Social littering: When “social media” turns friends into spambots

Sebastian Greger

“Press ‘Like’ and win an iPad”. “Share your workouts with your friends”. “Complete your profile to tell more about yourself”. Digital services bubble over with calls for users to share more about themselves, about products and people they like as well as about their digital traces from software tools or web services.

At times, the Facebook activity feed resembles a home shopping channel.

The primary motivation to encourage users to “share more” rarely translates into true user value, i.e. something valuable for those sharing or receiving the information.

Undeniably - apart from sales coupons or rebate codes - even automated bulk sharing may trigger interactions that occasionally become beneficial for the individual user.

Yet, at their core, the driver behind these “calls to share” is an increase of content and the viral spread of service providers’ tools: Every time all contacts of a user get spammed with her latest bike ride’s track, the provider of the GPS application receives free promotion.

Littering in your friends’ living room

A few weeks back, I ran into a blog post using the term “social littering”. I had not encountered it before, nor does it seem to be widely used. However, it immediately struck me as the perfect description for an alienation between “social” applications and their individual users I have long been observing.

Talking to users of social network sites (SNSs), I repeatedly encounter “lurkers” passivated by the fear of an action eventually being posted as news to hundreds of contacts. Many know to tell stories similar to the couple who decided to remove their relationship status from Facebook for privacy reasons, ending up in an automated status update announcing their breakup. At the same time, complaints are getting louder about a growing share of SNS content being semi-automated push messages with little to no personal relevance.

Examining such an SNS using the analogy of a party, we would face a cacophony of monologues with loud voice and no clear addressee; guests announcing the average heart rate from their morning run, the location of their last lunch and the articles they just read. Everybody would be distributing flyers for their favourite gadgets, give out free lottery coupons and cover the walls with posters for their preferred election candidate. And, without knowing, the shops they visited earlier had attached a bunch of advertising stickers with tear-off rebate coupons to their backs.

The cosy cafe turned into a noisy market square

It appears that the direction the design of such services has taken is counter-productive to the value they claim to provide: Tools that could boost meaningful communication between their users are instead developed into machines for anything but relevant and intentful interaction.

A Facebook user claiming a discount coupon for herself will at the same time send out an endorsed commercial to all her contacts.

Naturally, social interaction is influenced by many factors, including the relay of unintentional or irrelevant information. The most valuable form of interaction, however, is based on intentionality: Acts of communication that people meaningfully initiate, that are often directed towards a specific and limited “audience” and that are significant for the receiving end. Seen in this light, the core factors for the perception of SNS’s decreasing user value could be summarized to:

  • Loss of control over shared information,
  • Absence of granularity regarding the recipients of (automatically generated) messages, and
  • Poor signal vs. noise ratio in incoming “streams” where intentional, directed messages drown in a flood of, well, “social litter”.

To use another analogy: What is happening at the moment is an army of workers with jackhammers entering that little homely cafe where people meet friends over a cup of coffee, tearing down its walls and making it part of a huge market square where the barkers try to drown each other out with their announcements.

Robots cannot create user value

The names of users subscribed to an election candidate on Facebook turn into endorsements in paid ads.

To return to the text I borrowed “social littering” from: Even if the tech community may be upset with the lack of an API to publish to an SNS (Google+ in this case), the designers’ conduct raises hope that the true value of SNSs has been understood to come from intentionally created, granular content that can be perceived as comparable to real-world communication rather than scripted software robots pushing what they (or their creators) believe to be of relevance.

With social network sites near-drowning in commercial campaigns and auto-created content, the question of how to restore a more human touch in SNS design is going to be a hot topic in the years to come. Even though people still seem to play along, it is hard to imagine long-term commitment to services that primarily understand their users as generators of content and multiplicators of messages.

In real life, social interaction is more than a broadcast. _What are your experiences with unintentional, (semi-)automated messages in SNSs? Do you share the opinion that it damages the underlying idea of such services?_

I'm Sebastian, Sociologist and Interaction Designer. This journal is mostly about bringing toge­ther social science and design for inclusive, privacy-focused, and sustainable "human-first" digital strategies. I also tend to a "digital garden" with carefully curated resources.

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