Social Networks, Relationships, and “Friends”

December 1, 2007

I’ve been hearing quite a bit of discussion lately about how our relationships and the concept of “friends” are evolving as more people spend increasing amounts of time interacting with social networks like Twitter and Facebook.

In a post on the New York Times today, Alex Wright claims that

THE growing popularity of social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace and Second Life has thrust many of us into a new world where we make “friends” with people we barely know, scrawl messages on each other’s walls and project our identities using totem-like visual symbols.

The more time we spend “talking” online, the less time we spend, well, talking. And as we stretch the definition of a friend to encompass people we may never actually meet, will the strength of our real-world friendships grow diluted as we immerse ourselves in a lattice of hyperlinked “friends”?

Still, the sheer popularity of social networking seems to suggest that for many, these environments strike a deep, perhaps even primal chord. “They fulfill our need to be recognized as human beings, and as members of a community,” Dr. Strate says. “We all want to be told: You exist.”

(Quote from Alex Wright in the New York Times)

This implication that online interactions are somehow wrong and less valuable than face to face interactions bothers me a bit. Maybe my use of social networks is less typical due to my relatively frequent travel to conferences, but I find that I can keep in touch with people who I may only see a few times a year through these networks. It isn’t unusual for me to spend a significant amount of time with a few people during the week of a conference and then not see them for another 6 months until we run into each other at some other conference. Through Twitter and Facebook, we can keep in touch and continue to learn and keep up with each others’ current projects (work and personal). This helps us pick back up where we left off, but with insight into what each of us has been doing over the past 6 months.

I limit my Twitter feed (which is private) to people that I personally know, which allows me to Twitter more freely about where I am and what I’m doing. With Facebook, I am a little more open, accepting not only people who I know in the physical world, but also people where I have some online connection. Both of these services help me make stronger connections to the people that I know. I learn about local and remote tech events that my friends are attending and share information about community events that I am organizing. I get together with these people (the ones living or traveling in the Portland area) regularly for lunches, dinners, events, werewolf games, drinks, and more. I also learn quite a bit from these people through shared links, stories, posts, and ideas increasing my personal and work productivity as a direct result of the online interactions. I tend to think that I have stronger relationships as a result of these services, not weaker ones. These people are part of a broader community, and our participation in this online community is no less valuable because some of the interactions occur online.

I think that many people see these interactions happening online in social networks and assume that these are replacing our other interactions. In many cases, and in my case, my online interactions in social networks do not replace physical interactions with real people, they simply provide a way to augment the relationships I have with my friends.

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Mobile Twitter

May 5, 2007

I’ve been using Twitter both on my computer on my and phone for a while, but the user experience of the phone has been a bit rough.  One option is to turn on text messages and be interrupted by your phone every time a friend Twitters.  Another option was the use the standard web interface, which required lots of scrolling and painfully slow load times.

Now Twitter has just released m.twitter.com.  It’s very simple, clean, and easy to read on the phone.  I think I’ll like using Twitter on my phone even more with this release.

Twitter is one of those services that people either love, hate, or can’t see the point.  I’m in the “love it” camp.  It’s a great way to keep up with friends.  I like knowing what new app or gadget Josh Bancroft or Chris Messina are testing. I also get great lunch suggestions from people like Raven Zachary.  The best use of Twitter is at big events where you can learn which session, party, speaker, etc. really stinks and which ones are a must see.  At sxsw, Chris Messina organized an OpenID meetup primarily over Twitter. News also spreads quickly via Twitter, and I frequently see breaking news on Twitter before other mainstream media sources. The best part is that you get this information quickly and easily from your community of friends, acquaintances, and coworkers.


Online Community Map

May 5, 2007

Thanks to Kaliya for finding this.


Twitter

February 24, 2007

I’m probably the last person in the world to join Twitter. Raven Zachary is the one responsible for finally convincing me to join. If I know you in real life, feel free to add me as a friend.


Second Life Moves to Open Source

January 8, 2007

Second Life has just announced that the Second Life client has been released under an open source license, and they described their move to open source as “inevitable”:

“At Linden, we have always been strong advocates of the use of open standards and the advantages of using open source products. Though Second Life makes abundant use of non-standard technologies, our basic UDP protocol message system for example, we rely on open standards and open source implementations when appropriate and available. Since many of the components that will make up this network are not yet done, we are not publishing long white papers or RFCs at this time — instead, we are giving everyone what we have along with a goal of producing those open standards with the input and assistance of the community that has brought Second Life to where it is now.

Releasing the source now is our next invitation to the world to help build this global space for communication, business, and entertainment. We are eager to work with the community and businesses to further our vision of our space.” (Quote from the Second Life Blog)

I also found it interesting that Linden Lab specified the GNU GPL version 2, rather than releasing it under the GPL and future versions … another company hedging its bets on the still under development GPL v3.

