The Art of Streetplay

Sunday, September 18, 2005

How Did Social Networks Become So Popular So Fast? Some Thoughts.

One of the things I (along with numerous others I'm sure) have been paying attention to is the white hot popularity of social networking sites these days. I am no expert and there are other sites like Minority Rapport, written by my good friends Doug Sherrets and Jon Turow, which have done an excellent job of tracking their growth and evolution, I thought I'd share some thoughts on why I think things have evolved in the direction they have. To put it simply, we have been bombarded by technologies which have allowed us to communicate increasingly easily with one another. It's only natural that our attention has turned to studying the dynamics of social networks and the rise of well constructed social networking websites. Society needs a structured way to leverage its newfound ability to communicate, and social networking websites offer us this leverage. In this context, it will be interesting to see how social networking continues to evolve. I offer some thoughts at the end.

Below I expand on this idea with a network analysis twist.

In the not so distant past, the primary means through which a person could connect with someone else was face-to-face conversation. This had a marked impact on the dynamic of a person’s social network—it was highly dependent on ones physical location. Because the typical person back then was also highly constrained in his or her ability to move from place to place, we had little ability to surmount geographic constraints. The social benefit to understanding social network dynamics was small because social networks were, simply put, not dynamic. Contrasting how things were with how things are leads to an important conclusion. The social benefit to understanding social network dynamics is heavily dependent on our ability to communicate with one another, and as a result, has been heavily driven by technological change.

The advent of the phone technology eliminated the need to be within a stone’s throw of someone to communicate with them, increasing our ability to communicate. We could connect with important people we hadn’t even seen before as long as we knew their phone number (perhaps through someone in our social network!). The advent of transportation technology markedly increased our ability to communicate because of its ability to increase our geographic range of motion. The advent of email technology allows people to structure their thoughts in the form of a letter and send it to someone across the globe within seconds. The advent of instant messaging technology goes one step further, allowing people to have multiple interactive conversations with each other simultaneously. Because we have been bombarded by technologies allowing us to communicate increasingly easily with others, it is only natural that our attention has turned to studying the dynamics of social networks. Society needs a structured way to leverage its newfound ability to communicate.

However, looking at individual technologies in isolation misses the lion’s share of how technological advance has aided communication which in turn has driven the importance of social networks. As Watts stated in “The Connected Age,” there is only so much which can be learned about the dynamics of a network from a study of the individual component pieces—one needs to think about the network dynamics as a whole. The same concept applies to how technology has driven the growth of communication. While it is true, for example, that cars increased our geographic range of motion, the coupling of cars with cells phones allows us to remain in touch with the people we meet in far-away areas when we return home. The same can be said of social networking websites. Users are far more interested in social networking sites because cars, cell phones, email and instant messaging services make it all the more easy for users to contact and communicate with the people they see on a website like facebook. The evolution of all these technologies in conjunction with one another has driven communication and the study of network dynamics far more than the component technologies could possibly explain in isolation from one another.

What impact does all of this have on corporations? I think it makes a hell of a difference! Communication flow is something which can be monitored, and can lead to quantum leaps in corporate efficiency, IMHO. While individuals may have privacy concerns (and rightly so), there is a goldmine of information which can quite easily be made available to corporations who so desire to scrape it up.
  • IT crises are exacerbated by communication bottlenecks, so wouldn't it be helpful to know where those bottlenecks are most likely to occur, probabilistically speaking, by analyzing the network flow of emails to and from the IT department?
  • Stress testing with the proper communication monitors in place could allow corporations to simulate such crises, track the communication flow in real-time and improve corporate communication flow with a solid post mortem analysis of that communication flow.
  • Corporations could identify the communication gaps which may exist between it and other corporations. Knowledge of such gaps could be indicative of future problems or of potential vulnerability, and could be a stimulus for value-added change.
  • The list goes on and on. These are all changes that are most definitely possible now given the current state of technology. While no one may act on this technology as much as they could, it wouldn't surprise me at all if we were to see more of a concerted move in this direction at the expense of personal privacy.

Social networks contain a wealth of valuable information. The scary part is that we must lay ourselves bare to unlock the value. Given how competitive the business world is right now, I am not too optimistic about the implications on privacy-- but hey, at least our economy may run more smoothly.


  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:43 AM  

  • Solid post, Danny. You touch at the end on some interesting issues about privacy: I suspect that what people consider to be private today will not be so in a few years. For example, before the internet and social networking services like MySpace, you could say that a lot of information was "private." But now that it is in open space, it is no longer considered private. Privacy does not just mean social security and credit card numbers: it has to do with who we are, who we relate to and what we like to do. A social networking service profile reveals as much or as little of this information about ourselves as we wish. While a MySpace user's personal interests might have been considered "private" to 99.99% of the world before MySpace, it is now considered public to 100% of the world with access to the internet.

    I would enjoy engaging in conversation about privacy, so I encourage feedback.

    By Anonymous Doug Sherrets, at 10:33 AM  

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    By Blogger Make My Love, at 3:04 AM  

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