I’m not sure that most people have realised yet, but social networks are creating a revolutionary change in the way we interact with other people. And they are revolutionary in that they also change how we do things and our expectations of how things work.
Non-localised proximity Once we needed to be physically proximate to people to create and maintain social relationships, but now online social networks enable us to do this in spite of physical or geographical distance.
Loose Ties over Time In the past we met people in various circumstances in real life and then we moved on, losing contact with those acquaintances. Now we are seeing the first generation of young people who have maintained loose contact with many of their former daily contacts. Now our acquaintances and friends are linked to us by means of various social networks – e.g. Facebook, LinkedIn, Plaxo, Xing, Twitter, etc – and we may never lose them.
Fewer degrees of separation Previously studies indicated that there were approximately six degrees of separation between any two people on the planet. But with online social networks we are seeing an amplification of that and a reduction of degrees of separation to as few as one degree between people. Twitter is a great example of this phenomenon, here’s a recent example.
Consumption on demand Until very recently we consumed media as and when the media outlet or creator decided we should. Now – with the rise of broadband access and easy to use tools like iPods, YouTube, or BitTorrent – people are starting to consume media on their own terms. No more waiting until Thursday at 7.30 pm to watch a favourite show, just download it while you’re at work and watch it over dinner, or even watch it on your mobile phone while in transit.
Co-creation & co-design In the past design and creation of online artifacts was the province of experts. Now anyone with a computer or mobile phone and a broadband connection can design and create digital artifacts. YouTube, Facebook and MySpace have created spaces where millions of ordinary people create, share or repurpose other people’s digital artifacts.
Technology as a utility We are now seeing the emergence of technology as a utility. And, if it is a utility then, just like the way we use a light switch, we expect technology to work and we don’t expect to need any specialised technical knowledge to make it work. This means that creation of the base technology still requires specialist skills and knowledge, but that user interfaces and operation must be easy for non-technical people. This ease of use is not merely a desire any longer, it is a demand – and technology that does not meet that demand will be dumped unceremoniously.
Why does any of this matter? All of these things are creating new expectations of how things work in the minds of ordinary people. They also create feedback loops and mutually reinforce each other. But for me some of the most interesting features of social networks and social computing are:
- creation of many loose links between people – and they don’t ever have to meet in real life to create bonds
- enabling connections between people who might not have ever met in real life (e.g. think about how hard it was for a Goth stamp collector in a small town to meet like-minded individuals pre-internet)
- ability to create applications and content and to share these easily
- crashing of the degrees of separation between individuals – also making it easy to find relevant people via search and newer semantic approaches
- ability to seek out answers to questions and to form coalitions easily without big overheads of effort or cost