28 Jan 2004 ib   » (Master)

The recent launch of Orkut.com, and the flurry of sign-ups, partially powered by its ``exclusive'' model of invitation based membership, has brought discussions about ``social networks'' and sites like Friendster, Tribe, and LinkedIn back into the spotlight of discussions.

Social networking isn't new. It is, in fact, as old as institutions and organizations are. Not just since the fundamental writings by Sociologists such as Coleman in 1964 have groups and circles attempted to harness the social capital inherent in structures, using tools to rate and evaluate individuals within a social grouping, and to facilitate communications amongst the members.

The oldest club in Europe, an exclusive French society of dove breeders, used social networking tools since the late 17th century to connect its members via a handwritten newsletter, circulating from member to member, and being amended along the way. A special trust metric had been established, which allowed each breeder to rate his peers, a process in which each vote carried weight based on the casters own ratings. In addition to the mailing, which took roughly one year to travel each of the members, shortcut routes were established, usually between counties, through which smaller groups could reach other groups. To create the shortcuts, each breeder was required to name at least two ``sponsors'' and four breeders he sponsored. Communications between unlinked individuals had to be established by finding a connection via ones own sponsor. Sponsors could, similarly, only communicate with their sponsors or sponsored individuals, making the initial contact a matter of knowing and being known. Once an initial contact was established, the following newsletter circulation was amended to reflect the newly linked breeders, who now were free to communicate and refer directly.

Acceptance of communications of bird purchases and sales based almost entirely on the ratings found inside the newsletter and contacts initiated by sponsors.

If this sounds even vaguely familiar, it does so, because it is reflected, in part, by today's ``social networking'' software.

It hasn't changed much. What did change, are the tools. And their names. And the hubris surrounding them. While most of the hurdles have fallen, including the sometimes mind-numbing wait for another circulation of the newsletter, and initiation has become much easier, the same basic ideas are still at work.

Even the pranksters, fakesters, and bogus friendship links aren't new. The Count of Villechy, in 1889, was expelled from the club for posing as two breeders in an attempt to boost his ranking. The attempt failed due to the elaborate trust metric (which is closely related to the metric used at Advogato [and was calculated by hand, no less]), and because of his estranged mistress' relationship to another, influential, club member.

Social networking is not "happening".

True, in a way, it is, and has been, ever since man decided that being in groups is a good idea. Social networking is shaping its forms and tools, based on the simple method of trial and error. If it works, it'll stick around, if it doesn't, it won't. It's just not "happening" in the "in" sense of the word.

The new meme on the block are social networks in software. Because 'networking' sounds so wonderfully technical, its original meaning (predating even the most rudimentary computers and data-networks by a few decades) has slowly given way to the new, leaving discussions about "social networking" with the task to untangle and uniquely address either one.

"Social capital accumulates through social networks and trust, and the norms of mutual reciprocity that these relationships foster." - Coleman, Puntnam 1988. → Today's "social networking" technology, the attempt to replicate and visualize social ties in HTML, XML, or graphical means, is a toy - at best. In its current application, it creates a user-base in which individuals are more interested in creating individual data, not social data. Once the emphasis is based on the size of a social interaction, not its quality, ties rot and become meaningless. Such a design also gives way to appeasement approaches (reciprocal linking, solicitation of links by way of creating meaningless ties, or linking individuals in an attempt to enter a specific social structure, not as a means to represent a preexisting relationship).

To reverse this - the infant social networking technology today is widely understood as a means to the end of creating social ties and thereby capital, not as a tool to effectively display such connections. This approach creates vast networks of faux relationships with little to no bearing in real life, interspersed with accurate or semi-accurate reflections of pre-existing fabrics. Unless the social networking tool provides ways to differentiate between either relationship, its usability is low.

"Trust", the basis of every social network, relies of effective control mechanism, be they employed through peer review or doctrine. Social capital becomes worthless, and in fact devalues the attached Human capital, if its origins are subject to doubt. → Current social network tools are vulnerable to attacks and easily infiltrated with faux or outdated information. An emphasis on "positive" relationships completely ignores the negative sides of interaction and leaves an interpretative void, unable to properly describe either function or conflict based interactions.

Social capital created and sustained by social networks has meaning only in its most extensive form. Only then, if the foundation and terminology of any valuation is know, and only if the source is identified and enjoys trust → Technology based social networking tools are "sound-bite" based ("In my bedroom, you will find..."). Unless additional steps are taken, usually outside the tools, one is left with imagination and reliance on unverified information to form a working impression of peers.

Social Networking software does not create anything "new". It is an attempt to express existing relationships. Expression is only as useful as its interpretive capabilities and accuracy. → Social structure descriptions such as FOAF, XFN, or the ones used by Friendster-type websites, are generic and unable to express an individual's standing within his or her own social circle. FOAF additionally suffers from technology-centric design, lack of interpreters, and useable levels of saturation. XFN does not claim to be an accurate reflection of social interaction, but has the potential to become one, which is why it has been listed here.

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