Although Social Networking has been around for some time it has not seen anything like the widespread use until fairly recently. Where technologists and early adopters are trying to figure out the importance of the Twitter explosion to the social networking landscape, millions of regular folks are just now starting to come to grips with how social media is changing our relationships and our personal identities in ways we’re only beginning to understand.
Peggy Orenstein has a thoughtful article at the New York Times today about the how Facebook social networking has affected her and also her concerns about how it will change the way kids grow up. She notes how a Facebooker’s post of a picture of her at 16, and her own Facebook account, brought up many items from her past, even including what appeared to be an inappropriate encounter with a high school teacher who now wants to be a Facebook friend.
As a survivor of the postage-stamp era, college was my big chance to doff the roles in my family and community that I had outgrown, to reinvent myself, to get busy with the embarrassing, exciting, muddy, wonderful work of creating an adult identity. Can you really do that with your 450 closest friends watching, all tweeting to affirm ad nauseam your present self?
The answer, as anybody who has been socially networking for long knows, is “sure, Peggy, no problem”. I’d argue that the benefits of what we might call socially “‘transparent living” probably far outweigh the costs, though it’ll be years before we understand how all of this will shake out. From a sociological point of view the most intriguing aspect to me is that the technologies are allowing us to expand our “social networks” well beyond the limits that nature intended.
Evolution works too slowly to anticipate most technological changes so our “tribal” genetics has prepared us well to deal with “hundreds” of personal associations rather than the “thousands” we have with even a modest level of socializing online. I suppose you could argue that a “letter to the editor” in a local paper reaches thousands of people, and in this case can even label you for some time depending on how you express your concerns, but most people don’t write these letters where even in rural communities there are many thousands of people using social networks, creating huge numbers of individual interactions every day.
If biological and social evolution really do limit us to only about 150 close personal associations as some have suggested we’ll probably see that social networks will eventually sort of “implode” as people reduce their connections to more manageable numbers of friends. However I don’t really see this – my guess is that we’ll see humans expand their numbers of contacts well beyond the 150 number, reaching a new plateau that will likely be defined as much by our personal history of real associations as by any biological limits. In fact there’s a lot for the Facebooks and Twitters of the world to do to make it easier to manage our growing social networks, and I’d guess we’ll soon see a lot more slicing and dicing of contacts than we have to date into “close friends”, “family”, “business associates”, etc. As in real life we’ll eventually want to control access to our information from different groups in several ways.
Another intriguing aspect of social networking is what we might call the Social Networking “all your base are belong to us” problem. Even if a person despises the internet, social interaction, and everything technological they are already likely to appear in some internet venues and will eventually appear in many social networks. Phone records, your home and real estate, business associations and records, permits, and most importantly photographs and videos are flowing online at a rate of billions and billions of bytes per second. This information is increasingly “tagged” by people you may not even know with information about you, usually without your consent or even your knowledge. Reclusive old curmudgeons beware – you could be all over the place in no time by simply owning a home or phone or attending a family function, Community BBQ, or Shriner’s parade.
Assume that a person on Facebook or Twitter has 200 people who read about them and who they read about. Assuming each person in this network creates a *single item* for *private* review – a photo or short comment. This small level of activity – under a minute of action per person – in one sense explodes to generate 200 x 200=40,000 different personal interactions. Although obviously every participant won’t review every possible interaction which would not be possible without a rash of exploding heads, the total amount of interactions in the total Social-Network-O-Sphere is, literally, mind boggling.
How this will affect our feeble human condition? I don’t know, but you can bet your Twitter we’ll all be dealing with it for some time.