Social Networks Aren’t Social

Social networks are not really social—they’re informational. While they may appear to be social, and perhaps we flock to them and participate in them because we feel a need to socially connect, the real currency is information. Whereas we might go to a bar, a cocktail party or a dinner and spend 90% of our time talking about things that are not important to us, just to maintain and keep alive that social ‘space’, and 10% exchanging really usable and useful information, online the percentages are probably inverted.

Looking at my Facebook inbox, the last 10 exchanges have been about arranging to meet a professional acquaintance who is about to move to Indonesia, chatting with a casual acquaintance about why they’re quitting their job, getting information from a professional acquaintance about her deleted blog, a request to appear on a radio show from a close friend, offering advice to a professional acquaintance about furthering their career, requesting help from a professional acquaintance about interviewing her boss, and then a handful of inconsequential exchanges with friends and semi-friends. These exchanges are data-rich, in the words of Edward Tufte, whereas the average real-world conversation is much less so.

(I’m not talking about enjoyability here, and this is not to say that social interaction isn’t important. They’re of course more fun—it’s really hard to get drunk with someone on Facebook—and In many ways the data that comes out is more useful, because it comes after vital ‘social greasing’—wine, song, ambience, comfort, shared intimacies—that lubricate the lips. I’m just talking ratios.)

This all sprung to mind reading some great notes that Ethan Zuckerman is taking at Picnic08, who quotes from a panel discussion that includes Linda Stone, Jyri Engeström, Matt Jones, Addy Feuerstein and Philip Rosedale. Jones, the founder (should that be foundr?) of Dopplr, reckons we should let go of the idea of friendship in many social tools and just focus on the exchange of information:

He quotes Merlin Mann, who describes the new feature on FriendFeed which allows you to pretend to follow a friend so you won’t create an awkward social situation, “This is a major breakthrough in the make-believe friendship space.” There are many rich ways we can build social relationships online, but we’d do better to focus on the information we already exchange, the “wear we leave on social objects”, rather than forcing make-believe friendship.

I reckon he’s right on the money there. Many of us try to create a distinction between Facebook friends and LinkedIn friends, but it’s getting harder and harder. I keep Facebook only for those people I’ve met, but increasingly, as my tight network of friends new and old thins out the people I’m adding are loose acquaintances.

The relationship we have is based on trust—after all we knew each other, once—but the usefulness trumps the warm fuzziness. We hope to make use of our renewed acquaintance, and. perhaps, we’re not so shy about exploiting it.

This was what I thought would happen on LinkedIn.  My policy there was to add pretty much anyone who wasn’t trying to sell me life insurance, a house or a bank. But at least for me it hasn’t really worked. Being LinkedIn buddies doesn’t really seem to be enough to create a connection through which business can flow. (This despite, theoretically, everyone wanting to know a journalist if only so they can pimp their product.)

The bottom line? I don’t think make-believe friendship works, and I think social networks will fail if they focus on that. It’s not about finding new friends. It’s about facilitating the exchange of information through existing ones: sharing websites, job offers, invitations, photos, whatever will help or entertain your friends and acquaintances.

Of course, friendships are strengthened through these exchanges, but it’s not the ‘friending’ that is doing it, it’s the information.

…My heart’s in Accra » Picnic08 – The future of social networks

PS Just spotted this from David Weinberger: “But sites like Facebook aren’t about information. They’re about self, others, and the connections among them.” Sounds like we’re not in agreement, but I’d say we are: information, in this case, is talking about the personal data one puts up on these sites. I’m talking about the information that is exchanged on these sites: the trading that takes place, the process. The difference is between the photos a hairdresser puts in his window display and what actually goes on inside the barber.

Inside the Pocket of a Productivity Porn Star

Merlin Mann does a great blog on personal productivity at 43 Folders. After foodies watching and reading about food without actually cooking anything (food porn) and travel shows about places you’d never actually go or activities you’d never actually do (travel porn) this is productivity porn: an obsession with the detritus, in this case the books, pens, notebooks and gadgets, of the action, in this case productivity, without actually becoming more productive.

Anyway, occasionally Merlin catches the zeitgeist, and when he posted something on this blog referring to a NYT/IHT piece about the Jimi, a minimalist plastic wallet with an ideological goal of reducing the amount of stuff you store and carry in your wallet, readers were excited. A request for readers to share how they carried their money and credit cards around drew a slew of responses – 130 at the current count – which manage to be informative and, perhaps unintentionally, hilarious at the same time. Always a risk, I guess, when you ask people what they have got in their pocket.

I personally prefer the Viz Top Tip-esque (“Don’t waste money on a lead. Simply walk your dog backwards holding its tail”) home-made money solutions, which may or may not be written with tongue in cheek (you never know with the productivity porn lot), like this one:

Five years ago, I bought a bag of rubber bands for $0.99 and they have been my wallet ever since. A few times a year, the band breaks and I grab another from the bag. Besides being economical, it adds practically zero bulk to my pocket, and it’s quick to access. Cash tends to get a tad crumpled, but it’s worth it.

WalletAnother guy said his favorite was a metal cigarette case. It held a few cards and some cash perfectly, and looked really cool. I used it for years, until one of the corners got kind of scraggly, and it started poking me in the ass. Another touts a red binder clip, another a bungie cord case, another a 3×5 index card wrapped around his stash, while someone called trevor uses his girlfriend’s “’Yasmin’ birth control pill sleeve. It holds 3 credit cards (MC, Discover, ATM) on one side, driver license, insurance cards (auto/medical) on the other. It’s super slim, pretty durable and I get a new “wallet” for free each time my girlfriend gets a new supply of the pills.”

Sadly none of these solutions work in a country where the highest denomination bill/note is less than $10 and you use a credit card at your peril. But that’s my fault for living in Indonesia.

The Moleskine Report, Part IV

Here’s another bit of Moleskinerie, this time from Merlin Mann, who was also kind enough to answer my questions about the notebook phenomenon. His answers took the form of a short essay, which I offer in its entirety:

There’s still a desire and a market out there for PDAs–particularly when they’re well integrated with your mobile phone, like on the Treos. The problem is that there’s a practical limit to how many little boxes you can lug around everywhere. Since the iPod has caught on, I think digital music players have displaced a lot of folks’ PDAs from that coveted number two spot (right after mobile phones, of course). Carrying more than two or three digital devices requires either a bag or a relaxed disposition about looking like a bit of a dork.

I think people are often attracted to notebooks and index cards because they’re cheap, immediate, and endlessly configurable. They never run out of batteries, won’t break when you drop them in a bar, plus they just _feel good_ to write on. There’s a sense that you’re committing to something more mindfully if you take the time to write it down in a beautiful notebook with your favorite pen.

Moleskines, for example, each come with a cool little accordion pocket in the back. I use mine to hold an extra public transit card, a mini-copy of my Amazon wishlist, and an emergency $20 bill. So, for people like me, the notebook starts to function like an analog hub for whatever you might foreseeably need on the go.

The Hipster PDA addressed a real-world problem for me. I share lots of information with people wherever I go–records to buy, sites to visit, and so on. And I don’t always want to drag a big notebook or a Palm around when a modest stack of cards will do. Add a Fisher Space pen, and you’re ready to go anywhere.

People are sometimes surprised at how quickly they adapt to the habit of carrying a notebook–they really start relying on it and very much notice (and curse) the times when there’s no paper around to capture an idea or a reminder. I think that, after a week or two, your mind sort of loosens up since you know there’s always something there to catch thoughts while they’re fresh.

Thanks, Merlin. You can find a lot of cool tricks and productivity tips at Merlin’s website, 43 Folders.