Gilster: Value of social media declines as it gets harder to isolate good stuff

September 8, 2013 

Using social media is frustrating because the ground keeps shifting beneath your feet.

Take Facebook’s latest explanation of its data use policy, at least part of which is the result of recent legal battles. Accused of violating the privacy of its users by publicizing their “likes” in advertisements, Facebook is now required to provide more information about how it uses its data. Aficionados now find themselves combing through yet another set of announcements about what is permissible and what isn’t in terms of their private lives.

Does it bother you, for example, that Facebook can use photo recognition software to identify users? The service can suggest someone “tag” you in a picture by identifying your face against photos from your profile and other photos in which you’ve been tagged.

You can turn this “feature” off by digging into the settings (look under “Timeline and Tagging”), but my impression is that a lot of Facebook users simply don’t care as long as they can keep tracking what their friends are doing and keep posting about their own activities. Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg’s company continues to create a privacy-shredding foundation for future profits.

Facebook has had to clarify all this because so-called “sponsored stories” served up ads to users that included faces and names of people who liked this or that product. So now we have new guidelines stating that “by using our services, you grant us permission to use the information we receive to operate Facebook.” That’s a usage you’re agreeing to by signing up for Facebook in the first place, while existing users are on notice that these are the terms of service.

Turning to Twitter

If I drop Facebook, which I am sorely tempted to do, I’ll fall back on Twitter, which remains far more useful but also is changing in ominous ways. Particularly helpful is the use of “lists,” by which you can set up separate feeds for specific users. This has been a goldmine of information for me, for once I’ve identified particular Twitter people who post helpful material, I can put them in a separate list for easy reference. Thus I have a “tech” list, an “aerospace” list, and so on.

List management on Twitter is simple, and I’m surprised more people don’t maximize it. One suggestion is to use a mobile app such as Tweetlist, which makes it easy to see each of your lists at a time, swiping the screen to move between them. A desktop solution is Tweetdeck, which lets you set up lists in columns so that in the course of a day a quick glance now and then shows what your sources have recently uncovered.

In search of quality

But you have to dig to find the gold. What I’m interested in is quality content, and that means tweets from reliable people that point to richer online resources. I’m not interested in conversations amid a sea of posts telling what someone had for lunch or sounding off about their politics. To maximize social media, you need to be able to isolate the good stuff.

This is a lesson that neither Facebook nor Twitter seems to embrace. Facebook is adding Twitter-like hashtags so specific trending topics can be identified, but its interface lacks Twitter’s harder-to-master but scalpel-like tools. Twitter, meanwhile, is adding features to make conversations easier to view, as if tiny squibs of chatter replace thoughtful discourse. Twitter has also added easy links to photos, videos and music in an attempt to be more like Facebook.

No, thanks. Social media offer valuable data that are buried deep within the cacophony of opinions and insults. When chatter becomes the dominant mode on Twitter, as on Facebook, its value drops accordingly, and some of us will be looking for the next great replacement.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at

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