I originally published this article in the Phi Kappa Phi Forum and am reprinting it here for my online friends and colleagues. I hope you enjoy it and find it thought-provoking. I realize that it’s quite possible you won’t agree with my viewpoint. That’s good. Explain why you view it differently in the comments section please!
Let me start out with a confession. I’m about as plugged in to the computer networks as anyone you’re likely to meet. I first connected to the Internet back in 1980, when it was the ARPAnet and commercial use was completely verboten. Yes, it’s come a long way, and so has our society.
Nowadays professionals are just as likely to have their Facebook or LinkedIn URL on their business cards as a phone number, and entire conferences seem to be run simultaneously in the physical world and as a running, often snarky, flow of consciousness dialog on the Twitter microblogging service.
But all of this begs the question: are we really more connected? Do computer and social networks really make us more connected as human beings?
That’s what I’d like to talk about in this article.
MYSPACE REDEFINED FRIENDSHIP
One of the first phenomena you notice when you start to connect with people through Web sites that are designed to memorialize connections is that the word “friend” takes on a different meaning. In the physical world — what people in the virtual reality world of Second Life call “RL” or real life — friends are generally defined as those people you have a personal relationship with, not anyone you happen to encounter, anyone at your college, company, or other organizations. The latter are colleagues or acquaintances or just people with whom you have something in common.
The first popular sites to delve into the world of friendship, of letting you quantify and identify your circle of friends, were Friendster (which is now essentially defunct, having long-since fallen out of the zeitgeist) and MySpace. On these sites every connection you made had a similar strength, so your best friend Mike is considered just as important in your life as Aunt Flo, to whom you’ve connected to stop her complaining at family gatherings.
In real life, of course, everyone has close, important friends, intimates who are privy to the highs and lows of your life, a larger circle of what we can call pretty good friends who can help out in a crunch but with whom you don’t interact with regularly, and finally “almost friends” who are people with whom you feel an affinity, but geography, time or other logistical issues prevent from becoming closer. And then there are the decaying circles of acquaintances, colleagues, and so on.
ENTER THE KEVIN BACON EFFECT
Very little research in sociology has caught the public fancy as much as the early work by Harvard social psychologist Stanley Milgram, in which he hypothesized that we are all far more connected than we realize. His famous experiment of randomly choosing Midwesterners to hand-deliver letters to Bostonians they didn’t know through a chain of friends produced the conclusion that people in the United States are separated by about six people on average.
There are a variety of flaws with this research, but whether we’re connected through six hops, eight hops or seventeen, the basic idea that social chains are sufficiently all-encompassing that you and I can find a sequence of friends or acquaintances that connect us is fascinating. Make the end point well-known actor Kevin Bacon and you have “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” or “the Kevin Bacon effect”.
It was this question of how to gain access to your friends’ friends, or, more accurately, the connections of your connections, that has become the basis of LinkedIn, a social network that lets you answer the question “I wonder if any of my friends know someone who…”
The numbers quickly grow at an extraordinary rate. I have 705 connections on LinkedIn. Take one step out onto that social network and that gives me over 330,000 people in my immediate network. One further step out (we’d call this friends of friends of friends, I suppose) and the number is a staggering 8,392,600 connections.
What does that mean? Am I obligated to send holiday cards to them all or keep track of their birthdays? I sure hope not!
In fact, they’re not friends. While they offer up a tremendous professional resource, they don’t in any fundamental way expand your social or personal network. They don’t connect you with the greater humanity.
Since I know you might be wondering, Facebook isn’t any better in this regard. You can certainly join many, many different circles of common interests through mailing lists, applications, etc., but it’s still a very abstract, intellectual world. I have 358 Facebook friends and at least 25% of those I wouldn’t recognize if we bumped into each other at the local Starbucks.
DO ANY SOCIAL NETWORKING SITES SOLVE THE PROBLEM?
If we’re trying to ascertain what helps you become less isolated rather than gaining the appearance of more friends while still leaving you just as disconnected, perhaps the answer lies in dating sites? After all, those are sites where you connect with others because of either an existing or desired personal connection. No, still, that’s not right because, with the exception of novel sites like Ignighter.com, they are focused on who you want to know, not who you know.
Another possibility are lightweight social networks like Twitter, to which I admit a personal addiction (you can follow me at @DaveTaylor). The idea behind sites like Twitter are that it’d be useful and interesting to be able to keep tabs on your friends as you all go through your day. Spontaneous meetups, collaboration, and mutual support all easily flow from this sort of connectivity.
Twitter indeed fulfills some of these daily needs for people to be connected, especially with its great strength as a mobile application. It’s interesting to see how this evolves too, however, particularly in light of our quest for online tools that help you truly connect with humanity: I keep track of just over 100 friends, all of whom I would recognize at a party, but over 3000 people keep track of what I am saying and doing. It’s kind of weird, actually!
IS IT ABOUT MEASURING FRIENDSHIPS?
As we’ve traveled through the landscape of social media and social networks, whether it’s the immediacy of Twitter or the business-like utility of LinkedIn, what has become clear is that these tools need to let us differentiate between close friends and acquaintances, to rate the strength of our connection. Without that capability, everyone’s in the same proverbial pool and my connection with my close friend Richard is identical to my new connection with PKP magazine editor Margaret Lisi.
That being the case, you need to make a decision, preferably before you proceed to enmesh yourself in a social network, regarding whether it will capture everyone you know and have more than a passing acquaintance with or whether you will reserve it to your closest friends.
In the social network world we refer to this as quality versus quantity, and there are strong arguments for each approach. But what I want, predictably, is both. The quality gets me the connection with humanity, the ability to stay in closer touch with my intimate friends, and the quantity offers me all the benefits of our modern, highly-connected world. How to attain both? Well, we’re still at the veritable infancy of social networks so I’m pushing their edges and watching it all evolve on a weekly basis.
How about you? How will you choose to utilize these many online tools to expand your own social and professional circles?