by: Roger Dooley

One question online community operators wrestle with is how many communities (social networks, blogs, forums, wikis, etc.) one individual can participate in. Sure, people are spending more time online these days, but there’s a limit. If a person is spending an hour or two a day posting in one forum, is he likely to do the same in two or three others? If an active member in a community decides to launch a blog on the same topic, will she still devote an hour to creating a detailed, thoughtful post or will that content end up on her blog? While until now, the rising tide of total time spent online (number of users and hours per users) has lifted a lot of boats, but inevitably online activity will become a zero sum game. People who spend more time on one activity will cut back other online participation by the same amount. A couple of blog posts highlight this issue.

First, in The Attention Crash, tech-savvy marketer Steve Rubel predicts that our collective ability to process new information is soon going to hit the wall:

However, there is definitely a bubble and therefore a crash coming. It’s not financial. It’s not related to the level of noise or startups. This crash is personal. We are reaching a point where the number of inputs we have as individuals is beginning to exceed what we are capable as humans of managing. The demands for our attention are becoming so great, and the problem so widespread, that it will cause people to crash and curtail these drains. Human attention does not obey Moore’s Law.

Those of us who have been early adopters and spend much of our lives online don’t need to be convinced - I know that I’ve been fairly ruthless in trying to limit my inputs, and have been actively cancelling things like free newsletter subscriptions that don’t quite hit the mark for me. And I delete a whole lot more without even a cursory read.

The second post that fit this megatrend was by Colin Nagy at PSFK, The Showdown: Facebook vs. MySpace. Nagy referred to an analysis at Mashable, Facebook Hammers MySpace on Almost All Key Features. As the title suggests, a fairly detailed feature comparison suggests that MySpace has stopped innovating and that Facebook has a chance to eat MySpace’s lunch.

Features come and go, but I think all of these high-growth social networks have to realize that online time and attention span aren’t infinite - far from it. The communities that offer a combination of quality interaction with others and, in many cases, an efficient and time-saving interface for keeping in touch with both the community at large and with individual friends will be the long-term winners. Communities that seem to waste time and make it hard for their members to get done what they want to will suffer as those members start to make the hard choices about where to cut their online time.

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