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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Social Networking and its Discontents: What's Wrong with Social Networking?

A fair number of news outlets have picked up the story of Gabe Henderson, and his decision to cancel his MySpace and Facebook accounts. Why did he quit? Because
"The superficial emptiness clouded the excitement I had once felt," Henderson wrote in a column in the student newspaper at Iowa State University, where he studies history. "It seems we have lost, to some degree, that special depth that true friendship entails."
The majority of the article focuses on how people, the tech generation in particular, are not spending enough time in face-to-face encounters with friends, and how that is a bad thing. I think what they're missing is that social networking as it stands at this point in time is actually very bad at promoting friendships. Why does Gabe feel that his tech-enabled interactions are hollow and empty? Because social networking sites promise one thing, but deliver something altogether different.

It's not that online interactions are bad inherently, but that the current array of options that enable social interaction is lacking. I think that most people don't really use social networks as they are meant to be used because sites like MySpace and Facebook are little more than glorified personals ads. As Gabe describes
"I'm not sacrificing friends," he says, "because if a picture, some basic information about their life and a web page is all my friendship has become, then there was nothing to sacrifice to begin with."
There is a lack of substance and depth that undermines the stickiness of social networking sites. Real friendships are rarely formed on them. A few reasons why even fewer friendships are likely to formed in the future:
  • Increasing commercialization: Companies that wish to advertise their products come up with all sorts of creative ways like setting up their corporate mascot with a user profile for people to friend or even deliberately misrepresenting themselves (Brody Ruckus of Ruckus Network on Facebook). I've written previously about Metcalfe's Law, which states that the value of a network goes up with the square of the number of users. However, these commercial profiles are like black holes. They suck in connections as other users friend them, but those users don't find friends by looking at the list of Helga the Volkswagen mascot's friends. These connections have no value (even negative value) because they dead-end and are very weak (based on whimsy and not on deliberation). The very falseness of these mascots or corporate profiles erodes the point of social networks. They are an embodiment of the broken windows theory. Social networking sites become "bad neighborhoods" when companies jump into the mix. Corporate users erode intimacy and trust that are the cornerstones of real friendship.
  • Celebrity: By this, I mean users who have built-in fanbases like bands and other artists. They gather "friends" who have similar tastes (they love that band), but the relationship becomes one of a fanclub where users are there for the band and not for the rest of the network. In a sense, even though these users have joined a social networking site and are "active" participants, they are essentially lurkers. They aren't there to socialize, but to be part of the spectacle. Trying to friend these users is like typing in a URL and getting a 404 error. They are broken links in the social network.
  • Decreasing trust: As the MySpace predator story illustrates, there are users of social networks that are even more corrosive than corporations. While this is nothing new, I think that in the future, the dumber online predators will stop using their real names when signing up for accounts. Increasing publicity of how dangerous social networks can be will cause more and more users to beg the question: How do I know that my "friend" isn't a predator?
Virtual worlds like Second Life are likely to be better forums for community building than the MySpaces of the online world. I think they are inherently better suited to the formation of real friendships because they mimic reality to a greater or lesser degree. That cues users to behave more like they do in real life; in a virtual world, you interact with other users through avatars, which you can much more easily relate and respond to than a text posting on MySpace. Second Life also has a virtual economy, which makes even more like reality. It also answers the concern about the lack of face-to-face contact online: every interaction is face-to-face in a virtual world. Of course, that's not to say that the same forces at work on MySpace won't overshadow the structural forces that online worlds possess that promote the formation of real relationships.

Related Posts:
The Anatomy of Web 2.0: Putting it in Context
The Growth of Social Networking Sites, Redux
Is The Social Networking Market Saturated?
How Sticky Are Social Networks?
Participation Inequality: The New Pareto Principle (90-9-1 Rule)
The Rise of Specialized Social Networks (Plus a Review of SocialPicks)


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