of social networking sites (MySpace, Facebook, Linkedin, …) and virtual communities (Delicious, Youtube, Lastfm, Librarything,Digg).
This is also true in the companies. Increasingly, the knowledge workers of today collaborate not only with their office colleagues but also with people distributed in many places coming from different origins and background.

Transiting from an Information age to a connection age [10][11], if the information overload is not a new problem, a variant, the connection overload is more and more perceptible by everyone. See for instance a new kind of job position “Personal social network coordinator” [6] :). As I have already mentioned in a previous post [7], new tools/methods need to be developped to help us to manage this new problem and specially to optimize our management for maximizing the returns from it. A recent article [9] pointed out researchs that correlated social isolation with immune system problems. If too few social relationships affect an individual so profoundly, what would too many do?

The first part focuses on the consequence of our daily or short term management of a large social network while the second part will be about a more long term management, notably the development of our social capital (structural hole theory, Dunbar’s number, diversity)

New daily management: The Continual partial attention (CPA)

Due to this growing connectivity, people are changing their strategies to manage their social networks A new strategy is emerging for the attention management of our networks. In [1][2] L.Stone called this emerging behavior “Continual Partiual attention” (CPA). It involves an artificial sense of constant crisis: people attempt to stay partially but continuously aware about the activity within their networks. “We want to effectively scan and optimize for the best opportunities, activities, and contacts, in any given moment.” Furthermore, this growing social awareness effect is also amplified by the low cost of communication and the convergence/interoperability of devices and networks. Offline devices (e.g. cell phones) are now connected to online ones (e.g. IM, email, feed) providing a sense of real-time awareness . “It is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place.

Utility perspective: CPA as the best short term strategy to use our current social capital? (signal/noise)
In a rich social environment, this behavior is maybe the best possible strategy in term of attention allocation: they pay attention to everyone within their networks to optimize its potentiel short term return (opportunies for business, new events for futur relationship,etc..) but in a fragmented way in time due to their limited cognitive capacities.
(todo: Similarity with the visual sampling problem in aviation for the design of a cockpit/signal processing: How to design a cockpit to facilitate the reconstruction of a complex signal  from successive observations of a set of Area of interests (indicators) by a pilot?

Entreprise perspective: interruption and the problem of the worker’s productivity (signal/noise)
Responding exactly to this new Behavior, Facebook and Twitter, two web services providing a way to stay continuously aware of the activity of the user’s social networks, are ones of the main successful web services in 2006/2007. Furthermore the sells of IPhones and Blackburries are explosing attesting the real need in cross media connectivity and awareness.
But except these good news for some companies, the main economic effect of this connection overload is negative on the worker’s productivity. The bigger my network is, the more chance I have to be interrupted in my work. According to the study [3] the total cost to the U.S. economy of attention-management problems caused by e-mail and other online tools amounts to about $588 billion a year!.

Psychological persceptive: The CPA, a strategy or an addiction?
I think that the problem with this new CPA behavior is not so much about interruption. It’s the fact that people want intentionnally pay attention to everyone.  I know some addicted people who go on Facebook  4 or 5 times per day or more traditionally check their e-mails every 30 minutes. The blackBerry is now called “crackberry” due to its addiction.The bigger my network is, the more chance I have to miss something if I don’t pay attention continuously. Or the reverse, the more I pay attention to my network, the more chance I have to meet new people. Because I meet new people, my netwok grows and requires more attention than before. At the end, that little game could have clear effects on the quantity of attention dedicated to my network compared to the other things in my life. According to a recent study [8] 22% of German cellphone users report having interrupted sex to answer their cellphone
One psychological explanation for the CPA behavior is called intermittent variable reward [4] Patricia Wallace, explained in the Time Magazine [5] that the compulsive email checking behavior in adults as well as teens is similar to a slot machine: “You are not sure you are going to get a reward every time or how often you will, so you keep pulling that handle.” So the problem of attention management is not only caused by information/connectivity overload but also by a behavioral problem.

In a next post I will talk about the long term management, notably the development of our social capital (structural holes therory, Dunbar number, network diversity, etc…).

Bonus: An old song “Out of time man” from a popular 90’s group Mano negra