I think this is a great move for Linden Lab, and an astute business decision. By releasing the client software under open source, residents can modify their client experience, while Linden Lab continues to provide the server side code, which is where they make their revenue. Linden Lab is providing a more flexible environment for users, which should translate to additional users, and at the same time, they continue to have the revenue stream required to keep Second Life in business.


Danah Boyd: The History and Future of Social Networking

October 29, 2006

Financial Times calls Danah Boyd “The high priestess of internet friendship”, and the title is well earned. I attended a few web 2.0 sessions with Danah (and a few evenings of Werewolf), and this women “gets” social networking better than anyone else I know.

If you want to better understand the evolution of social networking and get a sense for where it is headed, this article based on a Financial Times interview with Danah is a great place to start.


The MySpace Migration aka The Death of MySpace?

October 29, 2006

The Washington Post claims that “In Teens’ Web World, MySpace Is So Last Year.”

“I think it’s definitely going down — a lot of my friends have deleted their MySpaces and are more into Facebook now,” said Birnbaum, a junior who spends more time on her Facebook profile, where she messages and shares photos with other students in her network.

From the other side of the classroom, E.J. Kim chimes in that in the past three months, she’s gone from slaving over her MySpace profile up to four hours a day — decorating it, posting notes and pictures to her friends’ pages — to deleting the whole thing.

“I’ve grown out of it,” Kim said. “I thought it was kind of pointless.”

Such is the social life of teens on the Internet: Powerful but fickle. Within several months’ time, a site can garner tens of millions of users who, just as quickly, might flock to the next place, making it hard for corporate America to make lasting investments in whatever’s hot now.

The high school English class cites several reasons for backing off of MySpace: Creepy people proposition them. Teachers and parents monitor them. New, more alluring free services comes along, so they collectively jump ship. (Quote from The Washington Post)

I can attest to the creepiness. I have received “friend” requests from all sorts of creepy people to the point where I cringe when getting ready to look at a request to see whether I know the person in real life, and I do not spend much time on the site. Younger girls may be even less equipped to handle these situations, and by spending more time on the site, they probably see many more of these requests than I do.

With all of the press around MySpace drawing parents, teachers, and prospective employers to view MySpace pages, young people must feel like they are under a microscope instead of hanging out with friends in a casual environment. As a teen, this might drive me to switch to another social networking site.

It will be interesting to see if Facebook continues to grow to become the dominant social networking site for teens / college students. It will also be interesting to see if Facebook users entering the professional workforce after college continue to use it or whether they migrate to another social networking site or give up the idea of social networking entirely (doubtful).

Teens have always been a fickle crowd. What is hot one day becomes uncool the next. Cynthia Brumfield compares the switching behavior of teens in social networking to television shows:

This meteroic rise and ultimate dwindling puts me in mind of hit TV shows. At their best, hot TV shows can dominate the cultural consciousness, generating huge (although that’s a relative term given the increasingly fractionalized) audiences and scads of ad revenue. If it weren’t for the artificially (i.e. regulation-induced) complex nature of the TV programming marketplace, with most producer profits earned in the back-end during syndication, a hit TV show that soars and then fizzles (remember “Twin Peaks”) could be a very profitable enterprise. In other words, a TV show that becomes a hit but doesn’t stay a hit could make lots of money.

Moreover, hit TV shows can become the springboard for more money-making ventures, even when they fade (“Cheers” spawned “Frasier”). The trick for any given TV production company is to keep the creativity and business ingenuity going, and not rest on past successes.

The same thing holds true for hot web properties such as MySpace. MySpace is bound to fade—the Internet is a very contestable market, as economists say, and rivals can step in at any time, particularly for something as technically simple as social networking. But there’s little doubt that News Corp. has a chance to make money with MySpace while it’s still popular and the company is doing everything it can to exploit MySpace while it’s still warm.

The trick for News Corp., or Google, which just paid $1.65 billion for YouTube (another site highly vulnerable to competition) or any other entertainment business on the Internet is figuring out where they go from here. They can’t just sit back and expect to rake in the dough, hoping that their hit sites stay hot. They have to move forward and leverage their hits to create the next big thing. (Quote from Cynthia Brumfield on the IP Democracy blog)

This could be a sign that MySpace is fading into oblivion; however, I am not ready to predict the death of MySpace yet. Despite the migration of some teens to other sites, MySpace still has quite a bit of momentum. I expect that MySpace can continue to ride this momentum for a while before heading into a death spiral. It is also conceivable that News Corp could find a different, and profitable, niche for MySpace around music, other age groups, or some other aspect of social networking.