I finally got around to watching “The Social Network”, the film chronicling the rise of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. The movie was excellent, but I found myself obsessing over the title, The Social Network. I frequently hear the terms “Facebook” and “Social Network” used more or less interchangeably, like the brand name Scotch Tape™ and the more generic transparent adhesive strips. It’s a convenient shorthand and gets the general idea across, but it is also incorrect. Facebook is not in and of itself a social network. It is a tool that facilitates social networks. It is a subtle but important distinction. A social network is a social structure (more anthropological than technological) made up of people, organizations and the interrelationships among them. If we focus purely on the websites, the tools, the games that surround social networks it is easy to lose sight of their purported reason for existing, which is to foster and facilitate these connections and interactions among people.
Everyone reading this blog participates in a social network and most likely participates in several. This is true even if you have never logged into Facebook and still think a tweet has something to do with a parakeet. We know people and we interact with them. Those people are nodes in our network. Our relationships with them, whether casual and infrequent or intimate and constant, are the ties, weak and strong, between those nodes. Each network is organized around some defining commonality among its members. This could be professional or familial ties, a shared interest in baroque chamber music or even monster truck rallies. These various networks may or may not overlap, sharing nodes and ties. But it is the complexity and ever shifting dynamics of these structures that make them interesting. So interesting in fact that an entire science, social network analysis or SNA, has developed to quantify, measure and study them. SNA can tell you how information flows through your organization. Who the influencers and opinion makers are. How you are regarded by the community. Who is about to resign or ask for a raise. Basically it gives you a snapshot of how work really gets done and how communication actually happens in an organization or community. So these fuzzy things called social networks are in reality quite concrete and actionable.
While social networks have existed since the dawn of human civilization, social media is something entirely new. When we talk about “web 2.0” we are really talking about the ability of the general, non-technical end user to contribute content to the web. In the early days there was a very high bar to publishing content online. There was this shadowy HTML priesthood, comprised of geeky young men of questionable hygiene that served as the gatekeepers of what did or did not see the light of day on the web. Now, thanks to YouTube, Flickr, WordPress and countless other social media services, anyone can publish rich media content with very little effort, at essentially no cost and perhaps most importantly with absolutely no editorial review or oversight. While some see this as the death of quality content others see it as the democratization of cyberspace.
Social Computing brings together social networks and social media. It enables discussion and conversation around the objects we and others contribute to the web. It also extends the number and diversity of the people with whom we can have those conversations. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar has suggested (and actually demonstrated with fairly compelling evidence) that the theoretical maximum social group size for unaided humans is between 100 and 230 people, probably settling in around 150. According to Dunbar:
The figure of 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us. Putting it another way, it’s the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.
By reducing the time and effort it takes to keep track of other people’s activities, both personal and professional, social computing platforms have the potential to dramatically increase the number of people with whom you can have a social relationship, in essence increasing your memory capacity for potentially valuable contacts. In my view, this is the truly revolutionary aspect of the modern web. Prior to the availability of social computing technologies, the range of our associations and influences could arguably be considered quite provincial, even if we consider ourselves rather cosmopolitan, purely because of the limits of geography and the number of relationships we can keep straight in our heads.
Many pundits have lamented the popularity of social computing platforms, like Facebook, seeing in them the death of “authentic” relationships and social interactions. Such doomsaying isn’t new or unique to social computing. Plato worried that the popularity of the written word would spell the end of human memory and oration. Somehow that never came to pass. Rather, this uppity, newfangled medium (writing) enabled new forms of interaction and made ideas available beyond those who happened to be present when they were first spoken. The key, both in antiquity and today, is to focus on the content not the tool. Facebook is a great, though imperfect, platform for the creation and nurturing of social networks. It is important to remember though, that it is not the tools but the underlying relationships that are the whole point.