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Social Simulation May 11, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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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.


1. Susan Mazza - May 11, 2009

I agree that it is a great place to discover people you would not have otherwise met, but you need other forms of interaction to develop a real relationship. Although how we interpret some of the queues we pick up on in a face to face meeting can send false signals. By stripping away those signals in the beginning we might end up going into an initial face to face meeting more open minded or we might even end up developing a real relationship that would not have initially made it through our face to face meeting filters.

2. Monica Diaz - May 11, 2009

Alas, social media uses the verbal, even without voice inflections (which is why we need emoticons, LOL and 😉 and the likes) to communicate. This is stripped of the most compelling parts of a conversation: the nuances of your tone of voice, the body language, the ammount of contact,etc. So it leads to misunderstandings, miscalculations and superficiality. (Or, on ocasion, more clarity than with all the noise) So, I agree, there is nothing like face to face contact. But, the point you are making here is that we really don’t know the people we met tweeting, or on LI or FB. If you find you enjoy going back and forth with these limited means of communication, by all means, find a way to meet ftf! On the other hand, it REALLY helps to keep real-life relationships up to date and in the know about your thoughts, milestones, current work. So it works the other way around, it takes ftf relationships and enhances them by putting us all in a space reserved for contact. I just love that. Also, intellectually, the quality of the bouncing boards I have online is superb! And I get to meet people that otherwise were not in my circle. So, it cuts both ways I believe!

P.S. I wrote a post on my blog about Social Media with a slightly different slant. (See my url, it will take you there)

3. Chuck Musciano - May 11, 2009

Good point, Susan. Social tools can remove the barriers that intuitive errors might create, opening us to relationships that would never have otherwise happened.

My real concern is that we cannot stop with the social tools. We must move on to “real” communication. This post was inspired, in part, by the great phone call you and I had about coblogging. The call was precipitated by our social tool interaction, but the conversation was far richer than any set of tweets or email ever could be.

4. Chuck Musciano - May 11, 2009


I completely agree, especially with the way social tools enhance existing relationships. I often refer to them as the “spackle” that fills in all the cracks on a day-to-day basis.

It may make sense to view social tools as two completely different mechanisms, one with regard to existing relationships and another with regard to new relationships. In the former, these tools enhance an existing deep connection. In the latter, we can use the tools to find those people that we want to advance to a more connected position.

5. Tim Young - May 11, 2009

Have you ever noticed that through technology and social networking we are more connected than ever, but through the lens of real, true and authentic relationships…we are more disconnected than ever?

I am not saying that Facebook, Twitter, etc. are necessarily bad, but I am wondering if there is a question behind the question. These social spaces are places that enable us to stay connected despite geography, but what are we really looking for?


6. Allyson Ingerman - May 11, 2009

How interesting, the thoughts of different generations can be.

Social Media has opened the world to communications that were just not possible to the masses even as few as 5 years ago.

Although the internet has been around for awhile now (I got online in 1994 – a forever 15 years ago), with the invent of social media’s online interaction, the ability to reach out and really touch someone has opened a new world up for us.

While no interaction disconnected from human touch can really replace the person to person contact, social media comes so close.

Twitter alone has connected me to people I never thought I would be able to reach and started conversations that enrich my life in ways that I can honestly say bring me moments of happiness and productivity not seen before.

Three cheers for social media!

7. Chuck Musciano - May 12, 2009

Tim & Allyson,

You each hit different sides of the same coin. Allyson, I’m with you in being a huge fan of social media (the many posts in this blog show that!). But social media isn’t a complete relationship; you need to have something more to make it complete.

Tim, you touch on that. What are we looking for? How do you expand beyond what these tools offer?

It’s all a grand experiment that we get to be in the middle of. I was privileged to be in the middle of the creation of the internet, email, the web, and now this. It’s fun to be living in interesting times!

8. Allyson Ingerman - May 12, 2009

Hi Chuck!

I don’t disagree that the social media format doesn’t give you a full and complex relationship – but I think that this is not really relevant to the use of said media.

I would argue that social media isn’t intended to be a full fledged relationship, but just a communications tool allowing the individual to reach others that they would otherwise not have access too.

The ananimity that comes with the internet cuts both ways – but definitely frees us from preconceived notions, agism, sexism and any other form of prejudice that clouds person to person judgment.

That said, I am authentically me online as in person – I think that comes across in my posts as well as it does in my other interactions. 🙂

9. Joe Williams - May 16, 2009

Great post, Chuck! You hit the nail on the head for me when you said that we fill in the gaps with optimistic values. It’s a great reminder that nothing can beat eye contact, pressing the flesh, and genuine human-to-human interaction in person.

10. Gwyn Teatro - May 16, 2009

I compare Twitter to hors d’oevres Twitter users, like hors d’oevres, are many and varied. Some are hot and some are cold. Some leave you wanting more and some may not be to your taste. In essence, They give you an idea of what we might expect from the main course.

And, the meal is indeed not complete until the main course has been served.

11. Chuck Musciano - May 18, 2009

@Allyson: I think we are both in agreement. Social media starts relationships where none existed, and enhances relationships where they already existed. In both cases, you need the real engagement to cement things.

@Joe: I wonder, do pessimists fill the gaps with negative assumptions? Are there pessimists on Twitter?

@Gwyn: I *love* this analogy. Twitter is, indeed, the hors d’oevres that may lead to a wonderful meal. Perfect!

12. Lynn M - May 18, 2009

I definitely see your point and whole-heartedly agree that this kind of simulation ISN’T the real thing.

Taken from a different point of view, I think sometimes people reveal more to you over email or through social media sites than they would in person (even when you know them well personally). In one respect you may be getting to know them even better, but it still isn’t the real thing because you aren’t getting the entire package. The holding back on certain information (which we may do via cues from other people — their body language, reactions to what we say, etc.) is part of who a person is as well. It shows that they know how to properly interact with other people.

When you are face-to-face with someone you react and communicate based on these cues and it is part of normal human interaction (I guess you could compare it to how animals might find their pecking order or how they react to each other’s body language). This simulated interaction removes a barrier and I think in some cases people prefer to communicate this way because they don’t have to give and take as much.

When we speak to each other we have to allow time for the other person’s point of view. Certainly you’ve been in conversations where the other person doesn’t allow you to get your whole point across or your full story out without changing the subject or interjecting their point over yours. Most people respectfully deal with this and it is part of getting along with other people and putting your own ego aside and in its place. When you are online no one interrupts you, you don’t have to worry about body language, it becomes all about YOU for the moment you are writing. Wouldn’t you agree that Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. are so popular because they are like super-sized fast food for the ego? Here are MY interests, here’s a photo of ME, here’s a list of MY educational and career achievements, this is what I ate for breakfast!

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