Any sufficiently large number of signals is indistinguishable from noise
July 06, 2011
Many people are sharing the news from Facebook's announcement today that online sharing is growing exponentially. CEO Mark Zuckerberg claims that Facebook users now share 4 billion "things" each day, which is double the rate of sharing one year ago, consistent with Zuckerberg's Law of Information Sharing first articulated in 2008. While some seem excited about this news, I do not find it surprising nor particularly positive. In my judgment - riffing on one of Arthur C. Clarke's three laws [c. 1962] - any sufficiently large number of signals is indistinguishable from noise.
I've hit a social media saturation point, or as Clay Shirky might put it, experienced filter failure. I don't know whether the world is becoming a more interesting place, or whether there are simply more people who are more willing and able to say or point to more interesting things. In any case, given a limited amount of attention to allocate to shared things, if the things that are being shared are growing exponentially, the proportion of the things to which I am willing to pay attention is declining by approximately the same rate ... leading to an increasing perception that much of social media is noise.
I believe that this exponential growth motivates a revisitation and revision of Sturgeon's Revelation (aka "Sturgeon's Law"), first articulated in 1958: 90% of everything is crap. Sturgeon was initially referring to science fiction, but also extended this judgment to film, literature, consumer goods and all artforms. With more and more people able to produce and share more and more "artforms", I estimate that in 2011, 99.9% of everything is crap ... or, at least, not very interesting to me personally.
This, in turn, brings to mind 20th century Taoist philosopher and writer Wei Wu Wei's revelation:
- Why are you unhappy?
- Because 99.9 per cent
- Of everything you think,
- And of everything you do,
- Is for yourself —
- And there isn't one.
- — Ask The Awakened
If these exponential social media sharing trends continue, I hope more people will take into consideration the limited attention of others, adopt the Taoist principles of compassion, moderation and humility, and more carefully curate the content they choose to share.