Utility vs. Serendipity

Last week I posted about social networking and the ego trap. The catalyst that got me thinking about this was a Twitter issue which caused some people’s follower counts to appear lower than they should. Many people complained. I thought this was odd. It’s not as if people were materially effected, as if eBay had crashed. It’s not as if you couldn’t get in touch with someone – plenty of alternatives, like IM, email, or phone. No, let’s be honest – if you cared about losing followers a couple weeks ago, it’s because your ego was bruised.

I see two major reasons why people use social technologies: utility vs. serendipity. These aren’t mutually exclusive and help to explain why you may be connected to widely different groups of people on Facebook, for example. Borrowing from a post I wrote earlier this year, let’s get down to specifics in each category.

Utility: Marketing/site referrals. Commerce. Research. Ego fits here, i.e. placing material on public display that reflects on the poster’s interests, tastes, and/or sense of humor. Not unlike why people pass along word-of-mouth messages.

Serendipity: Community. Entertainment, i.e. consuming the material that others put on display.

Let’s think about how these ideas apply in context of specific sites.

On Twitter, users who follow a high number of people (i.e. over 1,000) use the site for serendipity. They require direct messages, @username replies, and search tools like Summize to gain utility. Users who follow a low number of people (i.e. under 300) use the site for utility.

On Facebook, more friends create more news feed items, which require constant attention to keep up-to-date. Serendipity. Wall posts and inbox messages create utility. Users who have fewer friends – or a high number of concentrated commonality, e.g. only friends from a current job, use the site for utility.

FriendFeed is all about serendipity and comes with a built-in utility filter: the ability to see “best of” the day, week, or month.

It would easy for these sites to allow users to have their cake and eat it too, by offering better segmentation, filtering, and search tools. The native functionality is getting there, s l o w l y, but 3rd parties can or will help make connectivity much more valuable.

If you’re a regular reader here, you know that I’ve pruned my connections on various sites, which makes me realize that I’m mostly a utility-focused user of social technologies.

With the model of utility vs. serendipity in mind…what kind of user are you?