Monday morning musing about social networks

When I look at the digital implementations of social networks of today, they appear to have a core made up of five things:

  • a directory or address book
  • the ability to group people in the directory
  • support for different modes of communication between people
  • the ability to schedule meetings between the people
  • a way of notifying changes to the four things listed above

Membership of groups and subgroups; multimodal communication; meeting and event scheduling; notification of changes; all these have existed for centuries. We can probably draw a line from jungle drums and smoke signals through the invention of the telephone all the way to e-mail and IM and communities like Bloomberg chat. None of them created the kind of noise and buzz generated by the social networks of today. The question is why.

I think there are three reasons:

  • Standardisation
  • Persistence
  • Exposure

Standardisation. Historically, social networks did not scale. They didn’t grow easily; their geographical coverage was limited. In the digital realm, some of these problems are done away with, there is greater standardisation. In the past, all we could do was to interconnect islands of community. But the communities remained communities, distinct and separate. What is happening now is that we are moving beyond the interconnect paradigm; new, virtual, communities transcend the physical and cultural and linguistic separations of the past. It’s no longer about being interconnected. It’s about being connected.

Persistence, as in persistent communications. It’s been around for centuries as well, from the time man learnt how to draw. Again, you could think of persistent communications as having been around for a very long time, but as distinct and separate islands. Disconnected from each other. Today’s social networks seem to be powered on today’s esperanto, primarily English-based, but evolving as a mishmash of influences of multiple languages. Evolving, alive, as any language should be. When I look at my twitter feed, it is multilingual. By choice. After all, I choose to follow the people I follow. Again, in language, it looks like we used to be interconnected, now we are connected.

There’s something else happening with persistence. We’ve had persistent communication for a long while, but not searchable retrievable communication. In the digital world, our communications are Tivoised; archived and replayable at will, free-text searchable in many cases. This too moves us from interconnected to connected, it helps us all understand more about other languages and dialects and usages.

And finally we have exposure, openness. APIs and their equivalent. What do I mean? It’s what is represented by facebook as a developer platform, what android represents as well from a slightly different perspective. A way of building things for a community to use, without having to belong to that community in the first place; without having deep knowledge of that community. Most importantly, an ability to build things for a community, things that lower the friction of communication and scheduling and sharing and belonging. Moving us from interconnected to connected.

Sounds like semantic argumentative tosh, doesn’t it, my harping on about interconnected and connected? Perhaps it is. But there’s something in my head that won’t let go of this notion, that things are different now, that these differences are caused by the drivers of standardisation, searchable persistence and exposure. That the effect of these drivers is to allow people to be connected in ways that were not possible before, on a global, multilingual, multicultural basis, with tools that allow asynchronous and multimedia communication. That the catalyst to move all this forward at breakneck speed is the concept of the open multisided platform.

Instead of standardisation, persistence and openness I could have just said one word: the internet. Instead of describing the distinctions between interconnect and connect I could have said just one word: the internet.

It’s all about the internet. And the new possibilities afforded to us.

The possibilities are tremendous, possibilities for doing harm as well as good. So what we’re doing now is learning. About those possibilities for  good and harm. How to handle privacy and confidentiality, both personal as well as corporate. How to keep this new area safe for children, and for parents. How to deal with the avoidance of lock-in. How to empower humans “at the edge”. How to take the friction out of current social practices, practices we see at work and at home. How to make sure we don’t disenfranchise people by accident or design. How to derive value from all this for education, for health, for welfare, for government. How to use all this to become better stewards of this earth.

That’s what all the buzz is about.

Learning how to do good with these new tools, and how to avoid evil.

And on the way there, finding out how to make all this available to everyone in an affordable, sustainable manner.

Just musing. Comments? Views?

17 thoughts on “Monday morning musing about social networks”

  1. JP:

    That is a fascinating way to analyse social networks of the day. I have a rather long comment to contribute to this line of thinking and a languishing draft must now see light of day sometime soon. I shall ping back to you so you can see it if you wish.

    Thanks. Also for forcing my hand :-)

  2. New virtual communities arising from communication lubricated by standardization, persistence, and exposure . . . with Twitter as the premiere example . . . well done!

  3. You seem to be able to articulate what I, and lots of others seem to be thinking about very nicely.

    I think social networks also have such currency today as the personal cost of scaling your own network is very low and even if you over include, or overscale, the cost of ignoring extraneous content is also relatively low.

    They are still some way from being a universal language however. I know lots of people who refuse to participate for multiple reasons,my LinkedIn, Facebook, Xing, have different persona and connections simply as a result of historical accident. I would love to be able to manage my persona and all of my connections through a single open system. Facebook allows me to create friend groups but I object to the walled garden approach it seems to take.

    Apparently this is also a hot topic over on Twitter at the moment –

    Is connectedness necessarily a good thing? Is there a danger that it will lead to an ironing out of cultures and difference? Television has meant that regional dialects, even in the UK, have become much less marked. I was speaking at the weekend to an old boy of 93, my parent’s neighbour in Devon, who has never slept a night outside the village in which he was born. Whilst his experiences could be considered ‘limited’, he is a delightfully happy, contented man who I love to spend time with and over time has taught me many things about nature, gardening, people and happiness that I really value – I wish I could understand more of what he says – his accent is proper thick. We need to makes sure that social networks are not the only places that we exist.

  4. Pre-internet, we had two places of social interaction – one’s living room and public places like bars. The latter afforded “loose friendships” while by practice and customs restricted to strong relationships. Socnets promise to combine the two places into one at THEIR place. But Internet with additional technologies like OpenID and OAuth one make one’s OWN place to that. That is what I am striving for.

