Activity Streams, Cross-Posting and Pareto Efficiency

I once logged in to LinkedIn to reply to an inMail, and on their front page noticed several tweets from people with whom I am both connected on LinkedIn and whom I follow on Twitter. These were the same tweets that I just read in Tweetdeck - and I ended up reading them twice! This got me thinking about cross-posting of social updates (Twitter, Facebook, Buzz, Foursquare, LinkedIn, etc).

First of all, it’s worth noting that incentives are misaligned here. For publishers, cross-posting of public updates may make some sense - the more channels their message appears in, presumably the better. For readers however, the opposite is true - the more times you have to read the same update, the worse. As readers, we sometimes may want to engage in a conversation - and it’s far from clear how one should do it if you only receive a cross-posted update, not the original update on the network on which it was originally published.

Secondly, this emphasizes our current service-centric model of social media, as opposed to person-centric as it should be. In person-centric model, each individual will probably have several public streams (most will have only one I guess) and several private streams (family, friends, work). You let others subscribe to an appropriate stream (with or without authorization, depending on your settings) and they configure their reading service to filter your updates in or out. For example, I may want to follow someone’s public stream but would like to filter out their Foursquare notifications (unless they have a payload which says something more than “I am at X”). For more on this, please check out Blaine Cook's recent post about identity.

And thirdly, this brings up a question of efficiency. Reading same tweets twice is inefficient no matter how you look at it. Un-connecting from someone on LinkedIn just because I don’t want to see their updates from Twitter is also inefficient. Unfollowing them on Twitter and reading their updates on LinkedIn may make sense, but then I don’t log in to my LinkedIn very often - and this ends up being inefficient too.

It’s interesting to note that the question of efficiency does not exist in the context of a single network. You either follow/friend an individual on a given network and receive their updates, or you don’t. This is a binary choice, which is relatively easy. It’s when the same updates get duplicated into multiple networks that the issue of efficiency is starting to play a role.

Efficiency is a tricky concept - it depends on the angle from which you are analyzing current situation. Therefore, in economics there is a concept of Pareto efficiency. An outcome is considered Pareto efficient if no one can be made better off without making someone worse off. Pareto-efficient outcomes have two interesting properties that apply to social media as well.

  1. There could be multiple Pareto-efficient outcomes. Imagine you and I are walking on the street and see $100 in $10 bills on the floor. We could split it 60-40 or we could split it 70-30 or we could split it 50-50. Each of these outcomes is Pareto efficient by definition. Similarly, I can follow you on Foursquare and get your location updates. Or I can follow you on Twitter and you could configure your Foursquare to cross-post to Twitter, and I will get the same updates.
  2. The fact that an outcome is Pareto efficient doesn't necessarily mean it's socially desirable or "the best" (consider your feelings if we split $100 above $70 for me and $30 to you).
We have yet to define “better off” in the context of social media. I can think of at least 2 forms here. The first, weaker, form could be “not miss an update in which one is interested in.” The second, stronger, form could be “weaker form + avoid receiving updates in which one is not interested in.”

Based on all this, it looks to me like what we have now is vendors racing to a weaker-form Pareto-efficient outcome - every service wants to be your destination for writing status updates and for reading those of your friends, without any regard for you, your wasted time re-reading same things many times, or the fact that most of users would actually prefer a stronger form. If such an outcome is achieved, it may be very difficult to change (because someone will have to be made worse off, by definition) if we want to get to a person-centric model.

What I would like to see instead of cross-posting (which essentially is cross-pushing of the same update to multiple channels) is cross-pulling and filtering - essentially creating customized activity streams based on reader’s preferences, not those of publisher. I am concerned however about the present lack of incentives for this behavior to emerge.

Categories: internet | economics |