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August 25, 2014

Have social networks replaced groups?

Maxim Weinstein responded in an email to my post about what the social structure of the Internet looked like before Facebook, making the insightful point that Facebook meets the four criteria Clay Shirky listed for social software in his 2003 keynote at eTech. Here are the four with Max’s comments appended:

1. Provide for persistent identities so that reputations can accrue. These identities can of course be pseudonyms.
2. Provide a way for members’ good work to be recognized. < "Like" buttons, sharing
3. Put in some barriers to participation so that the interactions become high-value. < have to accept friend requests
4. As the site’s scale increases, enable forking, clustering, useful fragmentation. < pages

Max goes on to note some nuances. But his comment, plus a discussion yesterday with Andrew Preater, a library technologist at the Imperial College of London, made me think how little progress we’ve in fact made in supporting groups on the Net.

For example, Clay’s post from 2003 marvels at a “broadband conversation” in which the participants communicated simultaneously by conference call, through a wiki, and through a chat, each from a different source. Since 2003, there are now services that bundle together these different modalities: Skype and Google Hangouts both let a group talk, video, chat, and share documents. (Google Docs are functionally wikis, except without the draft>compile>post process.) So, that’s progress…although there is always a loss when disparate services get tightly bundled.

What’s missing is the concept of a group. As my 2003 post said, members of a group know they’re members of a group with some persistence. Skype and Hangouts let people get together, but there are no tools there for enabling that configuration of people to persist beyond the session. Groups are important because they enable social ties to thicken, which means they’re especially useful now to mitigate the Brownian motion of sociality on the Internet.

Likewise, Facebook, Google Groups, Twitter, and the other dominant forms of “social software” (to use the term from 2003) are amazing at building social networks. At those sites you can jump into borderless networks, connecting to everyone else by some degree. That’s pretty awesome. But those sites do not have a much of a concept of a group. A group requires some form of membership, which entails some form of non-membership. Usually the membership process and the walls that that process forms are visible and explicit. This isn’t to say that groups have to have a selection committee and charge dues. A group can be widely open. But the members need to be able to say “Yeah, I’m part of that group,” even if that means only “I regularly participate in that open discussion over there.” A group is a real thing, more than the enumeration of its members. If all the members leave, we have to be able to say, “There’s no one in that group any more. Too bad.”

If the walls around the group don’t include and exclude the same people for each member, then it’s a network, not a group. Not all of your friends are my friends and vice versa. But everyone in the Chess Club is in the Chess Club. The Chess Club is a group. Your friends and my friends on Facebook are part of a social network. Not that’s there anything wrong with that.

Now, I realize in saying this I am merely expressing my Old Fartdom. “Why, in my day, there were groups and not all these little networks of people with their twittering and their facial books.” The evidence for this is the generational divide on email. Email remains my most important social software for all the reasons that The Kids have moved to Facebook: email goes to the people I choose, is slower, results in semantically sequential threads of call-and-response, and is archived. But I especially like email because mailing lists are crucial to my social and intellectual life. I have been on some for over twenty years. Most of what I know about the Internet comes from the lists I’m on. I’ve reconnected with some of my academic philosophical roots via a mailing list. Mailing lists are so important to me because they are online groups.

So it’s entirely possible, in fact it’s probable, that the Internet has not made a lot of progress supporting groups because our culture no longer values groups. We’ve gone from Bowling Alone to Twitch Bowls 300. Old-timers like me — even as we celebrate the rise of networks — should be permitted a tear to dampen our dry, furrowed skin.


February 28, 2008

Clay Shirky’s book talk

Clay Shirky is giving his book talk. Here Comes Everybody was released today. It’s immediately necome #1 at two Amazon lists. [Note: I’m typing quickly, getting things wrong, paraphrasing, etc. For an accurate report of what Clay’s book is about, please read Clay’s book.]

The Internet isn’t a decoration on society. It is a challenge. It is important on the order of print and broadcast. Previous media either were two way or they didn’t create groups. Now we have a network that is natively good at group forming. And this medium contains the contents of the others. In a single bullet point his book says: “Group action just got easier.”

Humans are great at forming groups. But they get complicated faster as they get large. A workgroup of 10 has four times more connections than a group of five. There are native disabilities once a group passes a certain size. The typical answer has been to install a hierarchy. Now we’re seeing a set of tools that make it easier to create large groups: Ridiculously easy group forming. E.g., email unexpectedly became the dominant service used on the original Internet. That was because of the “reply all” button, a social feature.

But there’s been an enormous social lag. This tech has not transformed society as rapidly as it might. That’s because groups are innately conservative. No one wants a protocol that shuts out group members. It needed to become ubiquitous and boring. That’s when the social effects become interesting. Clay tells the story of his parents’ first date, a story that is not about internal combustion engines but that depends on the presence of them. We needed the Net to be always present and invisible for it to have its social effect.

Sharing, conversation, collaboration, collective action are rungs on a ladder: How much does an individual have to work to coordinate with the group?

Sharing. E.g., has urls, users and tags. It lowers the difficulty of sharing, so the social effects are practically unintended. It’s “me-first” collaboration (cf. Stowe Boyd).

Tagging systems let you share and then aggregate, reversing the traditional order. E.g., the mermaid parade in Coney Island. Since Flickr added tagging in 2005, you can click mermaidparade and get all the photos. The photographers weren’t coordinated ahead of time. Sharing has become a platform for coordination, rather than vice versa.

The next rung up the ladder is conversation, i.e., people actually synchronizing with one another. Clay shows a “communty of practice” at Flickr: High Dynamic Range photography at Flickr. Pre-Web, it would have taken 5-7 yrs from a pro photographer figuring it out to people in the street doing it. At Flickr, it took 3 months because when a photo went up, people could talk and ask how it was done. People post photos, etc. The medium becomes the platform for a community practice where people help one another get better. No commercial incentive.

