A couple weeks ago I joined yet another social network (YASN). This time it was Path, the mobile social network that limits the social graph to 150 close connections. I currently have three friends, none of whom I first met in the real world. It seems that Path is missing its intended market.
The first message I received was from Eddie Harran:
Hey Greg, welcome to yet another social media platform
I have been unable to reply as of yet because then Path inexplicably tells me that the post has been deleted (sorry Eddie). But this essay is not about the particulars features and failures of Path itself. It was inspired by Eddie’s welcome message, which perfectly captures the current zeitgeist in the social media space.
Many of us have now been through the ringer enough times to realize that web platforms come and go. People drift from one platform to another as the hype cycle ebbs and wanes.
When I first joined twitter a couple years ago I had the distinct sense that my social graph was slowly developing into an enduring asset. I now recognize the folly in that thinking. Each new platform offers the illusion of a lasting social graph, but the reality is that we are merely organizing temporary meeting spaces. We commingle in these digital environments for only a period of time before evaporative cooling pushes us elsewhere.
Far from being persistent assets, platform specific social graphs are more like transient investment, depreciating rapidly if held too tightly.
Refining the Connection Graph
It is easy to get cynical when the fleeting character of the social graph first becomes apparent…
Why bother indulging these newfangled distractions if they offer no enduring benefit?
Once the initial idealistic expectations have been dashed, where do we find motivation to engage with the next YASN phenomenon?
I certainly won’t suggest that you need to have a presence on every new techcrunch sensation. [Anyone who does is probably priming you up to purchase a worthless ebook.] Obviously the YASN phenomenon can become a treadmill if you allow it. However, I also think there is a more subtle trend playing out beneath the social media rat race…
Transitions from one platform to the next can be used to meaningful purpose if conceived within an appropriate mental model.
With each transition many connections are left behind, never to be heard from again. They are replace by a new collection of names discovered on the new platform. A minority always remains loyal to the old platform even as it fades into obscurity, occasionally pulling you back to old stomping grounds. Lastly, there is a small group that survives the transition, advancing from one social graph to the next.
Cynicism is justified to the degree that this process merely generates churn, replacing one set of pseudo-collaborators with another. It is the last group – the connections that persist from one platform to another – that are worth examining in more detail. They are the ones that determine whether a transition constitutes churn or spring cleaning.
I first encountered Eddie Harran on twitter. At some point we became friends on facebook. We realized that we had mutual friends in real life. We exchanged emails. Eddie has commented on this blog and I have provided feedback on some of his work. Now we are friends on Path.
Eddie is one of those persistent connections who has survived successive context switches. With successive shift his digital presence becomes less a static avatar and more a real multi-dimensional person. And just as spring cleaning reinforces the value of the stuff you choose to keep, each successive platform shift emphasizes the contrast between the transient connections and the people like Eddie.
Context Shifts and Leveling Up
Context shifting is a well worn tactic, commonly deployed whenever there is a need to build trust and reduce psychological barriers.
- Salespeople employ context shifts to develop client relationships. Moving the conversation out of the conference room and into a social environment solidifies the relationship and fosters an implicit sense of mutual commitment.
- The pick-up artist builds intimacy by moving his target from one venue to another. By gaining acquiesence to these initial (harmless) requests he undermines potential resistance to future suggestions.
- Internet marketers move potential customers through a sales funnel via a series a subtle context shifts. Readers become subscribers. Subscribers become fans. Fans become customers.
A similar process is playing out naturally within the social media ecosystem without need of any conscious direction.
Each time we move from one platform to another the core group of connections experiences a context shift. With each transition those relationships develop a bit further. Each new platform reveals a slightly different perspective on those relationship and facilitates new modes of interaction.
Surviving one round of spring cleaning is no guarantee of surviving the next. Some relationships may persist but remain to a subset of platforms, thereby revealing context dependencies. Others will prove persistent across myriad platforms.
Over many iterations of this process we are effectively self-selecting ourselves into increasingly refined groups. With each iteration new dimensions are added to the selection process and the resulting groups.
It is worth briefly considering this trend in historical context. Human civilization has been evolving its sorting capacity for thousands of years. Prior to the industrial era it moved at a glacial pace. The majority of people remained physically and psychologically isolated within small geographic bubbles, their social graphs dictated by historical accident.
That all changed with the emergence of the industrial economy. Work moved out of the home and formal schooling became commonplace. Daily life gradually reorganized around so-called second and third places.
For the first time, the average man and (to a lesser degree) woman could aspire to membership in communities that were previously inaccessible or illegible. As personal mobility increased so too did the ability to self-select into these communities…to transcend the social graph imposed by one’s contingent personal history.
The trend has continued essentially unabated, the advent of the internet only accelerating the retreat of logistical frictions.
Resistance to Change
One of the most well known critics of the sorting trend is Robert Putnam. In his 1995 essay Bowling Alone Putnam argued that social capital in U.S. communities was in decline:
There is striking evidence, however, that the vibrancy of American civil society has notably declined over the past several decades.
By “civil society” he meant something like “local collective society”. He was suggesting that people were less interested in improving their contingent circumstances, presumably because they could more easily adopt (migrate towards) new circumstances.
