Friday, July 6, 2007

Social Divides on Social Networking Applications + Twitter

My opinion on social networking software is pretty simple. I do believe that encoding social networking behavior in online platforms and applications has the potential to enrich people's lives, as well as add value to wealth-creating activities (i.e., SN has business applications). Appealing to my idealistic side, satisfying one or both of those criteria is the basis on which a technology or business innovation is worth spending time thinking about. While the question of how business value will be delivered from social networking is a topic I have discussed (see previous posts, or this article for a cursory view), the question of how social networking applications may be enriching people's lives is not something that I have spent less time considering. At a very high level, I think social networking software can enrich a person's life in the following ways:

1. Allowing a person to capture and maintain their real-world social network through technological means - so you do a better job maintaining friendships over distance and time, and understand your friends in new ways based on the information they choose to convey about themselves;
2. Allowing a person to find new friends through their social network - so you can extend your circle of friends on a friends-of-friends basis;
3. Enabling a person to express their personality through a "broadcast" medium - so you could use the profile feature of most social networks allows a person to create, control, and communicate their identity to the world at large;
4. Enabling a person to make connections based on interests or attributes that can't be facilitated by their real-world social networks - so you can meet people online to whom you may have a strong affinity using a social networking service, where the connection may never have occurred in the physical world;

With that generally in mind, two recent articles caught my eye and are worth a quick read.

Social networking expert Danah Boyd publishes an interesting study on her website in which she traces "class divisions" in the usage of the social networking services MySpace and Facebook. In studying the use of these services by young people, Boyd has found both perceptions of usage and actual usage patterns where "good kids" - meaning college-bound students, but also a proxy, it seems, for middle-to-upper-class students, and traditionally popular school cliques - tend to use Facebook, whereas the "Latino/Hispanic teens, immigrant teens, "burnouts," "alternative kids," "art fags," punks, emos, goths, gangstas, queer kids, and other kids" call MySpace home.

There may be some features of each of the services that are responsible for their attraction to different types of users. Boyd indicates that the Facebook crowd prefers its "clean" interface, whereas some of the heterogeneous set of high school outsiders lumped into the MySpace crowd prefer the "bling" and front-end configuration capabilities of MySpace. More likely, however, is a simple migration of real world patterns of behavior and social networking migrating into the online world. This is a real shame, of course, as one of the hopes of the online world would be the ability for people to transcend the impositions of their day-to-day realities. Especially for kids. As Boyd sums it up, sigh.

On an entirely separate note, Clive Thompson writes in Wired about recent flavor-of-the-month Twitter. Now, I haven't actually used Twitter, as I try to avoid the more twee software phenomenon to the extent that I possibly can, no matter how hot they are, but smarter people than me have. In case you don't know what Twitter is, Thompson sums it up well:
a tool that lets you post brief updates about your everyday thoughts and activities to the Web via browser, cell phone, or IM. The messages are limited to 140 characters, so they lean toward pithy, haiku-like utterances.
And his argument for Twitter is as follows:
Individually, most Twitter messages are stupefyingly trivial. But the true value of Twitter — and the similarly mundane Dodgeball, a tool for reporting your real-time location to friends — is cumulative. The power is in the surprising effects that come from receiving thousands of pings from your posse. And this, as it turns out, suggests where the Web is heading.

When I see that my friend Misha is "waiting at Genius Bar to send my MacBook to the shop," that's not much information. But when I get such granular updates every day for a month, I know a lot more about her. And when my four closest friends and worldmates send me dozens of updates a week for five months, I begin to develop an almost telepathic awareness of the people most important to me.

It's like proprioception, your body's ability to know where your limbs are. That subliminal sense of orientation is crucial for coordination: It keeps you from accidentally bumping into objects, and it makes possible amazing feats of balance and dexterity.

Twitter and other constant-contact media create social proprioception. They give a group of people a sense of itself, making possible weird, fascinating feats of coordination.

Now, I don't know if I buy any of this, but it is an interesting hypothesis - that the more data we provide about ourselves to our friends, the better they can know us - in greater depth, in more detail, with greater variety. And that is, I would hope, one of the aims of social networking software.


Eli said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eli said...

while I'm all for "social proprioception" (who isn't?), where is the place for shy, private people in this new socially-networked universe?

are those personality types too old economy? (sorry, i know the old/new economy distinction is very pre-2001)

I think there is a lot of value, and potential, for social networking, but I do wonder about how much of it depends on people who enjoy loudly displaying their personality (e.g. myspace). I guess it all depends on the format and purpose (for example, linkedin vs. twitter).

Ritik Dholakia said...

Eli -

I'd make two points on this. For "shy, private" people, in the sense that they do not have a deep interest in making connections beyond those people with whom they are immediately and intimately familiar (family, childhood friends, school friends, etc.) -- I'm not sure there is necessarily a lot of value for them in social networking tools. In response to "where is the place?" I would ask, "what kind of place would they want?"

However, for another type of "shy, private" person, I think social networking applications, and the web in general, can add tremendous value to their day-to-day life. For people who would like to express themselves (not necessarily loudly), or connect with people who share some set of unique interests, or keep connected with people that they have met before but are physically separated from, I think that each of the social networking applications have a lot of value. For people who may not be good at or not inclined to expressing themselves in the day-to-day, face-to-face interactions of the physical world, tools like email, or Facebook, or LinkedIn can be empowering.

So while I think you are spot on, in that the format and purpose of all of these apps must be well matched to the personality and needs of the user, I think you are unfairly judging a lot of these applications as being useful for "loud" personalities when compared to "quiet personalities.