Of “Social Networks”

The recent spate of twittering about Twitter prompts a somewhat longer than 140-character observation. As you will know if you tweet, the algorithms of this hottest “social network” are designed to encourage somewhat incestuous conversations; a battery of them resulted from the Nielsen research suggesting a 60% churn of members from month to month, twice that of FaceBook and MySpace when they were the same size. Yet given how different Twitter is from FB, the category “social network” (SN) becomes part of the problem.

I’ve been engaged in my own exploration; there really is no other way. Only by jumping in and swimming can you understand what the water is like. Theoretical reflection doesn’t cut it. Each SN has its own character; is sui generis, as we used to say when we looked to Latin rather than tweets to summarize. Hence one of my (and I know others’) pet peeves: people who post the same posts to several networks at once. A habit encouraged by platforms like TweetDeck (which I like for other reasons, like its built-in tiny url option; why doesn’t Twitter do that for you?). I’m not sure if Twitter:FB is as FB:LinkedIn. But it’s something like that. We are working by analogy. Sure, SNs are all the same kind of thing. But they are also very different kinds of that thing. (Not sure if anyone calls Second Life an SN site, but by rights it is. And one would have thought dating sites certainly were. And so on.) In any case, we have always had social networks; the significant feature of these sites is that they are web-based networks which may or may not have much of a “social” element.

Which reminds me, am I alone in being perplexed why journalists seem to feel obliged when they refer to FB, for example, to describe it as a social networking site? Or Twitter as a microblogging site? As if anyone who knew what a social networking site was would not know about FB. And a fortiori, as if anyone who would go around using the category microblogging would have a clue what it meant were they not the kind of people who were familiar with Twitter (and very likely first came across the generic term microblogging only as a result of that familiarity). I’m not sure if it is a sign of the rather aged novelty of the medium (my favorite free-wifi coffee house chain Panera Bread still invites one to “surf the internet” on its login page), of the angst of sub-editors who may only just have discovered the fax (oops, facsimile, as hotels still seem to want to call them), or of the precious stylistic tendencies of journos who want to look hip (I know more than you do about the cool stuff; you have heard of the site, I know the meta-narrative).

FB’s move to help us segment friends from, well, less-than friends is no doubt one straw in the SN wind. LinkedIn is immensely and very differently useful, seen as an opportunity to shape one’s online c.v. presence in the age of Google and as a self-updating address book for people we may or may not “know” but did at least exchange cards with. Just what Twitter “followers” (who include friends, bots, and seemingly quite random adherents) have in common with even FB “friends” is unclear. But some people have developed the knack of acquiring them in droves (and, of course, in certain cases, monetizing the fact).

Point being: the SN category is not helping us, any more than we would be helped by calling airlines, buses and motor cars transportation networking – and having solicitous sub-edited journos talking about “United Airlines, the transportation networking company” (it is annoying enough to have the Wall Street Journal insist in every single reference to American Airlines, per its house style, that it is “a unit of AMR”).

Back to Twitter. I think of the 100+ whom I am following only two actually answer the question and tell me what they are doing; and of those only one does it literally, without side comments, essentially offering snapshots of his schedule. I keep following as it makes him a curiosity. As to the other 100, they seem to be doing rather different things from each other. This is part of Twitter’s fascination: a very basic tool with many, many uses; a street one may walk down with very different destinations in mind – and indeed with now hundreds of external applications being developed to enhance such uses. Some may be monetizing, others merely self-aggrandizing (and which of us would not want to have our telegrams read by myriads?) or replicating in Twitland networks from outside, or indeed developing a “presence” simply because they are expected to set up shop in every e-venue. Why do some Twitters not understand that posting dozens of tweets is a turn-off? (It’s the only reason so far that I have unfollowed people.) That posting multi-tweet messages that therefore read backwards is bizarre, even when there are not intervening posts from elsewhere? That being “followed” by a celebrity (BarackObama seems to be following all over the place) offers a new level of weirdness (one assumes it is a crass, or perhaps not so crass, method of acquiring followers who wish to return the “compliment”)? Of course, all this goes some way to explain the high level of churn.

Needless to say, celebrities (political and otherwise) have found the perfect medium with which to communicate with fans/followers/voters – to pump out carefully message-controlled mini-bites without the messy need for journalists to get in the way (let alone ask pesky questions). The Obama campaign’s mastery of web strategy is rightly legendary (is it 13 million email addresses they acquired?), and the presence of Oprah and Brittney and Kuchner suggests smart adaptation to new PR opportunities. On the other hand, Twitter as-is is hardly designed for the readers of People Magazine (which once quoted me, so I can’t be too hard on it); expect more obviously and user-friendly PR platforms to follow. Which raises a broader point: there are many Twitters, and if microblogging continues to take off we may expect segmentation, both within the site and among twitteresque brands and functionalities.

1 thought on “Of “Social Networks”

  1. I wish I could have quoted you ("Only by jumping in and swimming can you understand what the water is like. Theoretical reflection doesn’t cut it.") last week when I was trying to explain re Ira Basen's News 2.0 why reading about Twitter isn't in any way, shape or form the same – or adequate – as using it if you are trying to assess its influence. Even five months ago I found myself becoming impatient with mainstream media when they reported on things I'd already heard on Twitter the previous day – without the addition of any analysis whatsoever.I think every social networking site has its own character and set of norms – and even mores. I do find it ironic that the same IT folks who sneered at chat and failed to realize that AOL's brilliant marketing strategy in the mid 90s are many of the early adopters and most faithful devotees of Twitter. And on my rare ventures back into chatland I'm equally amused to see that Yahoo! chatters have a very low level of awareness of Twitter – and next to no interest in it whatsoever. In fact, they would find the 140 character limit and clunkiness of the interface laughable.

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