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What’s in a social network? A Facebook by any other name would be as useless… discuss

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A friend shared with me a link to this article about how pointless Facebook is.. and while we are at it the whole social networks malarky etc etc…despairing how some people around her are taking refuge, er, applauding wisdom contained within.

I am not an indiscriminate fan of social networks and some of Fabrizio’s gripes have a point especially the one about privacy… although he does come across as an old cranky, dare I say it, web-o-phobe. His objections against Facebook and social networks are not entirely unreasonable and from a personal perspective justified. I would just add that if others subscribe to them too enthusiastically, without further thought, I fear it says more about them, than the nature of social networking. So let’s have that further thought, shall we?

1. The whole thing of social networking is mere bullshit to me.

I would agree that Facebook is pretty pointless in terms of its applications and overall usefulness for a blogger geek like me is zero. However, that is a far cry from social networking being mere bullshit. It is a phenomenon that is worth noting and dismissing it will make you only more ignorant of what is truly happening.

Networking on Facebook, MySpace and other silos is like taking driving lessons. There is no recognisable direction. It seems kind of pointless unless you know that it is just learning and practising. Facebook and MySpace seems a lot like that to me. But once people work out how to drive, how to operate the machine and how to get from point A to point B, they will be able to decide what the B is and get around on their own. And that’s when the real fun starts.

2. It’s not the right way to communicate with my friends.

Again, half-right. Just because face to face is still hard to beat, doesn’t mean other ways of communicating are not useful or often better in some contexts, e.g. writing a book is a much better way of communicating one’s ideas, theory or sum of knowledge, then a series of chats in a bar… although it is usually a good start. I am a big advocate of online communications because it enables people to define their thoughts in ways they rarely get to do in an offline social context.

That said, Facebook is not an ideal place for that but it helps people to piece together a record of their life. Self-selected and therefore some might say ‘manipulated’ but as I am keen on people to learn about themselves and their identity, I see it as a feature not a bug. There is a post to be written about a stage when people discover that being themselves brings greater rewards than manipulation of their image, but that’s for another time.

Also, social networks are not pointless for communication with friends, if hardly of much use for early bloggers. It is great to find a long lost friend, knowing they exist is better than losing contact with them forever. And a phone is definitely not the best way of communicating either! Social networks enable one-to-many communication for individuals – unheard of before the age of the web unless you were a politician or an author or a celebrity – in short, had some sort of institutional backing whether politics or the media. I can communicate efficiently and persistently with people in my contact list and let them expand on that communication if they are interested.

The main issue I have about the statement that it’s not the right way to communicate with one’s friends is the subsequent presumption that a phone call or a chat in a bar are the right ways. Since that is the only ‘human’ ways people communicate?! What about the wonderful tradition of letter-writing? Is that not a worthwhile communication with a friend even thought it’s not in a bar or over the phone? This goes deeper to the nature and diversity of communication, which makes such utterances short-sighted or blinkered (check the appropriate box). Stinks of an old fart, if you pardon the pun.

There is no reason why we can’t develop ‘human’ dimension in our communications online equivalent to the meeting of minds we experience in human contact offline. Not much to do with social networks as such, see my point about ‘learning how to drive’ above. The way to get there is to differentiate carefully and correctly – and this is going to take some time methinks – between what bits can and should be automated, what bits can and shouldn’t be automated and which bits we have been forcing technology to handle inadequately. I think the serenity prayer sentiments apply just fine here too:

God grant me curiosity to use my brain where irreplaceable, the skill to design and develop technology to assist it and the wisdom to know the difference.

3. I don’t want others to know too many things about me.

I couldn’t agree more. Privacy is a fine thing and until we are the ones who determine what goes out and what stays in, it will be mostly a delusion. Our privacy is protected about the same way a pretty young girl is safe in hands of a pimp held in check by a few hastily drafted rules that are actually very hard to enforce. As long as he’s seen keeping his hands of her, he’s left alone. But she’s still at his mercy and there is not much she can do if he decides to sell her on. Substitute data and information about you and you’ve got the picture.

On the other hand we have the wonders of connectedness and sharing which are very fine things too. It’s what made the web what it is today (in a good way). So to hoard and isolate would be overshooting although the ability to do so should be part of the deal, if that’s what I chose. It is about the right balance and like in any balanced ‘relationship’ it takes two to tango. At the moment, my data is held ransom in an abusive relationship and the fact that I get ’something’ out of it, doesn’t justify the imbalance of power. I should be the one making a decision about – and bear the consequences of – what happens to my data and by extension to my privacy, not Facebook or any other silo or platform. The problem is we have no way of doing that. Yet.

Finally, as Alec is points out security is a policy and so is privacy – what is private to me, may not be to you and vice versa. So what sense can a uniform set of rules or system make in a decentralised environment where a) it is near impossible to enforce and b) the distributed and persistent nature of our communication makes privacy an awkward bolt-on when it should be integral to our behaviour. The more people learn what privacy means and understand its merits and the price of its abuse, the better ‘policies’ they can devise for themselves.

So back to my point about how social networks are the ‘learning wheels’ for our identity online. Social networking is not bullshit, just like driving in a parking lot of a driving school is not pointless. Just see it in the context of the web and the individual and the picture get more interesting, if also more tricky and longer term.

It is about ability to manage one’s own data and network. Even social networks built on closed platforms cannot diminish the first giddy experience of creating a profile that consists of more than a username and data serving the platform owner more than the user. It is the control, the flexibility, the fun and play, the ease of communication and technology that makes the whole experience dynamic and mildly addictive. At the moment, not much else matters to the users – that is why privacy and security is a nice to have, rather a must have. I believe that will change as people get accustomed to more control over their online environment.

I want to be there when they want something more – their own car and their own choice of the destination – to push the driving school metaphor to its limits. Cue VRM hoping to equip people with tools that enable them to take charge of their data, provide context for it, learn from them and pass the knowledge on as they see fit.

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2 Responses to “What’s in a social network? A Facebook by any other name would be as useless… discuss”

  1. Blake Fox
    on Mar 26th, 2008
    @ 5:14 am

    Last year I canceled both my MySpace and FaceBook accounts. It became too much of a burden to maintain. Constantly removing spam. Cringing at comments made by people I am only familiar by minor acquaintance online. The social aspect is enjoyable. But it is like hosting a party at someone else’s house. If things go well and everyone respects the context, wonderful. But if not, you look bad not only to strangers. It can cause ill will of your friends or company that provide opportunity.

    I find myself attracted to specific social groups/sites online. Freely moving between them somewhat autonomously rather than connected. Just as I would in physical social circles. I certainly do not wear my bathing suit to dinner. FaceBook and MySpace can sometimes make unfortunate social engagements.

  2. Techo-Babbler
    on Apr 29th, 2008
    @ 20:19 pm

    Overall, I dislike how social networks allow people to portray themselves as self-important and pretentious. This allows people to create a comfortable persona and easily hide behind it. It’s akin to talking to someone wearing sunglasses, who refuses to take them off and make eye contact with you. Too many people are slaves to their technology.

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