  5. You may have intended this to be covered in “persistence”, but I think something that is different today than in an era of jungle drums or party lines (remember those ?) is that today for the most part (and if we include a range of media beyond the SocNet platforms) is “instant ubiquitous availability”. For example, I and friends have (as I imagine many have experienced in a variation) have used my blog’s comment section to find each other in a strange city, me by 1) nipping into a cafe where there’s an Internet connection, and 2) five minutes later and 500 metres down the street, politely begging a hotel clerk to quickly check a web site (my blog) to read the comment section for the next direction. Variations of that kind of use today include Twitter or web services like Dopplr or Evenbtbrite .. etc.

    The ongoing and potentially 24/7 connection to others, almost instantly (and always) to hand, (did I say always ;-), is something that I think is different than anything else before.

  6. Been thinking a lot about the interconnected spaces we live in now that you’ve variously been highlighting in different ways, and the traditional social structures that still kick around, but which merge and stretch in new ways.

    Some time back I did a PhD on French literature, in the course of which I spent a little more time studying literary theory than perhaps was healthy. But one thing really stuck, and it keeps coming back as I read the postings on this site as well as many other aspects of contemporary life.

    Often our daily lives these days require us to work in odd, eccentric, highly changing, highly supple environments where there are extremes of ambiguity, change, and sometimes flat panic. At worst this can be very unsettling; at best very exciting.

    The ‘Traditional’ workplace, and our social networks in general, had structure, organisation, planning and a measure of knowing where you would be in a year’s time, say. There is nothing wrong with this per se; but it’s just not how we tend to operate nowadays.

    So if the old ways could be likened to a tree, growing steadily and predictably in a regular ecosystem, what we do now can be likened to the Rhizome, which is unstructured, making connections in many directions all at the same time in a precarious ecosystem that requires us to have offshoots in several directions all at once.

    We could be so unsettled by this that we clam up. What I’m getting at though is that we embrace this concept and way of life and make it our own, grab hold of it and enjoy.

    The Root/Rhizome thing comes from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (let’s not get too into the debate about their work – it’s a big debate). But it’s an interesting way of conceptualising things – in a way Google is like the tree within the rhizome – the one can’t do without the other…

    Some quotations that illustrate the point:
    “A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things.” This in-between is “by no means an average,” a mediocre point between two old extremes, nor does it go “from one thing to the other and back again.” This between is “a transversal movement that sweeps one and the other away…” Whereas trees are rooted to a single spot, coordinated by a central trunk and organized on fixed and vertical lines, this is not the only way plants grow. Grasses, orchids, lilies, and bamboos have no roots, but rhizomes, creeping underground stems which spread sideways on dispersed, horizontal networks of swollen or slender filaments and produce aerial shoots along their length and surface as distributions of plants. They defy categorization as individuated entities. These plants are populations, multiplicities, rather than unified upright things”

    It gets more conceptual yet:
    “Unlike the tree, the rhizome is not the object of reproduction, neither external reproduction as image-tree nor internal reproduction as tree-structure. The rhizome is an antigenealogy. It is a short-term memory, or antimemory. The rhizome operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoots. Unlike the graphic arts, drawing, or photography, unlike tracings, the rhizome pertains to a map that must be produced, constructed, a map that is always detachable, connectable, reversible, modifiable, and has multiple entryways and exits and its own lines of flight. It is tracings that must be put on the map, not the opposite. In contrast to centered (even polycentric) systems with hierarchical modes of communication and preestablished paths, the rhizome is an acentered, nonhierarchical, nonsignifying system with a General and without an organizing memory or central automation, defined solely by a circulation of states”

    A bit space-age for some, I guess, but it’s quite a liberating view of how we live.

  7. What I find interesting is that your pillars align well with the results of Keith Hampton’s (ex MIT, now Annenberg) work in Netville several years ago.

    The result was a series of simple apps which turned broadband into an agent for neighborhood cohesion

    This has been implemented at

    *email – Correspond with your neighbors via a neighborhood email list.
    *directory – Introduce yourself and learn about your neighbors through the neighborhood directory.
    *events – Organize and learn about neighborhood events.
    *photos – Share photos of you and your neighbors.
    *reviews – See what others have to say about local businesses and add your own opinions.
    *polls – Poll your neighbors about important issues.
    *govlink – Send free faxes to your local government officials.
    files Share documents of interest to your neighborhood.

  8. I love how you break things down in this post on what really matters.

    The buzz is not about the buzz itself. Sometimes I (we?) tend to forget that there are people out there who wonder what this is all about and what their benefit is?

    Obviously the standard social marketing guru lingo hasn’t resonated with them yet. That’s why they are still bystanders.

    That’s why it is important to look at the true core benefits of social media conversation.

    If it were only for the purpose of replacing a trip to the local bar I would be a bystander as well.

  9. As usual: very insightful. Thanks for that!
    I particularly appreciate the “exercice de style” of reducing to a word what you wrote previously :-) In fact, we need more intelligence, always more, so that it is good that you went beyond a simple word.

    However, what you describe is not the Internet. It is the Internet today. And the Internet today is Internet as a platform.

    All successful networks have the 3 characteristics you describe:
    * Standardisation
    * Persistence
    * Exposure
    The road network is probably the more obvious, but the telecom one is too. [in fact the internet is just a sub-network of the telecom network, one fact that most of us forget, the only difference so far is mostly the business model]

    I also appreciate the fact that you underline that now that physical barriers are down, the only one that remains is cultural. If you want to dig this further, have a look to phenomenology. Some folks wrote good stuff back in the 50-70 on this. A shortcut is however Auge’s Non-Places: I am sure you’d like it.

  10. Hi Olivier, thanks for the tip on Auge, I will check it out.

    There has been a lot of debate about the right analogy to use for the internet; the road makes sense in some contexts but not in all of them.

Let me know what you think

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.