So, K, my wife says she doesn’t understand how these on-line social networking sites, like MySpace or FaceBook, could possibly build communities via the web. She thinks that they’re too large for that to happen effectively; that you can’t get to know anyone well enough because there are too many members.
Now, this all arose because she’s experienced community building on the ‘net through things like discussion groups, forums and mailing lists (the ones she’s been most involved in have been knitting related, but there have been other interest groups where she’s experienced it as well).
Next, she tells me that I know more about all the on-line social networking sites that are a) so popular with a certain set (generally young and middle-to-upper-class suburban types, at least that’s the impression I get); b) talked about seemingly incessantly by the mainstream media and much of the blogging community; and c) vilified by many.
And she says “you should post about it — I would but you know more about these things than I do” (or something to that effect).
Maybe. I’ve posted before about LinkedIn, which is a form of networking but targeted at a different audience — those seeking mainly business or career connections, as opposed to primarily social connections. It does share with places like MySpace a number of characteristics, from what I can see — at least from a purely functional point of view.
From a purely abstract point of view, these are pretty much classical networks or graphs in the mathematical sense: Bunches of nodes with rules about the connections between them. Once you create your own node (profile) in one of these networks, you create a personal network by inviting other nodes to allow you to access their profile and create a two way connection.
This allows you to expand your network by adding their personal network to your graph — and vice versa, as your connections expand their network.
They also allow you to search the whole network for other nodes (profiles) that match specified criteria — perhaps a business opportunity in the case of LinkedIn, or those with the same musical or entertainment interests, for example, in MySpace.
There are inter-node communications methods that preserve the privacy of members, while still allowing you to contact someone that you don’t know personally.
Come to think of it, these share a lot in common with Object Oriented Programming (OOP) principles… not that I’m an expert on OOP, but I’ve been trying to learn Java lately so OOP concepts are very much in the centre of my attention. Maybe I’ll write a Java-based social networking program 😀
I suppose that most of the controversy about these networks comes from the one thing that enabling-technologies can’t do much about: human nature.
If history is any indication, there have always been and likely always will be people who are manipulative and predatory — for financial or psychological gain. Before on-line networking, social or otherwise, their sphere of influence would be relatively limited; now, technology allows them to prey on a vastly larger network of people.
OK, I’ve digressed a little bit from the original thought… which was how can you get to know people well enough to really form a community when the network grows to the size of something like MySpace?
And I suspect the answer is: you don’t. What you get isn’t really community, but that’s a reflection on the overall loss of community in society. Well, at least in much of North American society.
For example, sound-bites and pre-digested thoughts seem to have become the preferred way of taking in the news, rather than having to take the time to absorb information and reflect on it before forming your own opinion.
Which makes it easy to talk about the latest events, or the new hit TV show, or sporting event, over the watercooler at work. It’s safe: opinions become homogenized and no one needs to get very involved in discussion. The community equivalent of fast-food, I guess.
So what do I make of all this? She’s probably right. On-line social networking doesn’t lend itself to building real community; but it does produce what passes for community these days, and that’s perhaps the bigger issue.