Why social software

Why does anybody use social software? I talked about some possible uses in my last post about affordances, but there’s more going on.

Grant McCracken wrote a great post about how social networks work where he describes the concept of “phatic communication”, which he describes as “communication with little hard, informational content, but lots of emotional and social content.” What does the communication convey? That a connection exists and that it is still present. As Grant puts it:

When I use Twitter or Facebook to say that I am entertaining my cat, no one, I’m pretty sure, gives a good God damn that I am entertaining my cat. But they are reminded that they have someone called Grant McCracken in their network. … There is a “superorganic” concept of the network at work here, according to which every small moment of phatic communications so reverberates that we are briefly and tinyly reminded of our larger network and social connections.

This concept resonates with my own experience with LiveJournal. I’m sure that nobody else is interested in reading my friends page because the updates of those people are only meaningful to me because I know them. It’s a reminder that these people exist, that I am friends with them, and that I could get in contact with them if I wanted. The offline equivalent of this maintenance of social connections is the Christmas card, where we send out a card to all of our friends just to say “I’m here, I’m okay, I’m still your friend”.

The other interesting thing about LiveJournal is that it provides me with an ambient awareness of my friends’ lives that I would not otherwise have. The things that we record in our journals are rarely important things. I don’t feel compelled to call up my friends and tell them about any of the things I blog. But because updates scroll past on my Friends page, I know what’s going on with my people in a way that would have been completely invisible ten years ago. In an amusing side effect, when I see somebody in real life whose journal or blog I follow, I sometimes don’t have anything to say to them immediately because we can’t break the ice with the half hour of conversation catching up with what we’ve been doing.

One consequence of this ambient awareness of my social network is that it requires much less work on my part to stay connected to my network. Another recent McCracken post asks what the new Dunbar number is. The Dunbar number is a postulated limit on how many social relationships people can track – one formulation explains it as the number of people you’d feel comfortable getting a drink with if you ran into them at a bar. The canonical Dunbar number is 150, but that may have been a result of the effort it took to maintain social relationships, as Robin Dunbar’s work grew out of the study of primates and the use of grooming to maintain relationships.

What if the Dunbar number was limited to 150 because there were only so many one-to-one connections one could maintain through the media of phone calls and letters? The effort required to keep up with all of my friends individually via the phone would be overwhelming – it would take all weekend. But LiveJournal and blogs let me maintain those social connections without much effort, allowing me to maintain connections that I undoubtedly would have dropped in a pre-Internet age. Because I can hold on to more connections, I wonder if my Dunbar number is greater than it would have been without such tools.

Another advantage of the low maintenance necessary to maintain social connections is that it enables me to access latent resources. LinkedIn demonstrates this power for the specific purpose of getting jobs, building on Granovetter’s “strength of weak ties” work. But it works in many other contexts as well. One of my friends might post about a problem they’re facing at work, and I can read it and put them in touch with somebody who might be useful in solving that problem. They would not have known about my resource, and would not have thought to ask me specifically, but these social networks make it easy to query one’s network and find such resources.

Reviewing these uses of social networks answers the question of why I don’t “get” Facebook yet. So far there’s no close friends on my Facebook network who I don’t keep track of via other media, such as reading their blogs or their LiveJournals. Therefore the ambient awareness of my other Facebook friends doesn’t mean that much to me. And while I could leverage the larger network of Facebook for latent resources, I don’t yet feel comfortable making those sorts of requests of people I don’t know well.

I also dislike the minimal information content transmitted via Facebook status messages or Twitter messages. I’ve been spoiled by blog posts where I can read more about what is going on in my friends’ minds. I want more than just a one sentence update. Perhaps the one sentence update might allow me to track more people, but as I discussed in designing my social network, I prefer a smaller but stronger set of connections.

Okay, four posts about social software is enough. I’m ready for a new topic now. I think next week will be thoughts on media.

5 thoughts on “Why social software

  1. This seems like it ought to tie in with the fact that LJ posts that say nothing more than “I like cookies” or “Hi” will often get far more comments than a well-written and thought-provoking essay.

    Many of the party attendees up hyar in Canadia have LJ accounts, so ambient intimacy (aka ‘peripheral awareness’) has been brought up a few times.

    Something interesting to be said about matching up online acquaintances with actual in-person people, but I’m not up to it tonight.


  2. I have to admit that I still don’t understand the Twitter thing. I get LinkedIn and LJ and (ugh) MySpace (all three of which actually address separate groups of friends/colleagues/family), but Twitter? Totally lost on me. I’ve found my digital divide, I guess…

    What the hell is it for, anyhow?

  3. Beemer: Interesting point about the shortest posts eliciting the most comments. I’ve had people tell me that they want a “I liked this post” button on my blog posts so they can indicate that they read and appreciated the post without feeling they had to come up with a well-written and thoughtful comment in reply. Whereas a one line “Hi!” post starts a conversation where the perceived barrier to entry is much lower.

    Jenn: Twitter’s just instant messaging spread over a few communication channels. Think zephyr and the white-magic instance where people would post “Hey, anybody going to Lobdell’s?” and things like that.

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