The primary goal of social networks is *not* communication

> “The primary goal of a social network is to connect people, to simplify their communication, and to help them stay in touch.”
[Alex Iskold on Read/Write Web](http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/facebook_what_if_more_is_less.php#more)

This view is widely held by people who have failed to understand [Granovetter’s idea of “weak ties”](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Granovetter#The_Strength_of_Weak_Ties) – contacts you can maintain with minimal maintenance. Social networks are not just your friends and your friends’ friends and so on. Social networks are a powerful notion (and “networking” such a powerful activity) because they include people who you can’t really call friends but with whom you have a positive, yet weak, relationship.

People in business don’t network to make friends. You don’t go to a conference, collect business cards and then try to “stay in touch” with everyone afterwards. That’s psychologically impossible except for very remarkable people. You can however maintain weak ties with vastly more people than you can maintain an intimate or even friendly relationship with.

> “At the center of Facebook today is the news feed – a dynamic listing of the collective activity of all your friends. The news feed shows updates from your friends, prompting you to explore their profiles and the site. When someone adds an application or befriends someone new or posts a video or a picture, the news feed directs you to their profile page to check it out.”

[Iskold’s argument](http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/facebook_what_if_more_is_less.php#more) seems to be that [Facebook](http://www.facebook.com) is a bad mix of ideas: more intimate and less professional than [LinkedIn](http://www.linkedin.com), less about communication than [MySpace](http://www.myspace.com), hence (possibly) doomed to fail. MySpace, he argues, puts communication right at the top of their priorities, whereas Facebook puts mere notifications of all the things your friends are doing at the top of profiles and The Wall, on which friends can write notes, right at the bottom.

If you assume that social networks are about communication, this is disastrous. In my experience though, Facebook hits a real sweet spot. I hated MySpace because it requires almost constant attention to the various messages people sent me, I couldn’t simply respond via email, I had to go read their comments on my profile, go to their profile, read the comment book and add my comment.

Too intense. Too personal. Too much time.

On Facebook, by contrast, I don’t do a lot of communicating and neither do most of my contacts. I have nearly 100 contacts, yet I feel closer to them because I note little things about them in their movie reviews, status updates and new befriendings. Contacts I do talk to a bit to reveal things they might not bother mentioning (getting their citizenship sorted out, having a small bout of seizures) that help me understand and empathize with them better. But contacts from decades ago are finding me and tracing the lines of their lives gives us both a way to become reacquainted from far away without the mandatory two days camping and drinking beer to catch up.

This gentle layer of developing intimacy makes me feel much less awkward about contacting people to ask for help in finding work, getting answers to questions and introducing people. My cold, dead office at LinkedIn on the other hand is characterized by a stony silence.

And all this takes me less than 10 minutes a day, or 20-30 once a week.

The primary goal of a social network is to connect people and help them maintain weak ties, not to simplify communication or help them stay in touch. We have email and IM. Staying in touch with everyone constantly is too much work.

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6 responses to “The primary goal of social networks is *not* communication

  1. I haven’t figured out what the goal of Facebook is yet, but I like it. I mostly play Scrabble… on the other hand, the people I play Scrabble against are people I rarely see in real life – one lives in London – and I didn’t even know they played Scrabble. When you meet people at work you’ve got no idea what they do in their private lives, and no idea what they’re interested in. Facebook gives you a little bit more insight into them, and without having to do all of that inane “what did you do on the weekend” chatter you can find out what they’re into. So far though, sadly, Facebook doesn’t support many interesting things. I can see what sort of groups you join, or causes you support, if you put the effort in to do those things.

    Many Facebook applications just give others a tiny view of what sort of person you are. Photos can show us what you look like when you’re drunk, Where I’ve Been shows us what interesting places you’ve been to in the time when we weren’t seeing you regularly. In theory, from these hints we will find shared experiences and that will lead to better communication.

    I think games are going to be big on Facebook. At least in a game you get some interaction with your friends. It’s a highly stylised interaction, but so is going to a bar for a beer. I blogged about this once:

    http://sologamer.blogspot.com/2006/10/what-makes-really-great-game.html

    Ultimately, I don’t know what friends are, and what they’re for, but all of those people on Facebook are… something. Next time I move house I’ll call them all up and see which are the useful ones :-).

