As a skeptic and, for the most part, a confessed non-user of them, you might think I wouldn’t touch discussions of social-networking systems with the proverbial ten-foot pole, and ordinarily you’d probably be right. But it’s past time for me to acknowledge that while the discourse of social networking may at first blush seem marginal to my core concerns, it’s far more central to those concerns than I might wish.
There is an increasing demand that the urban-computing applications and other situated services I do care about incorporate a social-networking element – in other words, that they use technical architectures to mediate relationships between people – and that brings the field squarely into my sights. Readers of Everyware, of this site, of just about every word I’ve ever written or uttered in public will know that one of my primary concerns has always been that we not accede to the heedless restructuring of everyday human relations on inappropriate and clumsy models derived from technical systems – and yet, that’s a precise definition of social networking as currently instantiated.
The putatively most-advanced sectors of opinion within the social-networking community of interest offer pleas that such functionality be “portable” and “open” – that is, that the profiles and relationships that you establish in one service not be locked up in a walled garden, and that each such service use a common and publicly-available schema to describe relationship dynamics.
Anybody who has ever invested the time and energy in building an extensive social profile on Friendster or Orkut, only to be faced with doing it all over again when the exigencies of community necessitate a jump to Facebook, will understand that there’s some justice to these complaints. Similar things could be said for the difficulties faced when different services diverge in the way they construct intimacy gradients, forcing users to parse the occult differences between one service’s “contact” and another’s “buddy.” So as far as they go, those people calling for openness and portability in social-networking schemas are not wrong.
What these commentators do not or cannot admit, though, is that the whole milieu in which these concerns of openness and portability are contained is broken – and not just a little broken, but badly so. All social-networking systems, as currently designed, demonstrably create social awkwardnesses that did not, and could not, exist before. All social-networking systems constrain, by design and intention, any expression of the full band of human relationship types to a very few crude options – and those static! A wiser response to them would be to recognize that, in the words of the old movie, “the only way to win is not to play.”
Now that’s a pretty bold assertion, and I don’t expect you to accept it without some evidence. The following admittedly amount to arguments from personal experience, of the common-sense type that seems to fly out the window (or be consciously deprecated) the moment any discussion of technical systems is entertained; nevertheless, I’m willing to bet you’ll not merely recognize these descriptions, but regard them as fundamentally accurate.
Consider the three non-family friends you regard as being your closest, most trusted and intimate companions. Would the overlap in what you would share and do with each of them be total – that is, would you share precisely the same set of information around personal experiences with each of them? Every social-networking system that I am aware of forces you to do just that.
Consider your feelings about a single, reasonably close friend. In the last six months, have your feelings about this person undergone any change whatsoever? Have they done something unexpected that charmed you, made you feel closer to them in some functional way that might necessitate an update to their explicitly-articulated status? Conversely, have they failed to pick up a tab, breached a confidence, or otherwise dropped some obligation that forced you to regard them – temporarily or permanently – as less trustworthy, less of a friend? (How about in the last six minutes?)
Consider how much of your social life is built on, and derives its robustness from, very common patterns like someone you’re attracted to but dislike temperamentally, someone you care for but have little in common with, someone your connection to is primarily based on nostalgia and loyalty, a reliable show- or workout buddy you wouldn’t otherwise keep in touch with or someone you simply wished you knew better – and then try to contain these sentiments meaningfully in the penurious few options you’re offered by the social-networking application of your choice.
Consider your own past use of social-networking systems: how many times have they inadvertently caused some tension, misunderstanding, or regret between you and someone you care about, either one-way or running in both directions? How many times have you added someone as a “friend” and been hurt when they did not reciprocate, or had to deny someone’s apparently appropriate request for friending…and then been forced to spend time writing them an email explaining why? How many times have you felt obligated to add someone you simply didn’t know very well?
