Monday, March 23, 2009

Social Norms in Forever-Networks

How does one manage a (literally) virtual bouquet of electronic connections in a world that never forgets and has full access? Or to put it another way, how can I determine who can see what from whom within my electronic networks, and do so without the guilt?

I always think of this problem in a metaphor I call the 'three spheres'. It is essentially like a bulls-eye target. The center sphere - the core - is the smallest circle, and includes immediate family, relatives I feel close to, best friends and the like. The second sphere (a concentric circle around the first) includes people I work with, people I have known a long time and/or interact with frequently, etc., i.e. those I would describe as 'pretty close to'. The third concentric circle - and the largest - is for casual acquaintances, business contacts, folks I may have known during life's travels but were never really close with, etc. [I suppose for those with an online 'following', perhaps a fourth, perimeter circle might be appropriate to house people one has never (or barely) met but whom nonetheless fall at the edge of one's 'network'.]

Of course, online social networks offer a multitude of approaches, including 'friending', following', 'linking', 'joining', 'fanning', etc. They also offer a host of tools to determine interaction, but with the bluntness of an axe as opposed to the accuracy of a scalpel: 'ignore', 'delete', 'remove', or - my current favorite - 'archive' ( sounds so much more pleasant). At least one very smart fellow, Fred Wilson, found his solution in categorizing multiple social networks as either personal or professional.

To me, online social networks - and norms - need to evolve to permit easy management, and transference, of people into one of the spheres (and indeed across sphere's as relationships change). Facebook, for example, has rudimentary 'group' capability, but it is clunky and 'permissioning' is essentially non-existent today. Likewise, twitter - which relies on 'following/followers' - essentially a subscription model - provides even fewer choices.

There are in my view a number of societal and cultural social norms that need to change in an electronic, forever world, including loss of the guilt or stigma associated with 'ignoring', 'deleting' or otherwise classifying individuals (including into the spheres I refer to above). A world where people you meet are (quite literally) with you until death does them (or you) part - at least in an digital sense - requires a shift in mindset. I certainly want my children to be able to 'keep what (who) they like, leave what (who) they don't' as they live their lives, without such social limitations. I also want them to be able to easily decide who can see, hear or connect within those spheres.