Social media, in some forms, is quite popular. One need only look at the rise of social networks such as MySpace and Facebook to recognize this.

But there’s an inconvenient truth that proponents of these sites tend to ignore – the average person just doesn’t have the ability to participate fully in social media.

While individuals like Robert Scoble tweet 24/7 and amass thousands of friends on Facebook, the average person can’t live a similar insanesocial media lifestyle” and probably doesn’t want to.

Sarah Perez at ReadWriteWeb published an interesting post last week entitled “Real People Don’t Have Time for Social Media.

Sarah’s post was inspired by a post on Museum 2.0 that asked “How Much Time Does Web 2.0 Take?

It classifies social media users into three categories:

  • Participants who invest 1-5 hours per week in social media.
  • Content providers who spend 5-10 hours per week using social media.
  • Community directors who devote 10-20 hours of their time each week to social media.

After giving everything some thought, Sarah came to an obvious conclusion:

“Looking at all the various web-based activities and projects, what we can tell is that not everyone is going to have the time to be as heavily involved in social media [as] we are.”

That said, I don’t think stating “real people don’t have time for social media” is entirely accurate.

According to Nielsen Media Research, the average American spends more than four hours each day watching television. When this is considered, the amount of time some users invest in social media looks modest.

Thus, the inability of the average person to participate in social media must go beyond the time consideration.

Television is a broadcast medium that requires little effort on the part of the viewer.

As such, even those who spend 10 hours each day between a job and commuting can still reasonably find a way to “tune in, turn on and drop out.

As a participatory medium that requires decent input to get decent output, social media not only takes an investment of time, but an investment of effort.

This is, in my opinion, the primary factor that limits social media’s mainstream potential.

It’s not simply that the average person can’t invest 20 hours a week in social media. After all, the average American finds more than 28 hours a week to spend sitting in front of a television.

It’s the immense effort required to actually get something of value out of the social media experience that makes social media an unattractive proposition for so many people.

That effort is something many aren’t willing or able to make but the most avid social media users and social media entrepreneurs seem to be ignorant to this fact. They continue to invite everyone they know to each new social media service they sign up for and they continue to create new services that demand significant effort to produce value.

Given this, Perez’s common sense advice is perhaps what these people need to be reminded most:

“If we’re going to recommend a service or activity to a friend whose alarm goes off at 6 AM and doesn’t return home from the office until 6 PM, then we need to respect that their ‘spare’ time is precious. Whatever new app or service we’re trying to push on them should have real value.

But what constitutes “real value“? In other words, what type of value does the average person want from social media?

I’ve often asked myself – does social media primarily provide value in the form of utility or in the form of entertainment?

I think one could provide valid rationales for either but I increasingly tend to see social media as an entertainment medium.

While there is no doubt that people use social media in utilitarian ways (keeping in touch with friends, sharing information, etc.), it’s the entertainment value (poking friends, browsing through photos, etc.) that I think the average social media user is most attracted to.

When looked at from that perspective, social media’s challenge becomes quite clear – how can social media provide a compelling and satisfying experience while at the same time requiring the least amount of effort?

This challenge is compounded by another fact that I think many social media proponents ignore. While Robert Scoble is correct in stating that social media doesn’t do much when you’re not “connected,” he doesn’t seem to recognize that the more “connected” you become, the less favorable the signal to noise ratio becomes.

Thus, social media’s greatest flaw is perhaps the fact that the effort required to obtain a decent experience always continues to grow because the more involved you get, the more effort is required to “manage” the negative aspect of the experience – noise. This essentially means that at some point, much of your effort is focused on maintaining an acceptable experience instead of on producing a better experience.

Most individuals simply can’t make the effort required and unless the social media world recognizes this inconvenient truth, many entrepreneurs will continue to waste time and money creating social media services that don’t truly offer value to mainstream users.

I believe that one of the most important things social media entrepreneurs can consider when designing a new service is how much input is required to generate valuable output.

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that perhaps the most successful social media service thus far, YouTube, has one of the most favorable input/output ratios. That is, unless you really want to, you don’t have to contribute much to get something out. In that sense, it’s similar to television.

Services like Twitter on the other hand don’t have very favorable input/output ratios which is probably why thus far they are primarily relegated to the small world of “first adopters.”

I’ll have to address this topic at a later date. It’s now time for me to log off. My favorite television show is on in five minutes.