Rohit's Realm

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August 14, 2007

It's the Network, Stupid

Social networking may now be the buzz phrase du jour amongst the iPod-wearing, MacBook-sporting techno-dilettantes constantly drinking grande lattes (or whatever the fuck it is they order) who consider themselves computer scientists because they read about Ruby on Rails, but for me, it is a phenomenon that is nearly five years in the making, and frankly, one which, in recent months, has had me wondering whether it is even worth the trouble.

Now, don't get me wrong: my main gripe is not with the concept of maintaining one's social network online; if it were, I would hardly have joined Friendster circa 2003, when it was the only such site in existence. Rather, it is the recent trend of new Web 2.0 specialized social networking sites that is currently receiving the brunt of my ire. Plainly put, I don't want to maintain an account on both LinkedIn and Doostang, Library Thing and Good Reads, slow, beta site #1 and slow, beta site #2.

If even most relationships in one's life can be considered commodities (and they most certainly can be), then social networks are doubly so. I cannot fathom a reason for maintaining any more than one—or maybe two—online social networks: one for your professional life (e.g., LinkedIn, Doostang), and another for everything else.

The fact that the social networking world has divided itself by class into Facebook and MySpace is not entirely a Bad Thing™, considering that at least we have consolidation. Honestly, the day I realized a critical mass of my friends had finally arrived at the ivy-covered, elitist gates of (the) Facebook, I was actually overjoyed; within a week, I had canceled my accounts on all other sites, including Friendster and Orkut, which had since become breeding grounds for sketchy, under-employed guys living in Berkeley and Oakland and preying on many of my female friends at Cal. (I suppose I was never cute enough to invoke the predatory tactics of sketchy, under-employed women—or men—though that would change upon moving to San Francisco... the part about the men, I mean.)

That was in 2004. Nowadays, most anyone you might meet falls into one of four categories: (1) Facebook; (2) MySpace; (3) Old, and unable to understand this newfangled In-ter-net stuff; or (4) Weirdos (like my sister) who are young enough to understand, but refuse to take part due to some (understandable) desire to separate oneself from the unwashed masses. Life is again simple, and especially so, if you are like me and do not know—and aren't likely to meet—anyone who uses MySpace. Does that make me hegemonic? Probably, but that is a totally separate discussion.

Sure, one could argue that with due time, professional networking sites and bibliophile sites will themselves consolidate, much like Facebook and MySpace did, but that misses a subtle point: we don't need any more sites at all, if we have one already! Jack aptly pointed out last week that the security/privacy settings of Facebook do not currently enable us to control who sees photographs others tag of us, and as long as this is the case, I will agree that there is some reason to separate professional networking from personal networking. However, if Facebook would simply adopt my (extremely prescient) scheme for classifying friends into the commodities they invariably are, I can foresee a day where one site is all one needs for all one's social networking activities.

Fundamentally, it is not the site per se, but the virtual representation of (what one would hope are) real life relationships that matter; everything else, whether it is book reviews and ratings, or résumés and educational histories, is simply a module that can be plugged in to the overall framework that maps people to one another. Facebook has been moving in this direction for some time now, and with the introduction of its Developer API, will only do so more. With a more stringent and rigorous means of ensuring potential employers are not bombarded with photos of me with red Dixie cups from years ago, I would even be willing to bring my professional network to Facebook.

This inevitability of the future may not bode well for the numerous social networking startups hoping to monetize ads on some specialized network, but for me, the consumer, this is a fate that cannot come fast enough.


(4) Weirdos (like my sister) who are young enough to understand, but refuse to take part due to some (understandable) desire to separate oneself from the unwashed masses.

I don't know that I understand this desire myself. I have a couple roommates who loosely fit your definition of "weirdo" and have neither Facebook nor MySpace accounts, but I find they do this for no good reason whatsoever. It's rebellion for rebellion's sake, and in the end only makes them more hermit-like as their ability to effectively network (socially or otherwise) is further hampered. Services like Facebook (which, unlike MySpace, make it easy to find even casual acquaintances) are great for bolstering what might otherwise be non-relationships, as you'll be able to find that girl from the party even though you only remember a face and a first name.

In any case, my roommates could definitely use a little more contact with the "unwashed masses" =P

Josh, I agree that sometimes the lack of MySpace/Facebook is rebellion for its own sake, which is decidedly lame. Also, they definitely facilitate not only forming relationships, but retaining them as well. The problem, of course, comes when one realizes how fake these relationships are if not perpetuated in real life. Otherwise, one is just left with fake wall messages celebrating one's birth, when no one would have otherwise even remembered.

Is that better than nothing at all? Perhaps, but it's not the end all, be all by any means.

Agreed. I'm not trying to defend such services as replacements for traditional, real-world relationships; rather, I believe they can help facilitate such relationships for those who might otherwise have trouble getting the ball rolling.

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