Should Social Media Really Be Aggregated?

Countless entrepreneurs have set out to make their fortunes with the same idea: social media aggregation. The basic idea behind this movement is that you, the user, are overwhelmed by all of your social information. Every day you have to go through the hassle of checking your Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Foursquare, Gowalla and other accounts and would like nothing better than to save yourself the trouble of app-hopping and get it all in one convenient place.

The argument seems sound doesn’t it? So why don’t we use these tools? Sure, we try them all and briefly maintain patronage, but in the end most of us end up using separate methods to access our various social networks. I believe there are several reasons for this phenomenon, the first of which is a modified version of an effect that has been present in technology for decades.

The All-In-One Effect

When I was a child, I heard a piece of advice that I never forgot. My mother wanted to buy a new printer and asked her younger, more tech-savvy brother which all-in-one printer/scanner/fax machine she should buy. He explained that, while some of these machines were decent, almost none of them were great. The reason was of course compromise.

At the time, these all-in-one wonders generally contained fairly low grade versions of each of the technologies present. So rather than buying a great printer built solely for printing, a great scanner built solely for scanning and a great fax machine built solely for faxing, instead you were purchasing one machine that did all of these jobs significantly worse than the dedicated machines. You received the conveniences of price and space, but as a result were forced to surrender a degree of quality.

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New app Stroodle combines Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn

This same logic applies to social media aggregators. Rather than using separate dedicated apps for Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, you could use an aggregator, but the result is always a sacrifice in the quality of the experience that you receive.

It’s often the case that one of these functions is the primary, and the others are more of an afterthought. We see this with TweetDeck, an application built for Twitter that also offers moderate functionality for Facebook and other social networks.

The problem here is obvious. In a marketplace of free products and infinite space, we can easily choose the dedicated products that provide the better experience. If the official Twitter app has the best Twitter experience and the official Facebook app has the best Facebook experience, I’ll use those over one app that gives me a watered-down version of each.

This goes further when you consider more than simply features. Apps like Gowalla have a strong personality to them. I might be able to use the service and check in from another app, but by doing so I miss out on much of the true Gowalla experience.

The Social Affirmation Effect

This idea is purely my own, but I think it holds merit. Once again, the assumption is that we’re busy people who have better things to do than run around to all of these apps. However, for the most part, social media is great because it gives us something to do! Facebook wasn’t created for CEOs with limited time, it was created for college kids who spend a lot of time on their computers and are always looking for something engaging.

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The totally Facebook notification feed gets you hooked and never lets go

There’s something supremely addictive about logging into Facebook and seeing that notification badge light up. It gives us a sort of psychological affirmation. There are real people out there who care enough to respond to something we’ve said, done or posted. Once we’re done with that, we pop over to Twitter and experience the same high all over again.

By combining all of our social services into one place, I wonder if we kill a main function of social media. Now we only have one place to check, one notification badge, one compiled stream of data. Now our high comes all at once and is then gone, leaving us bored once again with a bitter taste in our mouth towards the aggregation app that has somehow taken the magic out of our favorite time-eating occupation.

When Social Aggregation Works

To be sure, social media aggregation isn’t always a bad idea. There are some notable exceptions to the arguments above, the first of which is presented by the business world. Here, time is sensitive and costly and so it makes sense to cram as much as you can into one place. You really don’t time to keep up on Facebook and Twitter for your business and HootSuite is therefore an amazing money-saving tool.

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Services like HootSuite make Facebook and Twitter better for businesses

Another important place where social aggregation works is in an app where the idea is implemented primarily in an entertaining way rather than a purely utilitarian way. The key here is innovation: to provide something that is genuinely not obtained from using the service normally. The result is synergy: the whole is greater than the simple sum of the parts.

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Apps like Flipboard allow you to view social information in a new way

We see this in apps like Flipboard for iPad. Here we have a Twitter and a Facebook feed rolled into one app, but the experience is unlike anything you typically received from either service. Instead of a simple stream of text, you get an interactive magazine of rich content. In fact, it’s so unique that you could conceivably browse through the default Twitter app and then jump over to Flipboard and see the information presented so differently that it doesn’t feel redundant.

Innovation Over Simple Aggregation

In closing, I believe that developers need to stop imagining that merely combining a few social services into one place is either innovative or useful. Instead they should be seeking to create truly unique experiences that bring something to the table that’s more than the sum of its parts. Apps that either target business customers or fundamentally change the way we interact with popular social services are ripe markets that merit much more exploration (Twitter itself is encouraging expansion in these areas from third party developers).

Leave a comment below and let us know what you think of social media aggregators. Who gets it wrong and who gets it right? What’s the key difference?