Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Electronic Middleman

Writing about social technology is something of an exercise in redundancy. Essentially every technology writer in existence has taken a turn discussing the relevance and effects of social media on social networks, culture, and individual psychology. As this post is simply an introduction to the topic, here are a few of the arguments and questions that will be plumbed in later posts.

The biggest and most easily accepted argument in any discussion on social media is that it fundamentally changes the nature of human communication and sociology. But how?

An important question here involves the size of a social network. Previously, it was taken as gospel that the human neocortex limits the size of a viable social network to somewhere around 150 people. This doesn’t appear to correspond, however, to real occurrences on social networking sites. While the average Facebook user only has 130 friends, violations of Dunbar’s number on very high orders are very easily found.

And there’s another thing: a new type of prestige appears to be forming around the friend / follower number. In fact, there’s an equation that determines your Twitter clout.

Social media tend to the making of all comment into public comment. As such, new social norms are emerging regarding tact and honesty in these spontaneous forums. Further, such forums fragment the national or world discussion of certain topics into various, generally unrepresentative sample discussions.

Social media and other communication technologies allow for an increasingly developed middle ground between synchronous and asynchronous communication. This changes the nature of conversation by messing with the time between discourse turns, allowing for more or less thought between statements than previously

This fuzzy synchronicity can lead to the loss of conversational fluidity. That change in fluidity can have a whole range of effects on discourse pragmatics in general.

Previously, human communication was either very high priority (face-to-face or telephonic) or very low (correspondence). Now, there are medium settings to that priority, allowing for reasonably important communication to be done while performing other tasks.

Further, more than one conversation can be happening at the same time, and over multiple media. That simultaneity can lead to an increase in conversational density—and we may not be able to predict what that means for the brain.

For certain, some of the effects of social media, and the internet in general, are perceived under an umbrella category of “loss of focus”. But, is that loss of focus real? And is it such a bad thing?

Social media certainly affects the importance of distance in maintaining a social network. Friends can be kept, on some level, despite vast physical distances. But, what is the importance of “meatspace”, and what role will physical closeness play in the future of social networks?

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