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. 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?