  2. I haven’t figured out what the goal of Facebook is yet, but I like it. I mostly play Scrabble… on the other hand, the people I play Scrabble against are people I rarely see in real life – one lives in London – and I didn’t even know they played Scrabble. When you meet people at work you’ve got no idea what they do in their private lives, and no idea what they’re interested in. Facebook gives you a little bit more insight into them, and without having to do all of that inane “what did you do on the weekend” chatter you can find out what they’re into. So far though, sadly, Facebook doesn’t support many interesting things. I can see what sort of groups you join, or causes you support, if you put the effort in to do those things.

    Many Facebook applications just give others a tiny view of what sort of person you are. Photos can show us what you look like when you’re drunk, Where I’ve Been shows us what interesting places you’ve been to in the time when we weren’t seeing you regularly. In theory, from these hints we will find shared experiences and that will lead to better communication.

    I think games are going to be big on Facebook. At least in a game you get some interaction with your friends. It’s a highly stylised interaction, but so is going to a bar for a beer. I blogged about this once:

    http://sologamer.blogspot.com/2006/10/what-makes-really-great-game.html

    Ultimately, I don’t know what friends are, and what they’re for, but all of those people on Facebook are… something. Next time I move house I’ll call them all up and see which are the useful ones :-).

  3. Excellent! You’re right, I guess many people have been mistaken about this and a lot probably still are. When I had my first encounter with things like Facebook, myspace and the like, I was too paranoid about disclosing whom I know and in the end, whom I did not know (!). Did I really want my friends to be listed like on an account statement? I was horrified; I saw it as the perfect intrusion of market mechanisms into the social fabric. I figured that the omnipresence of the database, the logic of the list and the entity-relationship modelling, was somehow about to replace the linear cultural logic of texts and stories. Furthermore enhancing the compatibility of our daily lifes, our immediate humanness with the mechanisms of the machine. Your friends as capital, relationship capital. I hesitated, lurking to see the big implosion of privacy, the complete collapse of the subject into the collective. To my surprise it didn’t happen. More and more of my acquaintances increased the pressure on me to participate on various platforms and I realized that most of them weren’t my best and most intimate friends. On the contrary, to a large extend they were basically people that I met in passing. People that would have given me their business card instead. So Lev Maninov might be right about the logic of the database and its opposition to the narrative, however, as you say social networks and its mapping with database driven social software technologies, doesn’t seem to have much to do with actual communication. What it does provide, however, is an omnipresent access to people and information, the immediate availability of people their potentials. Based on social software tools, like linkedin and xing we are witnessing a tremendous re- structuring of the increasingly globalized employment market, turning especially high skilled labourers into instantaneous nomads. Accessible any place any time. Is that a good thing?

  4. Excellent! You’re right, I guess many people have been mistaken about this and a lot probably still are. When I had my first encounter with things like Facebook, myspace and the like, I was too paranoid about disclosing whom I know and in the end, whom I did not know (!). Did I really want my friends to be listed like on an account statement? I was horrified; I saw it as the perfect intrusion of market mechanisms into the social fabric. I figured that the omnipresence of the database, the logic of the list and the entity-relationship modelling, was somehow about to replace the linear cultural logic of texts and stories. Furthermore enhancing the compatibility of our daily lifes, our immediate humanness with the mechanisms of the machine. Your friends as capital, relationship capital. I hesitated, lurking to see the big implosion of privacy, the complete collapse of the subject into the collective. To my surprise it didn’t happen. More and more of my acquaintances increased the pressure on me to participate on various platforms and I realized that most of them weren’t my best and most intimate friends. On the contrary, to a large extend they were basically people that I met in passing. People that would have given me their business card instead. So Lev Maninov might be right about the logic of the database and its opposition to the narrative, however, as you say social networks and its mapping with database driven social software technologies, doesn’t seem to have much to do with actual communication. What it does provide, however, is an omnipresent access to people and information, the immediate availability of people their potentials. Based on social software tools, like linkedin and xing we are witnessing a tremendous re- structuring of the increasingly globalized employment market, turning especially high skilled labourers into instantaneous nomads. Accessible any place any time. Is that a good thing?

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