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The evolution of social media: Will it fragment or connect?

This is slightly different from my usual posts…it’s actually a story I wrote a while ago about the fragmenting effect social media can have (warning: it’s a bit long). What do you think? Does social media fragment its users? If so, how long do you think this trend will last? 

On Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Viddler and countless other social networking sites he’s known as “iboughtamac.” Offline he’s known as Brent Spore and his life is an open book to those that know him – and even those that don’t. He prides himself on living honest and out loud and believes the world would be a much happier place if everyone lived this way.

Brent is 34, a husband, a father of a 9-month-old, owner of a design and brand management firm, a youth group leader at his church, and a social media zealot, or as he calls it a “geek.” Like many, he is a time-starved multitasker who won’t give up Tweeting, blogging and posting photos and videos.

He loves sharing his life with people. In fact, when his wife Michelle was in labor with their daughter he blogged on Twitter, uploaded photos on Flickr and posted videos on Viddler, giving his followers a play-by-play of the delivery – nothing too graphic of course.

“She was an ‘iBaby’ as people referred to her,” Brent says, motioning towards their daughter Cadence – Cadie for short – who is dressed in a white onesie with a pink Apple logo on it, which he and Michelle created.

“For me it wasn’t about let’s do this Internet thing and be famous,” Michelle says. “We have family in California and his parents are in Seattle. We have friends all over the country, so it was more about including them in on the experience.”

“It was just letting people be a part of the joy we were experiencing,” Brent says. “I wouldn’t say I’m addicted. I am a big fan and I do think they really are a natural way for people to connect and that’s one of the reasons why people flock to them.”

For the majority of social media fans like Brent, it’s about sharing an experience, communicating, and being in control of the news they disseminate and consume. But the sheer number of social media sites has created even more opportunities for addiction.

Despite his burning desire to be everywhere all of the time, constantly creating, sharing and living out loud, which the social networks give him the platform to do, Brent often feels “fragmented.”

“We go to MySpace and check our messages. We go to Facebook and check our messages. We go to any number of social networks that we’re a part of, and there are thousands of them, where people hang out, play games and message each other,” Brent says. “Instead of it being about us, it’s about us having to go somewhere to check our messages. We’re all getting fragmented again.

As the demand for user-generated content grows and more sites continue to be created, will the time-starved social media devotees like Brent become even more fragmented? Or is there change on the horizon for the world of social networking? 

Fractured Communications
Dr. Alisa Cooper, an English professor at South Mountain Community College, uses social networks because she likes the ability to connect with other educators around the globe, but she says time management can be an issue so she forced herself to make a choice.

“I picked the one that I found the most connection with people and I don’t visit any of the others,” Cooper says. “If you don’t control your usage it can be time consuming and it can result in a lot of wasted time. So I wouldn’t call that fragmented because I made a choice.”

Cooper doesn’t believe any one social network will take over, rather more programs like FriendFeed, which allows users to make one post that is then submitted to multiple networking sites, will begin to connect the fragmented networks.

Some believe the decline in the number of MySpace users, though it is still widely popular, may be a sign of things to come. Meanwhile, however, Facebook, with more than 200 million active users; LinkedIn, with 40 million members; and Twitter, with an estimated 55 million monthly visits – the company won’t disclose the number of active accounts – continue to gain momentum and are among the most trafficked social media sites in the world. And consumers still haven’t completely turned their backs on sites like LinkedIn, Brightkite, Flickr, YouTube, and the countless blogs and RSS feeds.

Will social media users find solidarity in one information aggregator or will the online world become more saturated? 

Screaming for a revolution
Brent explains that before the Internet, the nightly ritual of the “geek” was to dial into a bulletin board system, or BBS, to play games, check their messages, read news and whatever else that particular BBS offered. Then hang up and dial into the next system and do the same thing. Since there was no email, or centralized place for messages, users would have to check their messages on every system.

These were extremely popular, but there was one problem; the system fragmented its users. Fast forward to 2009 and many of the social networks are creating the same dilemma. 

“The revolution that is coming, that I believe the internet is screaming for is individuality,” Brent says. “I think, social networks like what we have today, Facebook and MySpace, are going to reach the end of their life spans, because people want to be their own social networks.”

For social media users and generators, this means instead of having to visit a Facebook or MySpace to check  messages or disseminate information, they would become the hub – their own social network of sorts. They would post and receive messages, hangout and interact with their friends all in one location.

Piecing the fragments together
Until the revolution comes, Brent works to create communities, to bring people together to get things done. He still has faith in the ability of social networks to build communities. He loves being connected and the idea of synergy, so much so he even named his design firm Synergy.

“Community is powerful,” he says. “I think many minds make things better. It’s the spirit of social networking and what’s happening on the net today.”

In 2007, in an effort to unite the fractured social media community in the Valley, Brent and his wife Michelle took on the responsibility of bringing PodCamp, a social media “unconference,” to Arizona. The response was overwhelming. Hundreds of social media users and creators showed up to connect, learn and share. 

“It seemed to me that there were a lot of people involved in social media, but there’s nothing in Arizona that pulls them together,” he says. “There’s synergy, which I’m all about. That’s what really attracted me to PodCamp – it is the attitude of synergy embodied. It has that spirit and I just love stuff like that. I love being part of a team.”

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