Recent developments have left me frustrated with social media. Setting up a Facebook campaign for a client, I was struck by how the walls of Mr. Zuckerburg’s garden keep getting higher and higher. A nonprofit’s page, for example, can no longer mention individuals in its status updates, and as of a couple of months ago, it can no longer e-mail individual members.
The new UI that Twitter announced last week will, among other things, make direct messages less prominent. What these changes have in common is that they seem designed to increase revenue at the expense of fostering actual connection between people.
The promise of Facebook (and LinkedIn, and Google Plus, were anyone to join it) is in the way it replicates our real world networks in a digital space that makes it easier to share with friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. But I’m beginning to think the trade-offs involved in this plotting of “the social graph” might not be worth it– and maybe even that the premise itself is flawed.
The first half of the post tackles the idea that you can graph the complexity of our human relationships with the kind of orderly structure of nodes and edges that computers like:
And then there’s the question of how to describe the more complicated relationships that human beings have. Maybe my friend Bill is a little abrasive if he starts drinking, but wonderful with kids – how do I mark that? Dawn and I go out sometimes to kvetch over coffee, but I can’t really tell if she and I would stay friends if we didn’t work together. I’d like to be better friends with Pat. Alex is my AA sponsor. Just how many kinds of edges are in this thing?
There’s a flattening that happens whenever you try to represent something from the real world in a digital medium. Sometimes that flattening isn’t terribly noticeable, or important, but when it wipes out some key emotional detail– when the graph just isn’t up to the task– we feel it.
Even more damning is Cegłowski’s take on what “social” means for the companies who have created the most popular social networks:
We have a name for the kind of person who collects a detailed, permanent dossier on everyone they interact with, with the intent of using it to manipulate others for personal advantage – we call that person a sociopath. And both Google and Facebook have gone deep into stalker territory with their attempts to track our every action. Even if you have faith in their good intentions, you feel misgivings about stepping into the elaborate shrine they’ve built to document your entire online life.
Open data advocates tell us the answer is to reclaim this obsessive dossier for ourselves, so we can decide where to store it. But this misses the point of how stifling it is to have such a permanent record in the first place. Who does that kind of thing and calls it social?
Ouch. Now, nonprofits aren’t responsible for fixing the problems that Cegłowski has identified with social networks as they exist today. But they do need to understand their limitations and the tradeoffs we’re making when we use them.
Maybe a system built around companies that are in business to collect, share and monetize their users won’t ever allow the kind of real connections with supporters and donors that nonprofits need to make. Maybe we’d be better off using more direct tools like e-mail to forge those connections until someone comes up with another model that works better for its users than the companies who run the networks.
The next time we’re wondering why it’s difficult to turn Facebook fans into donors, maybe we should consider whether there’s something missing because of Facebook itself– some critical piece of your brand that just doesn’t translate through a system geared towards selling ads.
Maybe a clearer understanding of how social networks are broken can help us use the tools available to us– and create the authentic connections we’re all striving for– more wisely.