Is Social Media a Fire Hose or a Filter?

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I spent the better part of this week at the Enterprise 2.0 Conference in Boston where I saw an excellent presentation called "The Dark Side of Enterprise 2.0." During this session, Kathleen Culver of Alactel-Lucent suggested that one of the big negatives of Enterprise 2.0 and by extension, social media in general, was that it presents us with too much information. She suggested it's impossible to filter through the noise to find what matters to you. I think to some extent she's right, but it also has the opposite effect by providing you with a trusted network to help point you to the content that matters most to you. Tools also have an impact on how well you can filter the larger river of content that flows over you every day in social media.

We Can't Multitask

Culver said that recent data and articles would suggest that we are being overloaded by information from our social networks. We can't multi-task like computers, at least we can't do it effectively. When our attention is divided, the theory goes, we really don't do anything well. I'm inclined to agree with that to an extent. In fact, I did a small experiment this morning where I shut off Twitter and the stream of announcements that appear automatically every few minutes, and I was able to accomplish more when I kept focused on the task at hand. That said, I do believe that social media has a positive impact on people's work lives when you use the correct tools.

Is Twitter Helpful or Not?

The other day on one of my mailing lists, a member wrote to complain about Twitter. He had tried it, but it was just too much information and he was looking for a reason to stay engaged. As you would expect people gave him ways to break down the information to make it more meaningful for him using tools like Twitter search, Hootsuite and TweetDeck. There is a legitimate issue on how to filter the larger stream of information on Twitter if you use the web interface. These tools help you break it down into more easily digestible micro streams of information.

The Fire Hose and the Filter

The fact is that social media is definitely both. Facebook recognized this and provides a full news feed or just the "top news." But the fact is that when go on Facebook and Twitter on the open web or when we use similar tools inside the work environment, these tools can act as our own personal filters. As counter-intuitive as that might sound, when my friends recommend a link, I'm more inclined to follow that link because I trust the judgment of the person posting the link.

These kinds of personal filters are what social media guru, Chris Brogan refers to as Trust Agents in his book by the same name. They are the people we trust to give us good recommendations. In the end, there is no absolute answer. If our tools help us and our friends help us, social media can be a positive force. Left unfiltered, it is an uncontrollable, chaotic fire hose of information. The technology has the ability to go either way. It's up to us to find ways to control the flow and get to the information that matters most to us.

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