Consumption as Self-Expression, Lifestreaming, and the Social Signal:Noise Ratio

My buddy Hooman just wrote an insightful post expounding on a phrase I’ve been using for a long time now (and have yet to hear elsewhere, so let’s make it a meme baby!): consumption as self-expression. It’s a pretty self-explanatory phrase and examples include: Last.fm favorite artist or recently listened songs badges on your MySpace page (or their pretty cool Facebook app); publishing your Netflix queue via RSS; using a plug-in like Postalicious to add your Delicious bookmarks to your blog (as I do); or services like All Consuming. Each of these services has a primary value proposition to get you to give them your consumption information other than republishing it out to the world (i.e. Last.fm = discovering new music; Netflix = getting the movies delivered; Delicious = archiving bookmarks for personal reference; All Consuming = getting recommendations on other stuff you might like). But, the ability to share your consumption information back to your social network (or publish it to the world, if you so choose) is becoming an increasingly important secondary value proposition.

As an example of how powerful the self-expression value proposition has become, take Flixster, which became a top app on Facebook by getting people to re-enter much of the ratings information that they had already given to Netflix just so they could have a social experience around it with their friends. Apps like Flixster and What I’m Listening To (by Last.fm) finally start to address the forgotten backwater of the social network profile page that the “Interests” section has become. Like the appendix or the vestigial tail, the Favorite Books/TV Shows/Movies/Music fields on today’s social network profiles are left over from the first designs of Friendster (or maybe even before) and have done nothing but atrophy since. Unlike your tastes, these fields are static, and they’re totally disconnected from your consumption experiences. So, I’m all about the apps that have allowed me to leave the ‘Favorite Movies’ and ‘Favorite Music’ fields on my Facebook profile blank and instead show my friends what I’m actually watching and listening to.

That’s the good part of consumption as self-expression, IMHO. But, I’m increasingly finding a bad part too and it’s the growing (g33k) trend of lifestreaming. I see the value in wanting to broadcast a consolidated feed of everything public you’re doing across the web to those interested (in fact, I’ve already installed a lifestreaming plug-in on this blog and have yet to set it up — you can also use Friendfeed or MyBlogLog). I’m just not particularly interested in subscribing to anyone else’s. I may want to *pull* this information, when I’m trying to learn about what a person likes or has been up to, by visiting his Facebook page or blog. But, I have negative interest in having this information *pushed* to me at all times, a la Friendfeed, which I only use as a broadcast medium and not for consumption.

This is where the whole idea of the social signal:noise ration comes in. In his original post on which I commented, Hooman distinguishes between “machine-generated” and “human-generated” updates. The machine-generated ones are what I call consumption as self-expression, while the human-generated are the ones like blog posts, Flickr photos, or Twitter messages that require some kind of proactive communication on the part of the publisher. In my recent post about Twitter, I talked about how the on-demand nature of the Internet enables us to have a signal:noise ratio approaching infinity and how Twitter was the restorative “white noise of cyberspace.” But, I see full-on lifestreaming with machine-generated updates and all as going too far. So for now, I have imposed a crude filter to limit what noise I let in: if you didn’t take the time to generate the content yourself, I ain’t subscribing to it.

And, even that may not be enough. As the circle of people I follow on Twitter has expanded (and I *only follow people I’ve actually met*), I’m finding even that increasingly annoying and less the valuable randomness generator it used to be. Over beers today, Jeffrey suggested maybe as more people start using Twitter and the average number of people being followed grows, there will be less “updates on what I ate or when I went to the bathroom.” Whether it’s some kind of social networking mores or a technical solution like Laurie’s Havoc algorithm (ask him about it), we’re definitely going to need something to steer the social web back to a more sustainable signal:noise ratio.

3 thoughts on “Consumption as Self-Expression, Lifestreaming, and the Social Signal:Noise Ratio”

  1. I agree. This is a great conversation. I love the use of the term signal/noise ratio that you employed. I think there is a clear way to follow the signal/noise ratio on the web as a means of determining the next big pain points. Example: Web 1.0 the number of web pages increased exponentially. At a certain threshold, the pain of finding the right content opened the door for the search competition. This competition ultimately yielded Goliath , I mean Google. The same dynamic is happening on the Social Web. Let’s see what happens next. 😉

  2. Awesome post, Hooman’s comment as well – the first service that can make sense of all the lifestreams out there and boil down the collective noise to the three things you need to read today will do well indeed.

    We had the newspaper but that’s basically what you should have read yesterday and is not personal enough. We need a new kind of newspaper that’s real-time, knows my friends, contacts, and interests, and strikes the right balance between stuff you should know because everyone else is reading it and stuff you should know because it’s interesting and no one else is reading it.

    Lifestreams will drive it as raw material but picking the good stuff out of there and pushing it to you is the challenge. Let me know when you’ve got something.

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