Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Reflections on Social Networks


I have lots of different kinds of relationships with lots of different people, online and off. Together, these relationships form my social network, or, really, a set of different, sometimes overlapping social networks. However, I often find myself grouping them into roughly three tiers: the agora, the village, and intimates.

This blog and my Twitter feed are in the agora. They're public space. Whatever I put there, I intend to be "out there," visible to anyone who happens to stop by. My other agora activities include my Flickr feed and the occasional article I've gotten published in print media, my professional identity, and so on.

At the other end of the scale is a circle of intimates. This includes family, a few friends, and one or two people I only know over the Internet. Some of them I see regularly in meatspace; others more rarely, but with all of them there is a level of trust that goes beyond the superficial. I'm ready to share things with them that I'm not ready to write about here, for example.

In-between lies a range of villages. These are larger and looser groups of people, such as family friends and old high school classmates, people I know from the Helsinki Zen Center, and people I've interacted with to some extent on various Internet communities. People drift between these networks; some drift from the agora into a village; some villages fade into the agora, and sometimes someone from the agora or a village drifts into the circle of intimates.

The Internet is a great connector. Facebook, Twitter, various BBS's and forums, and plain ol' email make it possible to create and maintain relationships across geographic boundaries, with people you would otherwise never meet. They span the full range from superficial and transitory to deep and intimate. I met my wife over the Internet, back when that was not very cool, for one example.

However, the Internet's great strength is also its tragic flaw: its designed-in openness. It's impossible to keep things from spilling over the imaginary boundaries between these networks. Everything tends to leak into the agora, and the Net never forgets. Stuff I've said fifteen years ago in one particular village—alt.atheism, and believe me, it was a village at the time, with plenty of idiots too—is still out there, available for anyone to see.

Lately, I've been re-engineering my Internet social networks. I cleaned up my Facebook friends list, removing people I only know from the agora, with whom I've had little or no personal interaction off it. I'm attempting to turn it into one village I live in, one overlapping with my other villages, and composed of people with whom I feel some kind of affinity and whom I know from more than just the agora. Ditto for Twitter: I decided to treat that not as a village, but as one view into the agora. I pruned my follow list down to about a hundred, the sole criterion being that they're saying more stuff that interests me than what doesn't, whether I have some personal affinity with them or not.

And email? That's the great gateway. My address is public; anyone can mail me. It's also one way I stay in touch with my intimates. But even email leaks, not least because I use GMail. Google knows a scary lot about me. They read my mail, know my appointments, know my location (if I switch GPS on in my phone), have drafts of everything I've ever thought of publishing here, as well as a whole bunch of documents written for other purposes, and so on and so forth.

The Faustian bargain I've made with Google is pretty representative of the whole Internet thing, only more so. Doing anything in Internet's agora or its many villages involves giving up something you probably wouldn't want to give up. The alternative—creating a bunch of separate identities for different villages and then using the best privacy technology that's out there to keep them separate—is a lot of trouble, will by definition exclude the Net's greatest strength, the synergistic way different villages feed into each other, how agora interactions slide into village interactions, and a few of those into friendships. Plus it'll probably eventually fail anyway; it only takes one slip to blow an identity's cover, and over time, such slips will inevitably happen.

In a way, we're right back to where we came from: the village where there are no secrets and everybody knows everybody else's business. The only difference is that villages had their secrets, whereas on the Internet, village secrets are open for anyone to uncover. Social control, for good and for ill.


  1. I've been doing a similar shuffle with all these connections and with the information I consume in general. Stopped reading a lot of blogs also. More focus is the point. And selective interaction. Just because someone else calls themselves an activist or a Buddhist doesn't mean I'm obligated to interact with them nor they with me. There seems to be a lot of pressure for that kind of forced socialization. That may be part of the social control element as well. Conforming to the norm via social and peer pressure.

  2. There is, and it's built into the tools. Very easy to follow, not so easy to unfollow, either technically or socially. It adds up to a quite a lot of pressure, even if it's applied over a wide area. It's impolite to refuse a friend request on Facebook, and even more impolite to un-friend someone, so you tend to end up with a quite a few "friends" who aren't, really. Devalues the whole thing IMO.

  3. Many good points--otoh I think secrets, whether in real or virtual villages, always do out any time more than one person knows them. The time and ease factor is what's different in the electronic village.

    I find I'm unable to absorb all the personalities and demands and relationships of social media. I think of my own spot in it as sitting on the desolate moors in a rude hut, occasionally trudging into the market town for the odd turnip or spool of thread. I don't follow anyone back anymore lest I see yet more entries in my twitter stream, which is already overwhelming in quantity and underwhelming in content. Facebook is like a journal of mild interest that is delivered and lies on the breakfast table unopened for a week. Still, that's enough to give me a sense of some community, some social connection, however vague, to other humans, and so fulfills its purpose. It's actually ideal for someone who doesn't much like people in the aggregate.

  4. That's not exactly what I meant: there are no secrets within a village, but villages always keep their secrets from outsiders, often too much so. There's no simple way for an outsider to find out village secrets, even if the entire village knows them. You need the skills of a private detective, or spy. On the Internet, all you need is Google. So yes, the ease factor, but it does make a difference, sometimes for ill and sometimes for good—village secrets quite often being not all that nice.