Monday, 18 July 2011

Thing 6 - Online networks

Thing 6 is all about social networks and online networking *. Social networking and the growth of online communities are uniquely new. We are now able to connect with and regularly communicate with people from across the world in an easier way than has ever been available before.

The time is close at hand when the scattered members of civilized communities will be as closely united, so far as instant telephonic communication is concerned, as the various members of the body now are by the nervous system.
'The Future of the Telephone', Scientific American, 1880.
Whether, as broadsheet writers would have us believe, social networks like Twitter have the power to democratise the repressed or foster revolutions **, they have certainly brought about new modes of behaviour, new psychological norms, and new codes of social etiquette (netiquette). It’s particularly interesting to look at how the implied intimacy and the control features of different networks affect their use and popularity.

Google+ is a recent example of new norms in a new social network. In Google+, users group their contacts in different ‘circles’ depending on which social group the user perceives the contact belonging to: I currently have ‘Friends’, ‘Family’, and ‘Library Peeps’ ( Now the attractive thing about circles is that only the user can see his/her circles so they provide a way of organising people without the publicity of, for example, Twitter lists. The user can then control which posts or status updates are shared with which circles. This allows a level of controlled detachment (or indeed controlled intimacy) that I find quite appealing and it demonstrates something about how the intimacy of a network affects how it is used.

My experience with social networking began with Facebook (well, technically it began with MySpace but I think it’s best to ignore those years, don’t you?). Facebook is perhaps the most intimate of the ‘big wig’ online networks: profiles tend to use real names, non-avatar photos, and to input a lot of personal information. And so Facebook tends to be used for connecting with friends, voyeuristically following the lives of people I didn’t like in school, and setting up in-person events. In other words, it’s to communicate with people I know quite well.

By contrast, Twitter and LinkedIn have different levels of intimacy between contacts. I was attracted to Twitter by the new etiquette whereby one can ‘follow’ someone without that person feeling behoved to ‘follow’ one back. Twitter is less personal, more anonymous, and leads to connecting with a wider range of people without necessarily feeling any particularly close connection with those people. It allows more control over how close people get: unlike on Facebook, it requires effort to build up intimacy on Twitter. This control over one’s own connections is very appealing and perhaps contributes to the network’s popularity. It also contributes to its use as a general, profersonal communications tool. LinkedIn by design implies a certain amount of professional detachment but compared to Twitter offers less control over the amount of information a contact sees: this informs its use for employment purposes and for serious CILIP-y discussions.

So the intimacy implied in a network *** and perhaps more importantly the control that the user can exercise over this intimacy contributes massively to the use of that network and/or its popularity. If I can make an unfounded conjecture: part of the reason that LinkedIn is not as popular as other online networks is because it doesn’t offer much intimacy between contacts and promotes a professional demeanour that it’s unappealing to affect in one’s spare time.   

...and control of personal space
Control is very important psychologically: in the form of safety/security, it’s the second level from the bottom in Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. I did give some thought as to whether meeting someone online offers more or less control over intimacy than meeting someone in real-life: I think the most I can say is that the two experiences are different. But I think as norms and netiquette continue to change, these will affect all our interactions with other people. Google+ seems to be a useful social network because it allows the controlled detachment (excluding people without feeling awkward) of Twitter, the employment profiling of LinkedIn, and, if you want it, the intimacy of Facebook.

I have been a lucky man. To feel the intimacy of brothers is a marvellous thing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses – that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things.
Pablo Neruda quoted in The Gift by Lewis Hyde.

* Justification: In some sense, I’m hijacking Thing 6 to write about something that I’ve been thinking about writing about anyway. A central theme is my networks, what I use them for and why. So it’s all good.

** Mini-rant: Personally I think it’s rather patronising to suggest that movements like the Arab Spring could only come about through the application of Western technology. It strikes me as an insidious form of Western imperialism.

*** Mini-discussion-point: Intimacy is also implied by language. In descending order of implied intimacy: Facebook ‘friends’, Twitter ‘followers’, LinkedIn ‘connections’.


Katie Birkwood said...

This is such a well-thought out and articulated post that I'm not sure I have much to say except 'I agree'. I hadn't really thought about social networks in those terms before, but it really makes sense. I'm intrigued by this circles business in G+, although I haven't really tried it out yet.

Simon Barron said...

Thanks Katie! I'd been thinking about the whole social network intimacy thing since I started experimenting with Google+. This week's CDP23 Thing gave me a good opportunity and a kick up the backside to jot my thoughts down.