That’s an example of “every url is a link to a community.” The discussion can turn into a group sharing resources. Clay points to, a Buffy site. It came after the Bronze bulletin board shut down. The fans raised money for new software to create their own bronze. They told the designers not to give it any features: no ratings, no identity mgt. They just wanted the system they used to have, a very basic discussion board.

He also points to Aegisub, a project that required a division of labor. It was a huge collaborative effort without a commercial motivation, or an anti-commercial motivation. Their success resulted in making themselves unnecessary.

The fourth rung is collective action. That’s coming. Three stories:

In Jan, 1999, a Northwest flight was stuck on the tarmac fo 7.5 hours. NW signs a toothless bill of passenger rights. Same thing happened last year and it resulted in legislation. What happened? Kate Hanni was on the second plane. She googled for articles about the flight. She comments on all of them, in detail. At the end of each comment, she asked others on the flight to contact her. She’s coopted the media and turned them into sites for coordination. She goes around to legislators’ offices. William James, the philosopher, once said “Thinking is for doing.” We have brains because we’re deciding between courses of action. Now publishing is for acting.

Second, flash mobs started as a critique of hipster culture. The guy who started them said he could get people to do anything at all if you tell them that it’s a protest against the bourgeoisie. It spread to Belarus: They’d go to a square in Minsk eating ice cream in January. Cops arrested them. It was illegal to form groups in October Sq. The kids turned the joke on hippies into a genuine form of dissident action. They provoked the government into reacting, and documented it. Media led to collective action, and the action led to more media. They thought publicity would make a difference, but the West turned out not to care much about Eastern European dictatorships. The tools are very different when deployed in high or low freedom environments. (They’d also done a flash mob where people walked around October Sq smiling.)

Third, a group ran around Palermo putting up stickers protesting the prominence of the Mafia. It was a big story. Now they’re reversing it. They put up a Web site at which businesses can agree to refuse to pay the protection money. If an individual business were to do this, the Mafia would act. They also let citizens search the site for businesses who’d signed.

So, ridiculously easy group forming improves sharing, convesation, collaboration and collective action. Clay is watching now and in the future to see how collective action evolves, for that is the hardest but could be the most important.

Q: Privacy?
A: Privacy cuts across all of this. The higher up the ladder you go, the more important it matters. For sharing, privacy doesn’t matter much, but if we’re going to converse, I at least need a handle. To collaborate, I need to know more. But if we’re going to bind ourselves in collective action, then identity becomes really important. [Hmm. That last point seems wrong. In some collective action, we don’t need to know much about others. E.g., a flash mob of kids eating ice cream.] Privacy isn’t all or nothing. Under what circumstances do we want people in a collective action to know one another, but not be known by others. The big change in privacy is not in opt-in or opt-out; it’s that we’ve lost “don’t ask.”

Q: Yochai Benkler is working on whether you can explain this other than by enlightened self-interest?
A: There’s a growing literature on explaining behavior via social motivations. Behavioral economics is unambiguous about the ultimatum game: People will refuse deals that seem unfair, even if they’re in their interest.
Q: But social cohesion is to my benefit …
A: What you’d really like to be in a group that produces public goods but not have to contribute. But the willingness of people to spend resources to keep social cohesion going cannot be rolled up just to individual enlightened self-interest. [Missed some of that. Sorry.]

Q: What are the downsides you see?
A: I used to be a cyber-utopian. That view broke for me. I was teaching a class at NYU on social software. One of my students was a community manager for a magazine for teenage girls. They were shutting down the health and beauty boards because we can’t get the pro-anorexia girls to shut up with tips about how to avoid eating. I was thinking this isn’t a side effect of the Net. It was an effect. Ridiculously easy group forming for anorexics. Now, we have to move to a publish-then-filter world. That pattern suggests we’re moving the media world from decision to reaction. We can’t stop the pro-anorexia groups from forming. All we can do is watch and act.

A: My nightmare is that the advertising budget for print shrinks and we lose newspapers in mid-size American cities. We lose investigative journalism. Every city under a million goes back to endemic civic corruption. The newspaper industry is not ready now to talk about how to save investigative journalism as we lost print.

Q: [couldn’t hear it]
A: The social media being used in the presidential campaign is less social than before. Obama excels at fund raising, and public-created media. But no one has proposed a policy wiki. No one has proposed the lateral conversation among supporters. (I’m an Obama supporter.) There may be an opportunity in the first 100 days to do social production of shared ideas, which the campaign has not done so far. But I don’t think it can get there without creating a profound cognitive dissonance among the voters.

Have you looked at the mechanics of collective action?
A: The things that are working now are hard to fake, non-professional surprises. Someone has done something you couldn’t do with a fake grassroots campaign. Most email campaigns to the Senate are of zero value because they’re too easy to fake. [Hmm. It’s not that they’re hard to fake. It’s that they had a cost.] The thing that worries most is the need to be surprising, because surprise is a wasting asset, because you can’t be surprising three times in a row.

Q: [me] Why did you choose the axis of groups that take actions? I can feel I’m a member of the Group That Likes Obama without actually doing anything…
A: I’m interested in the trade-off between individuals and groups. At what point can you not explain behaviors through individual psychology. I was irked by businesses that think they have communities instead of cusomters. The dividing line is between people who change their behavior because they’re in a group and those who don’t.

Q: Mobile streaming and virtual worlds. How do they fit into collective action?
A: The change in things we can do via mobiles will be far broader. And I don’t think there is such a category as virtual worlds. All successful virtual worlds are games. [Tags: ]