Welcome to the home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Variance and general internet tinkerer. Most of my writing these days is happening over at Why is this interesting?, a daily email full of interesting stuff. This site has been around since 2004. Feel free to get in touch. Good places to get started are my Framework of the Day posts or my favorite books and podcasts. Get in touch.

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The Problem with Social Networking

I’ve written lots about the problems with social networking. It’s generally not localized, online contact tends to precede physical contact, etc. When I ran across Jyri Engeström’s entry titled “Why some social network services work and others don’t — Or: the case for object-centered sociality,” I was intrigued. Jyri adds some great points to the list of what’s wrong with “social networking” as we know it today.

His big point (I think), is this:

The fallacy is to think that social networks are just made up of people. They’re not; social networks consist of people who are connected by a shared object. That’s why many sociologists, especially activity theorists, actor-network theorists and post-ANT people prefer to talk about ‘socio-material networks’, or just ‘activities’ or ‘practices’ (as I do) instead of social networks.

Social networks are made up of people, sure, but how do you know those people. Most often it’s because of some activity. Maybe it’s school. Maybe it’s the gym. Or maybe they grew up in your hometown. But in most cases, social networks don’t allow you to differentiate these contacts, as you would in real life. Why not? Why haven’t social networking sites realized that this is such an integral part of real-life social networks?

Jyri talks about the success of Flickr as a social networking site and echoes something I wrote in a post a little while ago. In “Annotating Flickr with a Side of Social Networking,” I wrote:

Social networking works best when it’s not the primary objective of a website. In other words, sites like Flickr and blogs generally tend to be a more accurate picture of your social network than something like Friendster (and this may need to be a whole other post).

Jyri gives an even better explanation in his post:

Approaching sociality as object-centered is to suggest that when it becomes easy to create digital instances of the object, the online services for networking on, through, and around that object will emerge too. Social network theory fails to recognise such real-world dynamics because its notion of sociality is limited to just people.

Exactly, social networking is not all about people and until these sites realize and embrace that, people will continue to fade away from them. Real social networking is most often about what people have in common. That’s why you become friends with people in the first place, right?

This, again, is why I think Thefacebook makes so much sense. It is a social networking site that first revolves around a shared experience of going to college in the same place. By understanding that all these people share this important physical proximity, the site is able to satisfy their needs far better than something like Friendster.

Cool stuff. Thanks Jyri. And thanks to O’Reilly Radar for the heads up.

April 25, 2005