Social Simulation May 11, 2009Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
Tags: Networking, Relationships, Social Media, Twitter
Computer simulation is a powerful tool, refined over decades to give engineers unparalleled ability to test and verify designs before bringing them to physical fruition. Simulation is also used to explore all sorts of scenarios that can’t be brought to life: weather, nuclear reactions, global warming. But there is a cautionary adage in the simulation world: Be careful; if you do it long enough, you start to think it’s the real thing.
And so it is with social media. We like to think that tools like Facebook and Twitter allow us to develop real relationships with people we otherwise would not have met. And while we can get real value by interacting with people via these tools, it is a far cry from a real relationship. Like simulation, don’t begin to think that exchanging tweets, however well-intentioned, is the real thing.
This came home to me at the Microsoft CIO Summit a few weeks ago. The Summit affords IT executives a chance to share advice, learn about new things, and generally commiserate. I always enjoy the opportunity to meet new CIOs and build new relationships.
While socializing, I realized that I was learning more about these people in a two minute chance encounter than I would in a month of tweets. While there was value in the words we exchanged, the rich context of the engagement provided all sorts of clues about the real person behind the data stream. How did they shake hands? Are they dressed neatly? Do they hold my gaze or look away? How do they laugh? Do they talk a lot or a little? Do I get a “good feeling” about them?
Your brain is the most advanced pattern matching device ever developed. It takes thousands of data bits and instantly makes decisions that dramatically affect how you feel about someone. Your mom was right: first impressions are lasting. When you meet someone, you are matching them against every interaction, good or bad, you’ve ever had and making a judgment. We call it intuition, and most people trust these impressions.
Social media strips away 99% of this data, leaving your brain with very few data elements to work with. I suspect that we fill in the gaps with optimistic values, leading to better impressions of our social media peers than might otherwise be warranted. Social media is to a real, in-person encounter like Morse code is to HD television. There simply isn’t enough bandwidth to get a good feel for the other person.
That isn’t to say that our social media friends aren’t good people (especially all of mine). But it is easy to start believing that social media is enough to sustain a good relationship. Like simulation, it is easy to start thinking that it is the real thing.
Perhaps we need to think about social media as a place to start a relationship. One started, we need to use traditional tools like meeting and speaking to build on that beginning. As the relationship grows, social media enhances the experience instead of supplanting it. Here’s a novel idea: pick one person that you’ve met through Twitter or Facebook and (gasp) call them. If they live close enough, meet them for coffee. Have a high-bandwidth encounter and see what it does for the relationship. I bet we’ll all be better off for it.