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Social networking in the real world

February 16th, 2010 by Graham Attwell

One thing we know about social networking is that it doesn’t stay still. Witness the decline of Bebo and My Space, which only two years ago looked all conquering. Now Facebook is in its zenith but how long will this prevail?

I am interested in the connections between the different affordances of social network sites and how we communicate (both on-line and face to face).

My Space was above all a site to talk about music and for bands to communicate with us and with each other. In those terms it remains highly stressful.

Facebook could be said to inherit the mantle of Friends Reunited. Whilst the latter sought just to allow us to stay in touch (or get back in touch) with friends from school or university – interestingly the attempt to extend it to the workplace didn’t really take off – Facebook started out primarily as a place to connect with present friends in college or university. Even following its expansion outside education the principle remained the same – friends mutually followed each other with both having to consent to the connection. Twitter changed all that by allowing non reciprocal connections i.e. I can follow people without them following me. And people rapidly grew long lists of followers. Different people use Twitter in different ways. For me, it is a great resource repository – an informal, real time feedreader if you like. And despite the long running debate as to whether Twitter is killing blogging, I find myself reading more blogs as a result following links in tweets.

Bit I wonder if the social is missing somehow from these social networking services. In an article in Wired Magazine, Clive Thompson says:

socializing doesn’t scale. Once a group reaches a certain size, each participant starts to feel anonymous again, and the person they’re following — who once seemed proximal, like a friend — now seems larger than life and remote. “They feel they can’t possibly be the person who’s going to make the useful contribution,” ….. So the conversation stops. …. At a few hundred or a few thousand followers, they’re having fun — but any bigger and it falls apart. Social media stops being social. It’s no longer a bantering process of thinking and living out loud. It becomes old-fashioned broadcasting.

In that respect I think the rise of ‘extreme; social networking site Chatrouette is interesting. According to the Guardian newspaper:

Chatroulette, which was launched in November, has rocketed in popularity thanks to its simple premise: internet video chats with ­random strangers.

When users visit the site and switch on their webcams, they are suddenly connected to another, randomly chosen person who is doing precisely the same thing somewhere else in the world.

Once they are logged in together, chatters can do anything they like: talk to each other, type messages, entertain each other – or just say goodbye, hit the “next” button and move on in an attempt to find somebody more interesting.

Perhaps predictably, Chatroulette is reportedly host to “all sorts of unsavoury characters” and the Guardian quotes “veteran blogger Jason Kottke, who has spent years documenting some of the web’s most weird and wonderful corners, tried the site and then wrote about witnessing nudity, sexual activity and strange behaviour.”

But I wonder in Chatroulette is a sign of us wanting to use the internet as a social space to meet new friends, in the way we might face to face in a bar or at a party. Despite the attempts of Mr Tweet or of Facebook to introduce us to new people, they lack the randomness and intimacy of human face to face serendipitous encounter.

And I wonder too if that may be some of teh thinking behind the new Google Buzz social networking service. I can’t find the link now, but when I first looked at Buzz (in the pub!) on my mobile phone, there was a tab for ‘local’ allowing me to specify the geographical radius for activity I wanted to see. Along with us wanting to recreate the opportunity for meeting new friends, I think the future for social networking may be local, with us wanting to use such services to be able to find out what is going on around us, at a distance in which we can physically reach.

So as social networking becomes part of our everyday life, it may be that we want to  integrate it into our everyday physical spaces, rather than extend the range of the everyday to unreachable zones of cyberspace.

Just an idea.

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One Response to “Social networking in the real world”

  1. This blog post really resonated with me as it talks about my own personal experience. Whilst I use Twitter, Facebook etc to connect and collaborate with people all over the world, the other huge thing it has done (especially Twitter) has enabled me to develop a local face-to-face circle of friends/connections that I would otherwise would never have met. I feel more embedded in my local community than I have ever done. It feels contradictory somehow…but that’s how it has worked for me.

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