He goes on to propose a number of possible causal factors, all of which imply a commensurate increase in personal choice:
- Women’s participation in the labor force
- Increased mobility
- Demographic transformations (marriage trends, divorce, fewer children, etc)
- Technological transformation of leisure
Do any of these sound familiar?
All are related to sorting processes. And all are alive and well today with only minor modification. The decline of the traditional family. The emptiness of automobile culture. The isolating influence consumer technology. These are among the favorite themes of the current generation of social critics.
Nor were these arguments unique when Putnam first proposed them. The wikipedia entry on Putnam notes that his thesis was criticized as unoriginal, referencing similar claims that had been advanced throughout earlier decades.
The details may change but the song remains the same…
Anticipating A Sorted Future
Where will current manifestations of the sorting process lead?
The fear-mongers would have you believe that the world is headed to hell in a hand-basket. They have picked up where Putnam left off, critiquing the breakdown traditional norms while ignoring or dismissing the emergence of new norms.
The most prevalent critique is what I call the Echo Chamber Hypothesis. Unfortunately, I only have space here to address it in straw-man form…
The Echo Chamber Hypothesis
Almost since the inception of the web, critics have warned about the dangers of isolating ourselves to echo chambers. In so doing they extrapolate sorting trends to an absurd extreme. The argument (in straw-man form) goes something like this:
The more choice individuals have the more they will restrict their attention to those sources with which they already agree, thereby reinforcing existing biases.
We might start by noting that the search for like-minded individuals rarely leads to unqualified agreement. Take a random survey of even the most homogeneous internet message boards and you will find heated debate in at least equal proportion to collegial back slapping. It seems that people naturally strive to emphasize their uniqueness even as they search for like-mindedness.
But this contention misses the main problem with the echo chamber hypothesis. It begs the question:
How is it even possible to express individuality (through dissent) in even the most homogeneous communities?
The answer: We are not one dimensional creatures.
When you search for similarity along one dimension of personality you naturally encounter differences along other dimensions. When you search specifically for ideological homogeneity you necessarily leave the door open to other forms heterogeneity. Those differences become apparent in even the simplest text-based message boards. And as web platforms gain multi-media richness, behavioral considerations become increasingly salient.
Consider a small sampling of dimensions that have nothing to do with ideological biases:
- Expectations of Reciprocation – Some people may be more agreeable for you to engage with as collaborators while other relations will be more amenable to symmetric transaction.
- Communication Bandwidth – With some people high bandwidth communication (voice, face-to-face) will be more effective while low bandwidth communication will lead to friction and misunderstanding. With other people the opposite may be true, low bandwidth will encourage clarity.
- Synchronicity – Some people may be easier to communicate with in real-time (synchronous) while other relationships may benefit when communication is conducted asynchronously (email, etc).
- Psychological distance – With some individuals you may find it easy to engage in small talk but have difficulty discussing weightier matters. With others it might be easy to engage in personal conversation while small talk grinds to a halt.
The echo chamber hypothesis completely disregards these layers of interpersonal complexity (and many others). The factors noted above all relate to temperament and/or personality rather than ideology. Moreover, none of the above necessarily favor self-similarity. In many cases they will favor complimentarity instead.
So where does that leave us?
Relationship Economy 2.0
Clearly technology is allowing us to increasingly sort ourselves into self-selected groups…but those groups are not and will not (necessarily) be isolated echo chambers. In fact, they look less like echo chambers every day as proliferating of social platforms provide us with increasingly subtle sorting capabilities.
Instead we are creating richly layered webs of community and a growing capacity for navigating these webs. The seeds of these changes are sprouting right under our collective noses. With each new platform we organize ourselves around subtly different sets of behaviors. We collide with people who present us with new psychological profiles…new potential for both harmony and dissonance.
These platforms are our collective sociological sandboxes.
Several months ago I alluded to the idea of a relationship economy 2.0, but avoided addressing it explicitly. Relationship economy 2.0 is essentially what I am describing in this post…a reinvention of the community-based economic paradigm, previously characteristic only of genetically related tribes.
But these won’t be communities of necessity centered around the geography and genealogy of one’s birth. They will be communities chosen and persistently refined throughout one’s lifetime. This may sound like a web utopian’s wet dream, but relationship economy 2.0 comes with a few caveats as well…
First of all, it is way off on the distant horizon. I am being intentionally vague in this concluding section because there isn’t all that much I can say with any confidence. “Relationship economy 2.0″ is really nothing more than a place-holding label for the end-game in a process we are only just beginning.
Our current sorting capacity, while unprecedented historically, is woefully insufficient to the task. The current version of the social web – at it’s best – effectively facilitates serendipity. Serendipity leads to effective sorting only through successive iterations of clumsy trial and error.
Secondly, it would be naive to equate the reinvention of community with some sort of egalitarian paradise. Every socioeconomic paradigm presents its own unique selection pressures. Relationship economies are a competitive struggle just like any other evolutionary environment.
Our culture likes to idealize hunter-gather society (relationship economy 1.0) as some kind of idyllic natural state, but if that were the case then homo-sapiens would have never evolved beyond that state. If relationship economies appear idyllic it is only because the observer is looking for selection pressures in the wrong places.
I am going to leave it there for now while I can still resist the temptation to speculate too wildly.
Is relationship economy 2.0 a meaningful concept?
Are there other forces that you see overwhelming the trends outlined above?