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.


William Peng said...

Great post. I think that we are in an interesting point in time to witness the evolution of social networks and how we utilize them. There is an ambiguity in what we use social networks to achieve, whether we want to keep in touch with the "first sphere" with photo and video updates of our lives, or whether we want to be able to network with our second and third spheres of like-minded professionals.

Therefore, we run into the question of whether social networks will prevail as specialty "silo" networks like LinkedIn or as generalist networks like Facebook. The key selling point of specialty networks is the suite of features tailored to a clearly defined purpose. Currently, LinkedIn provides key features for networking that facilitate introductions to like-minded individuals. Specialist networks have the advantage of clearly compartmentalizing the spheres, as Fred Wilson has done with Twitter and Facebook.

On the other hand, generalist networks have the advantage of having a central profile (Facebook Connect), but have the disadvantage of an ambiguous definition of who sees what. That said, it will be interesting to see to what extent Facebook can stretch to accommodate these spheres of connections. We are beginning to see this with Facebook Pages for businesses and public figures, but you have to create a separate "Page" for yourself rather than consolidating everything. This is what Fred Wilson did.

What I really want to see from Facebook (generalist) is an easy way to display a different type of profile depending on the what list the person is in. For example, if a person from your first sphere views your profile, they would see more personal information, family photos, videos, etc. If a person from your second or third sphere views your profile, they would see a resume/CV type of profile, similar to that of LinkedIn. This has to be automated to a high level.

One final note is that, in the end, I find that we use the social networks that our friends also use. We saw this early on in the instant messaging space (late 90's) with ICQ, AIM, MSN, and Yahoo Chat. The lack of defining features in IM clients/protocols commoditized the IM market. However, recently, with Google Chat, integration with Gmail seems to be a key component in converting people from commoditized IM to a protocol that is more useful to the user.

In this way, the users shape the way the a social network evolves, and I think that's key.

John Gannon said...

Jim -- your post reminded me of Clay Shirky's talk at web2.0 expo this summer where he discusses information filtering (or lack thereof) in social networks.

Bruce Colwin said...

Absolutely agree. Check out I recently got a beta invite code, but haven't really had the chance to delve into their solution.

Batman said...

I have to believe that maintaining consistency across forever networks as you call them, is the key, and the onus for that is on the end user. Slamming Facebook and/or Twitter for it not conforming to the way you want to use them, might mean that there's a different network out there that more fits your needs.