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Have social networks replaced groups?

Maxim Weinstein responded in an email to my post about what the social structure of the Internet looked like before Facebook, making the insightful point that Facebook meets the four criteria Clay Shirky listed for social software in his 2003 keynote at eTech. Here are the four with Max’s comments appended:

1. Provide for persistent identities so that reputations can accrue. These identities can of course be pseudonyms.
2. Provide a way for members’ good work to be recognized. < "Like" buttons, sharing
3. Put in some barriers to participation so that the interactions become high-value. < have to accept friend requests
4. As the site’s scale increases, enable forking, clustering, useful fragmentation. < pages

Max goes on to note some nuances. But his comment, plus a discussion yesterday with Andrew Preater, a library technologist at the Imperial College of London, made me think how little progress we’ve in fact made in supporting groups on the Net.

For example, Clay’s post from 2003 marvels at a “broadband conversation” in which the participants communicated simultaneously by conference call, through a wiki, and through a chat, each from a different source. Since 2003, there are now services that bundle together these different modalities: Skype and Google Hangouts both let a group talk, video, chat, and share documents. (Google Docs are functionally wikis, except without the draft>compile>post process.) So, that’s progress…although there is always a loss when disparate services get tightly bundled.

What’s missing is the concept of a group. As my 2003 post said, members of a group know they’re members of a group with some persistence. Skype and Hangouts let people get together, but there are no tools there for enabling that configuration of people to persist beyond the session. Groups are important because they enable social ties to thicken, which means they’re especially useful now to mitigate the Brownian motion of sociality on the Internet.

Likewise, Facebook, Google Groups, Twitter, and the other dominant forms of “social software” (to use the term from 2003) are amazing at building social networks. At those sites you can jump into borderless networks, connecting to everyone else by some degree. That’s pretty awesome. But those sites do not have a much of a concept of a group. A group requires some form of membership, which entails some form of non-membership. Usually the membership process and the walls that that process forms are visible and explicit. This isn’t to say that groups have to have a selection committee and charge dues. A group can be widely open. But the members need to be able to say “Yeah, I’m part of that group,” even if that means only “I regularly participate in that open discussion over there.” A group is a real thing, more than the enumeration of its members. If all the members leave, we have to be able to say, “There’s no one in that group any more. Too bad.”

If the walls around the group don’t include and exclude the same people for each member, then it’s a network, not a group. Not all of your friends are my friends and vice versa. But everyone in the Chess Club is in the Chess Club. The Chess Club is a group. Your friends and my friends on Facebook are part of a social network. Not that’s there anything wrong with that.

Now, I realize in saying this I am merely expressing my Old Fartdom. “Why, in my day, there were groups and not all these little networks of people with their twittering and their facial books.” The evidence for this is the generational divide on email. Email remains my most important social software for all the reasons that The Kids have moved to Facebook: email goes to the people I choose, is slower, results in semantically sequential threads of call-and-response, and is archived. But I especially like email because mailing lists are crucial to my social and intellectual life. I have been on some for over twenty years. Most of what I know about the Internet comes from the lists I’m on. I’ve reconnected with some of my academic philosophical roots via a mailing list. Mailing lists are so important to me because they are online groups.

So it’s entirely possible, in fact it’s probable, that the Internet has not made a lot of progress supporting groups because our culture no longer values groups. We’ve gone from Bowling Alone to Twitch Bowls 300. Old-timers like me — even as we celebrate the rise of networks — should be permitted a tear to dampen our dry, furrowed skin.

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David is the author of JOHO the blog (www.hyperorg.com/blogger). He is an independent marketing consultant and a frequent speaker at various conferences. "All I can promise is that I will be honest with you and never write something I don't believe in because someone is paying me as part of a relationship you don't know about. Put differently: All I'll hide are the irrelevancies."