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Social Media Research: Observations

Summary: Interpersonal relations benefit from social networks and social software because social software creates markets for new connections. Social software screens members. But does mediated social networking benefit society? More-so, is it really social? Or is it possibly the appearance of social, and communication and community in effect only?

Is there Social in Software?

"Just as the member of any group is expected to have self-respect, so also he is expected to sustain a standard of considerateness; he is expected to go to certain lengths to save the feelings and the face of others present, and he is expected to do this willingly and spontaneously because of emotional identification with the others and with their feelings. In consequence, he is disinclined to witness the defacement of others." Erving Goffman

Terms like "social," "community," and "group" have long been used to describe communication technologies that involve more than two participants at a time. But while they serve the purpose of defining a particular kind of software or experience, they are somewhat misleading. Are these applications in fact "social?"

We know what social encounters are in face to face situations. So what about them makes them social? It's not just the co-presence of a group of individuals. Nor is it the fact that they're communicating with one another. It's that in their individual interactions with each other they conduct two kinds of relation at the same time:

  • they reproduce their own society through a shared language and by honoring codes of behavior and conduct appropriate to their situation;
  • and they establish and unfold personal relationships to one another (as individuals).

In short, they reproduce society by means of satisfying its claims on individual behavior and at the same time binding to one another. Social interaction produces the social while binding individuals.

This to me is about as profound as it gets.

Does a social encounter then require that everybody present is engaged in conversation? No, there are of course many varieties of social activity structured to constrain participation in order to guide attention towards some focal point, be it a football game or a casino table. Fans in the stands are not there for job networking, they're there for the ritual of a football game.

But even here, where communication in the stands is more gutteral and gestural than it is deep and intimate, our fans will have followed our two ground rules: reproduction of a shared set of codes (ritual of the game in this case) manifest in relations taken up with one another (as members of an audience).

"Social technologies," including chat, social software, online discussions, group email lists, and collaborative software can facilitate communication among participants. But to what extent do they allow members to take up personal relations to one another? Unable to see one another, how well can participants demonstrate their "emotional identification" with each other? And of even greater importance, how well can a group see the care practiced by its members towards the group?

One perspective would claim that social rituals, including those enabled by communications technologies, facilitate impersonal relations, not personal relations. That they give us access to markets of opportunities (music downloads, expertise, dates, jobs). And that they make it easy to explore and exploit those markets by minimizing the amount of personal contact we're required to engage in. After all, pursuing opportunities by means of deep and profound interactions would quickly overwhelm any one of us.

Online communities are then low-intensity social interaction systems, in which the technology's modes of interaction produce ties that have a weak binding force. And indeed, we clearly lose something in mediated group interaction.

Whether the substitution of a technology platform for a public stage on which to produce social interactions costs us more in terms of lost public sphere, or weakened interpersonal relations, remains to be seen. It now seems clear that technologies of communication will continue to accommodate ever-greater domains of social practice in work and play.

Can a greater volume of impersonal interactions substitute for the gradual disappearance of face to face interaction and public spaces? And will we notice? Is this a sign of the ever-increasing rationalization of human relations? Do communications technologies represent a threat to meaningful interpersonal ties, or do they only supplement face to face with new possibilities?

There is another possibility, and that is that we are adapting to and learning how to negotiate a new kind of social interaction. That mediated social systems produce new ways of becoming proximate to other people, new ways of getting access to them and of maintaining connections with them. If we are becoming a global village in this sense, it will be interesting to see how "the people web" empowers us to realize its potential—our potential.

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