Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Social Networking Anonymous (SNA)

The other day, I received this New Yorker cartoon from a friend via Twitter depicting a distraught-looking man so “over” twitter that he is simply waiting for it to vanish. This cartoon illustrates something that I've been hearing a lot of lately around the popularity of social networking: a sort of pseudo-hatred for Facebook and Twitter that paradoxically manifests itself in more time spent on Fb and Twitter...complaining about Fb and Twitter. It's a sort of digital addiction, a craving for text, numbers and gossip that can only be quelled with more text, numbers and gossip; a vicious cycle that easily leads to a catatonic state of idle non-productivity.

And yet, unlike other products built by the profit motive that depend on this kind of addiction and passivity, this sentiment is not the fault of the platform or its creators, but rather is a misunderstanding by the complaining users themselves. Social computing is not something meant to be addictive to or abstained from. It is not a replacement of social interaction in Physical Life. Users cannot sit in front of their newsfeed and expect it to do anything useful for their psyche. The social web is not meant to be consumed like the one-way bubble of television. It is a social tool. Most tools have a right and wrong way to use them yet the beauty of social networking is that there is no right or wrong way to use it- just a right and wrong way to think about it. And if we can re-think sites like Fb and Twitter as social tools, why not learn how to use them effectively?

First, in addition to strengthening relationships with close friends, the large networks users gather on these sites increase our access to “weak ties,” or people whose relationships are loose, but friendly. Social networks make these “acquaintances” powerful assets to our friend libraries by bringing us a more diverse set of information than what we would get if we were stuck in a small cluster of friends with similar interests. Users can also leverage weak-ties as a larger talent pool of peers to help with tasks, promotion, housing, jobs, etc. For example, say you live in Boston, but you are moving to San Diego and need work and a place to live. You don't know anyone in San Diego except that one friend of a friend of a friend you hit it off with at a party two years ago. Before Facebook, it would have been difficult or awkward to ask this person for help, but in Fb land, it is standard operating procedure.

Social networks are also a great tool for self-expression. The Internet makes creating and sharing information really easy, and places like Facbook, Myspace, and Twitter provide communities through which users/authors can distribute ideas and information that is important to them. Social networks give users an on-line audience outside of their immediate friends and family that would be difficult to gather otherwise.

The great thing about social networking platforms is that there is no intended use for them and so users can get extremely creative about the data that is out there. Twitter and Flickr's open API have lead to amazing innovation with data visualization. Facebook recently opened its API, and I'm sure we will see equally innovative projects behind it.

So if you find yourself wasting more time hating on Twitter via Twitter, or surfing Fb aimlessly rather than really using it for something, try these simple augmentations to your online routine:

// If any of your friends are broadcasting annoying, or bogus information, ignore them! These tools give you full control over who you “follow” or are connected with, so use it!

// Find a good hobby and frame your social networking around that specific hobby or interest. I am currently reading “Infinite Jest,” and a simple Twitter keyword search led me to an online group that is devoted to reading IJ together this summer and discussing it. Brilliant!

// Remember that people are listening, so broadcast with some substance! Contribute your own unique information and treat your online network as a medium through which you can express yourself meaningfully to an audience rather than a place to extend your physical self merely for your own enjoyment.

These websites and modes of communications are not going away. This is why we need to leave the cliché idea that they are annoying, boring, or useless, and instead embrace them as a tool for self expression, information aggregation, and social innovation. If you are looking like the guy in the cartoon above, sitting around waiting for Facebook to just go away, I guarantee you will be wasting your time.

If you are interested in reading more about social computing, I high recommend Clay Shirkey's Here Comes Everybody, and any of the links embedded above.

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