Consider XFN, the “simple way to represent human relationships using hyperlinks” which has been adopted by the popular discussion site MetaFilter to characterize connections between its 50,000-odd members. What’s problematic about this? Well, for starters, the quite forthright imposition of values in the XFN schema itself:
Positive or neutral relationships only.
Negative relationship terms have been omitted from XFN by design. The authors think that such values would not serve a positive ends and thus made the deliberate decision to leave them out. Such terms (we won’t even bother naming them here) while mildly entertaining in a dark humor sort of way, only serve to propagate negativity.
The authors do not deny that such negative relationships exist in the real world today. Of course they exist. However, we see no need nor benefit to standardizing such relationships and capturing them in a form which would spread on the Web. There is enough hatred in the world. We should work to eliminate hatred, not to spread it.
And we do realize that by creating XFN and the mechanisms it uses (XMDP), we have opened a Pandora’s box, and have made it easier for those that would create and propagate negative relationships. We can only hope that our positive creation wins out over any such negative creations.
Nice sentiments, surely. And I do mean nice: tepid, distinction-obliterating, mealy-mouthed. Due to “well-intentioned” decisions made at design time, embedded and incorporated by reference in any- and everything it will be used for, it’s impossible to use XFN to model anything that even remotely resembles an organic human community. I passionately believe that this reductive stance is not merely wrong, but profoundly wrong, in that it deliberately aims to bleed away all the nuance, complication and complexity that makes any real relationship what it is. Any site or service that uses XFN or anything conceived along similar lines not merely betrays its users, but insults them.
How can any community cohere if it cannot express those tensions and dislikes, internal and external, that animate and give vigor to expressions of affinity? How are we to construct our identities in the world if we are limited to x and denied the use of not-x – when the world suggests precisely that part of what makes Orangemen is that they are not-Republicans, that Hamas sympathizers understand themselves to be not-Fatah, that vegetarians are not-meateaters, that San Franciscans are not-Angelenos? This isn’t (just) the narcissism of small differences, it’s definitive of identity in a very deep way.
So is the answer simply to model human relations more granularly? To offer users sliders, or color wheels, or some such user-interface widget that will allow them to express multiple axes of sentiment?
No. Experienced user-experience practitioners will see right away that there’s something of a Catch-22 laying in wait here for the unwary, in that given how dynamic social feeling is seen to be, any system supple enough to model the actual range of affinities and sentiments found in life would be an extraordinary hassle for its users. Imagine having to update your feelings about everyone you know in three axes, in anything approaching real time! The idea is – hopefully self-evidently, but it must be said that the experience of my years in technology gives me pause – a non-starter.
Finally, all of these reservations, as strong and as heartfelt as they are, do not in the end even begin to address my single most important problem with social-networking systems, which is that social comfort and coherence require that by far the majority of actual feelings regarding the people in our lives not be made explicit. In my experience, any degree of smooth and compassionate human concourse absolutely requires plausible deniability, and a certain degree of dissembling regarding your actual, operative feelings for the people you’re engaged with, however much you love them. (Depending on context, that degree may even be greater the more you care about them.) By contrast, having to declare the degree of intimacy you’re willing to grant each friend, whether in public and for all to see or simply so that they see it, is a state of affairs I’ve described, in comments elsewhere, as “frankly autistic.” It’s no way to arrange things as absolutely central to life as friendship, of that I am sure.
For all of these reasons, I believe that technically-mediated social networking at any level beyond very simple, local applications is fundamentally, and probably persistently, a bad idea. From where I stand, the only sane response is to keep our conceptions of friendship and affinity from being polluted by technical metaphors and constraints to begin with.
I understand that this is very much a minority opinion, and one which will not carry the day. But neither is it simply the knee-jerk, reactionary rejection of technology; I see it as a demand, rather, that we use information technology for the things it’s good at, and keep it far, far from the things it damages at first touch. I feel far too strongly about my friends and about the experiences we’ve shared, and which I cherish, to submit any of them to the idiot regime of social networking as it is currently understood.