Have we hit social media overload?

Facebook, Twitter & other social media sites may soon determine just about everything you see online

The problem with the Internet these days? In a word: socialism.

No, not that faux Obama socialism certain people like to rail against (because they've got to be PO'd about something). I'm talking about the real scourge of the net: social media.

[ Also on InfoWorld: According to Cringely, microblogging has taken a turn, now that Twitter isn't just for narcissists anymore. | For a humorous take on the tech industry's shenanigans, subscribe to Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

Now, I use social media and I (mostly) like social media. I use Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn on a semi-regular basis -- sometimes a bit too semi-regular. (When my editor asks why a blog post is late I just tell her I've been drinking -- I don't want her to know I've really been wasting all my time on Facebook.) I've even dabbled a bit on MySpace, Friendfeed, Plurk, Bebo, and so on just to keep my hand in.

But I think I've hit social media overload, and I can't believe I'm the only one. We've all gone off on a tweeting-updating-linking-liking bender, and it may be time for an intervention.

Just this week, Time.com published a story about a freak tornado hitting Brooklyn, complete with an amazing photo of the twister swirling perilously close to the Statue of Liberty. Time blogger Steven Jay Snyder found the photo via Twitter and breathlessly posted it to the Time NewsFeed ("What's vital and viral on the Web, in real time").

Yes, a freak storm really did hit NYC this week. And yes, the photo was real. Unfortunately for Time.com, it was taken on July 7, 1976 -- possibly spawned by that massive bicentennial fireworks display. One can safely assume that storm has passed.

How does a respected media site get duped like this? Because the pressure to publish first and ask questions later is overwhelming. The Web rewards speed over accuracy every single time, and Twitter updates are about as fast as it gets on the Net.

This is only going to get worse. Major media companies like Time Warner are carefully studying the effects of social media on which articles people read and the best ways to promote them, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal (sorry, you'll need a subscription to read the whole thing -- don't blame me, blame Rupert Murdoch).

Meanwhile, Google is getting ready to launch "Google Me," which will "add a social layer to your activity stream," whatever that means. (You can watch a video of Eric Schmidt talking about it on TechCrunch, but if you can divine more meaning from that exchange than I can, more power to ya.) Before long, everything you see on the InterWebs will be "social."

The idea, of course, is that you're more likely to read stories your friends have recommended or follow links they've posted. And that might be true -- if these people really were your friends, and not just random strangers who looked interesting (or hot), and you were tipsy at the time and decided, "What the frak, I'll send them a friend invitation."

I admit it. I am a Facebook whore. I'll follow almost anybody on Twitter as long they can spell reasonably well. I've lied on LinkedIn, making up tenuous connections to "colleagues" whose email addresses I'm too lazy to hunt down, just because I wanted that connection.

And 95 percent of the time, people respond with "yes, I'll accept that connection, whoever you are." It's called "promiscuous friending." What can I say? Guilty as charged, your honor.

I know I'm not alone here either. We're all just lab rats in this big experiment being run by Google, Facebook, Twitter, and everyone who wants to be Google, Facebook, or Twitter. And even they don't know where this will all end up.

I am sure I will get comments from readers who say (as they always do), "I don't use Facebook Twitter blah blah blah, so this doesn't matter to me." Guess what? It matters. Because even if you've never tweeted, Facebooked, or LinkedIn, decisions about the information you see on the Web are being made by the people who do.

Here's what I want to know: When all media is social media, and your "friends" aren't really your friends, who can you trust?

Do you trust anything you see on the Net? E-mail me: cringe@infoworld.com.

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Robert X. Cringely

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