It’s obvious that socialization on the web is no passing fad as many place their bets on where they think digital social media will head in 2008. It all seems fairly speculative thoughâ€”I haven’t seen much commentary on what specific underlying trends are in play right now (let alone what impact they’ll have in the future). For example, why have some online communities like Facebook succeeded, whereas others have failed? Seems like the kind of thing you’d want to figure out so here’s my best shot:
Part 1: Why is Facebook so compelling?
I’ll try to avoid predicting the present, skip past some of the obvious factors for Facebook’s success (luck, usable design, tapping into college-based social networks, customizability, extensibility, luck, decent safeguards for privacy, luck), and get to my little theory.
Well, not exactly my theory, I’m heavily borrowing from Barry Wellman, a key contributor to the field of social network analysis (and one of my profs from KMDI at UT).
Wellman talks about this fundamental progression in the ways our relationships are mediated through technology. He starts off with door-to-door-based social networks. You can see this type of networking in rural communities or even college dormitories where, when you want to interact with someone, you literally go and knock on their door. Technologies like rapid transit and telephony have made place-to-place social networking possible, and more recent developments like cell phones and e-mail (I’m really skimming here) have precipitated another shift to what Wellman calls person-to-person social networks.
That last shift is pretty interesting to me because I experienced it first hand. Used to be when you wanted to get in touch with someone, you called their home or office, or you sent a letter to their permanent physical address. Now with mobile technology, you don’t call a place, you call a personâ€”no matter where they are or what they’re doing. Same goes for email: your correspondence is no longer mediated by place, it can be accessed pretty much anywhere and it’s completely personal.
Next, Wellman noticed that along with more intensely personal and private communication technologies (like instant messaging and online communities of interest) came another fundamental shift: this time to role-to-role-based social networks. Here, people network with each other by virtue of one or more shared roles. Sociologists have noticed that more and more, people were building social networks out of what are called “weak tie” relationships. Weak ties are people you’re connected to somehow and whom you can rely on for information or assistance in a given context (communities of interest, school, work, etc.); but you don’t really know them holistically. For example, how many people in your cell phone would you invite over for dinner or consider asking to help you move? How well do you really know contacts in your Linked-In professional network?
This is where I think things tie back to Facebook. Many of us have become adept at managing identities or personas that are increasingly fragmented and/or role-dependent. We do this by choice, but also have a deeper desire to know each other more holistically. Facebook fits into this need because it takes some of the power to manage personal PR away from the individual and gives it to his or her social network (e.g. my Facebook friends can write on my page and tag me in their photos). So in other words, you could look at this site as a way to counteract or compensate for the fragmented personas and weak tie relationships our role-to-role communities have promoted.
For better or for worse, the fact that Facebook allows me to see people in their various contexts (that I might not otherwise have access to) making me feel more holistically connected, is a big part of its success.
Part 2: What’s next?
In Part 2, I’ll get to how I think Wellman’s model can be extended and used to predict how online social media will continue to evolve in 2008.