Chris Allen writes about a contemporary dilemma: how to manage hundreds of connections in online social networks. It's today's version of a problem that's as old as the first city; how to live in groups much larger than the families and tribes we're wired to understand.
Chris Allen wrestles with the dilemma of how to manage a social network with hundreds of acquaintances:
As someone who now has over 171 professional "connections" in my LinkedIn Profile, 198 "friends" on Orkut, many more non-intersecting friends and acquaintances on Tribe.Net, LiveJournal, and other social networking services, as well as a plethora of correspondents that I only interact with via email, I am trying reconcile a mismatch between my connections and my own Dunbar Number.
Joi Ito has complained of the opposite problem -- running into maximum number of allowable friends on Orkut and AIM, and also of the same problem: "I need to forget someone every time I meet someone I want to remember because I'm having a buffer overflow on my people recognition memory."
Like physical cities, online networks bring people into contact with numerous casual acquaintances.
Entire genres of writing evolved to explore the opportunities, risks, and emerging norms of urban social life. Ben Franklin pioneered techniques of self-organization and civic organization for the new world of capitalist opportunity and democratic obligation; his advice manuals and autobiography spread the gospel.
The 19th century novel (think Great Expectations and Sister Carrie) deal with themes of a stranger coming to the city, establishing bonds of trust or being lured by con games. Dale Carnegie, writing in 1937, wrote a self-help manual for urban aspirants eager to learn the lucrative art of networking.
danah boyd often critiques the awkwardnessful interfaces of online social network tools, which automate plaintive requests for friendship and guilt-inducing demands for favors.
Chris suggests tools that will help people manage attention to a social network:
Could simple categorization help improve expectations for attention levels that various associates receive from you? Are there ways that social networking services, acting as an intermediary, could better manage disappointment-inducing events, such as a decision to spend less attention on an associate?.
Tools will surely be helpful. Databases have long helped salespeople remember the names of the children and pets of their customers. Tools can surely be improved. The Linked In form for passing on a reference request is a social horror -- it turns the pleasant, virtuous, social capital-building experience of recommending a friend into a guilt-inducing, bureacratic obligation.
Chris Allen also rightly points out that the problem isn't just in the interfaces, it's in the social situation created by online network exposure to hundreds of acquaintances; far more than the human capacity for close connection.
We'll also need novels, advice columns, tutorials -- as much or more than tool features -- to handle the social and ethical dilemmas of life in the virtual city.
There are novels and memoir genre writing about dilemmas of real and phony intimacy online. Pamela Ribon's novel, Why Girls are Weird was about the varieties of truth and deception, false intimacy and real intimacy that come with keeping an online journal. Justin Hall has a breakdown online, over the fear that online exhibitionism might be incompatible with real connection.
To address Chris' dilemma directly, I think part of the problem is being a post-freudian modern; intimacy is the ultimate goal of relationship and a source of secular transcendence. We need to go back to a more 18th century concept of public identity to describe the pleasures and rewards of broad acquaintance.
Another part of the answer is a recalibrated bullshit detector for online social interaction -- learning to detect and navigate the nuances of sincerity and phoniness: annoying people on the make who "friend" everybody they meet; the cheerful grass-roots self-promotion of folks who give out business cards with their blog address; and the ongoing, global parties hosted by maestros like Jon Lebkowsky and Joi Ito.
A third part of the answer is a recalibrated set of social signals for strength of connection, where (for example) an online social network "friend" request is a light signal, a blog comment is a slightly stronger signal; individual conversation by IM/IRC is stronger than that, followed by email; meeting in 3d is a strong signal of potential friendship and periodic online followup is its confirmation; and repeated, unreciprocated comments, pings, or emails are signs of stalking.
It's a good, rich set of questions. Thanks, Chris!Posted by alevin at February 5, 2005 08:26 PM | TrackBack