Does The Old World Have Anything To Teach Us About Social Networks?

Most European languages distinguish between an informal and formal “you.” Those of us who speak English learned about this when we studied the tongues of the old continent. When addressing people you don’t know, or simple acquaintances, use the formal (plural) form. When addressing peers, friends and children, use the informal (singular) form. And transitioning from the informal to the formal paradigm (when that old guy you’ve talked to so many times finally decides to informally address you) is kind of a big deal – like arriving home after a long and confusing journey. But this paradigm has always seemed a bit artificial and awkward. Precisely who or what determines the level of formality? And doesn’t it reek of the kind of social stratification that modern societies would do better to leave behind?

Maciej Ceglowski’s recent piece on the deficiencies of social graphing offers another way to view this old world phenomenon. Bemoaning the fixed and limited ways in which connections may be described/defined on existent social networks, Ceglowski brings up the point that, ridiculous as it may be, at least in the old country the status of relationships is clear:

In the old country, for example, we have two kinds of ‘friendship’… and going from one status to the other is a pretty big deal; you have to drink a toast with your arms all in a pretzel and it’s considered a huge faux pas to suggest it before both people feel ready. But at least it’s not ambiguous!

The kind of social leveling that occurs on sites like Facebook, where everyone is basically and only a “friend,” destroys the nuance and uniqueness that make up real-life relationships. It’s not just that it’s a pain in the ass to tweak with all the privacy settings and figure out what information you want to share and with whom. It’s that the social graph as a model of real-life social networks is massively inadequate and navigationally stilted. “Asking computer nerds to design social software is a little bit like hiring a Mormon bartender.”

Ceglowski’s argument is that a social graph is neither a graph nor social. Which is to say, it neither adequately models the real world nor functions primarily as an interpersonal platform. The first indictment is understandable in that, as Ceglowski acknowledges, “finding an adequate data model for the totality of interpersonal connections is an AI-hard problem.”

The second indictment, however, is more chilling. If a social graph, or a social network as entrepreneurs like to call them, isn’t a platform for establishing, maintaining and strengthening interpersonal connections, then what is it?

Social networks exist to sell you crap. The icky feeling you get when your friend starts to talk to you about Amway, or when you spot someone passing out business cards at a birthday party, is the entire driving force behind a site like Facebook.

This is pretty serious stuff. Most advocates of social networking tell us that they are merely providing platforms (they love that word) for starting conversations (they can’t get enough of that one either). But what they’re really doing, in the sense that they are able to monetize and grow their site, is mining data for marketers and branding connections. True there have been examples, like the Arab Spring, when social networks seemingly rose above the crassness of simply selling stuff. But these examples are more exceptions than norms.*

All’s not for jumping out of windows though, Ceglowski does end on a more positive note. In the same way that Internet 1.0 looks totally quaint and ridiculous in hindsight, perhaps something will replace current social networks and mark them with similar judgments in the future. For this to happen, we’ll probably have to wait for geekery to combine with sociability in ways currently unimaginable.

* NB: Ceglowski does bring up and applaud other “social networks” that aren’t commercial. He mentions here, perhaps obviously, the awesome 4chan, which he credits with creating far more originality and innovation than Facebook could ever lay claim to.

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