Three discussions that rocked my weekend.

April 28, 2008

Below are three articles that I came to read this weekend that really just rocked me. I wanted to share and comment on them here in hopes that someone else will find them similarly thought provoking.

Adam Greenfield – “Anti-social Networking”

Adam’s position can be summarized as such: that the social webs we weave in places like Facebook and LinkedIn are broken, severely so, and at a very fundamental level. Adam further argues that “the only way to win is not to play” and makes the claim that we are better off as a society with out those tools at all (at least, as implemented).

His main argument is this: within these social networks we are asked (read: required) to define our complex, dynamic and often ambiguous real-world relationships in a very concrete way, often having to make a binary choice between defining a ‘friend’ or ‘not-friend’ relationship with the people in our lives that we varyingly know, like, love, dislike and with as many nuances as we have encounters with those people. This is bad as it leads to social interaction that is hopelessly “autistic” in behavior. I’ve read similar positions from others, including one from Joel Spolsky in 2004 who in turn referenced a talk by academic Danah Boyd.

Adam writes:

By contrast, having to declare the degree of intimacy you’re willing to grant each friend, whether in public and for all to see or simply so that they see it, is a state of affairs I’ve described, in comments elsewhere, as “frankly autistic.” It’s no way to arrange things as absolutely central to life as friendship, of that I am sure.

For all of these reasons, I believe that technically-mediated social networking at any level beyond very simple, local applications is fundamentally, and probably persistently, a bad idea. From where I stand, the only sane response is to keep our conceptions of friendship and affinity from being polluted by technical metaphors and constraints to begin with.

I understand where Adam is coming from; there is a severe awkwardness that comes with attempting to reify our relationships with other people as a mathematical model and it occasionally (or maybe even often) leads to the hurtful and decidedly anti-social behaviors that he describes in his post. That much I agree with.

Where Adam loses me is in his argument that this is a fundamental flaw of social networking as it exists on the web and that the only solution is to abandon the concept full stop. His conclusion, though, misunderstands the reasons people maintain their presence on these social networks and ignores the the many ways that these networks have proven themselves to be uniquely useful and, arguably, have net positive outcomes for their users.

The most glaring bad assumption is that people use social networks for the purpose of modeling their real world relationships instead of as a means to efficiently disseminate information among the people that are most likely to find such information relevant. While “friending” someone as an indication of a meaningful real world relationship is, I agree, ridiculous, stating explicitly that “this person’s information is, in some form, relevant to me” isn’t really all that awkward of a concept and I don’t buy the idea that because some providers have chosen to borrow words we usually reserve to indicate a more intimate relationship than “relevancy” that it condemns the concept as a whole. In fact many networks have transcended this awkwardness to a large extent simply with a change in wording and a slight tweak to the model.

There are examples of this working successfully all over the web. Twitter, just to name one, allows a person to ‘follow’ the updates of another. The word itself lacks any implication of relationship: I may follow you because you’re a close friend of mine and I want to stay up on your happenings or I may follow you because you’re an industry commentator and your updates may be relevant to my work. The social tool itself is very similiar to what you’d find on Facebook or LinkedIn, only the wording is different and the social awkwardness is gone.

In short, I share Adam’s views that current implementations are to a certain extent broken but I don’t agree with his conclusion that social networking’s inherent properties make the situation hopeless. Which ever side you lean towards, though, you should read the discussion that followed because there are some absolutely brilliant comments embedded in there. My favorite (perhaps because I agree with it ;) ) is a comment made by ‘Even’, an excerpt here:

I think my greatest problem with the ’social networks bad, no social networks best, contextual situated social networks maybe ok’ contention is that it seems, how should I put this, somewhat lacking in nuance.

Abstraction will be useful and we often benefit from simplifications carried out by many processes. I am fairly certain a blanket argument could be made against theatre for its failure to be anything but a bleak imitation of life itself, but I am uncertain how effective it would be. However grotesque we may find the mapping between social relations of real life humans and joined database columns, we do need to look at what use social networks are actually being put to in different services. Most often the network simply eases the dissemination of information.

Read the excellent discussion on Adam’s blog: Anti-social Networking

Clay Shirky – Gin, Television, and Social Surplus

It’s a story we’ve heard again and again over the last 10 years: Old Media consistently fails to “get it” when it comes to the profound changes that the web is catalyzing. Ground-up community-led (often merit-based) efforts that are birthed on the Internet are not a “passing fad” (as one TV producer puts it) but represent a fundamental shift in the way that society creates and disseminates information, on par with prior revolutions such as the introduction of the printing press, the grand scale availability of communications systems to individuals (ie. the telegraph and telephone) and, ironically, the triumph of broadcast radio and television. Old Media’s naivety (or, more likely, willful ignorance) of the changing times would be maddening if it wasn’t so funny. I rest easy at night knowing that the coming tsunami of change does not require the understanding or support of the old guard but that it can and will route around them, as revolutions are apt to do.

Clay’s argument is that this change doesn’t necessarily lead to better production or better content (as anyone familiar with the quality of YouTube comments or Digg posts can attest) simply that it is a different model of social participation, one that has proven not only to be possible but seems now inevitable and one that will fundamentally change a whole lot of existing structures.

Looking forward twenty years I think we’ll see a few of the media companies that will able to reinvent themselves enough to stay in the game (that is, stay in business) but their relevance to society will be greatly diminished, replaced in many instances by self-organized information communities and self-publishing professionals and professional groups. Monolithic top-heavy media behemoths are the steam locomotives of the web revolution.

Read Clay’s take on this: Gin, Television, and Social Surplus

Michael Pollan’s “Why Bother?” (New York Times)

While the web revolution barrels down the track there’s another fledgling revolution, wholly more important, who’s inevitability is not so clear. From Michael Pollan’s excellent article about how individual choices affect global climate change:

Sometimes you have to act as if acting will make a difference, even when you can’t prove that it will. That, after all, was precisely what happened in Communist Czechoslovakia and Poland, when a handful of individuals like Vaclav Havel and Adam Michnik resolved that they would simply conduct their lives “as if” they lived in a free society. That improbable bet created a tiny space of liberty that, in time, expanded to take in, and then help take down, the whole of the Eastern bloc.

Read the rest of Michael Pollan’s excellent answer to the question: “Why Bother?

4. (BONUS!) Tim Bray – Multi-Inflection-Point Alert

I actually read this earlier in the week, but I’ll include it anyway. This one is pure candy, just for fun. There’s not a lot of substance to it but if you (like I obviously do) buy into the idea that we are at an inflection point in society facilitated by the new types of tools that ubiquitous Internet provides, then you’ll like this post by Tim Bray.

I was up late on IM with a much-younger computer programmer and he asked “Damn, there’s a lot going on. Is it always like this?” Well, no, it hasn’t been. But in the future, it may be.

Near as I can tell, we’re simultaneously at inflection points in programming languages and databases and network programming and processor architectures and Web development and IT business models and desktop environments. Did I miss anything? What’s bigger news is that we might be inflection-point mode pretty steadily for the next few years.

Read the rest of Tim’s post at: Multi-Inflection-Point Alert

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4 Responses to “Three discussions that rocked my weekend.”

  1. virtualnexus Says:

    Yes, the anti-social networking is definitely thought provoking.

    Procrustean bed if you ask me.

  2. Skyler Tanner Says:

    Nathan,

    If you had to wager a guess based on the multiple inflection points we’re currently on top of, what will web 3.0 “look” like?

  3. Clay Barnes Says:

    Though I’ve read your summaries, I haven’t had a chance to read the relevant linked articles, so apologies in advance if this is redundant or boorishly uninsightful. ;-)

    Speaking of information presentation, take a look at this site http://worrydream.com/MagicInk I stumbled across one day. It’s not nearly as well-written at the articles you cited (and it’s painfully verbose at times), but it closely ties into some of these ideas. For example, the parts about context, memory and ambient extraction of information would be an excellent way to “blur” the current forced dichotomy of friend/not friend networks use now. “This person is in lots of pictures with me, and we exchange messages—we must have a stronger relationship than that person who poked us once,” etc. Besides, how often do we ever actually declare our relationships with each other? An interface predicated on the idea that binary (manual) “friending” is an analog our relationships is both more difficult to use and less realistic than the fluid relationships defined primarily and largely automatically by our interactions. Of course, we need much better inter-site communication to really understand these relationships, perhaps something similar to Google’s OpenSocial.


  4. Though I’ve read your summaries, I haven’t had a chance to read the relevant linked articles, so apologies in advance if this is redundant or boorishly uninsightful. ;-)
    +1


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