10. Social Ties: Networking Together

From Yochai Benkler - Wealth of Networks
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Table Of Contents

Contents

Content

Summary of the chapter

Overview

From "Virtual Communities" to Fear of Disintegration

A More Positivie Picture Emerges Over Time

Users Increase Their Connections with Preexisting Relations

Networked Individuals

The Internet as a Platform for Human Connection

The Internet and Human Community

Sources

Sources cited in the chapter

Other relevant readings

Case Studies

Supporting examples

In his chapter “Social Ties: Networking Together,” Benkler aims to answer fundamental questions about how the Internet is changing patterns of social interaction and organization. He takes on the overly optimistic views about the Internet—“Oh my god the Internet bringing us all closer together in every way!”—and the overly pessimistic ones—“We’re all just alienated from one another, spending all our time absorbed in screens.” The result is a set of impressively balanced, well-reasoned conclusions that claim that the Internet is enabling better, “thicker” relationships with people we already knew while simultaneously expanding the possibilities to manage better loose or weak relationships (357).

Unfortunately for his work, the timing of Benkler’s writing—early to mid-2005—meant that he just missed the boom of the newest wave of so-called “social networking” sites. Bekler's sole allusion to such sites is in a reference to Danah Boyd's work on the development of weak social ties in the first-wave network Friendster. The two most popular social networks that exist today—-MySpace and Facebook—-are nowhere to be seen. Interestingly, sites such as Facebook and Orkut (hugely popular in Brazil) now address some of the concerns reported in Boyd's study on Friendster, such as the lack of ability to better define one's relationship on the site. Orkut allows gradation of friendship (although some users still only put "friend" or "good friend) while Facebook allows users to more specifically define their relations with the individual (i.e. "I took EC101 with this person" or "I dated this person.") Thus, the glaring absence of such second wave social networking sites from the text is unfortunate, not only because of their incredible cultural prominence and relevance to the chapter’s subject material, but also because the social behavior that occurs on these sites clearly reinforces Benkler’s own conclusions.

MySpace and Facebook don’t share much in common beyond their fundamental structure: a user pieces together a personal profile and then makes connections with others who have done the same. The two sites differ drastically, however, in terms of user capabilities and the size of the resulting network. MySpace is an open network with over 30 million unique monthly users that includes colors, streaming music, and blogs. Users have the capability to customize their "space" by using html, CSS, and by adding images, video, and audio. In a certain sense, it is a "free-for-all" type of situation, which can sometimes result in users taking it to the extreme (i.e. profiles specifically designed to crash your browser .) Facebook, on the other hand, has standardized user contributions to more easily present information and enable searches. Roughly a third the size of MySpace, Facebook is a collection of mini-networks at colleges, high schools, and now corporations that is focused less on self-expression and more on efficient information exchange. In both instances, users are spending around 15 minutes surfing the site a day, making MySpace the second most popular site on the Internet in terms of traffic and Facebook the seventh.

What is fascinating about both sites is that users sign up and immediately look to connect with friends from the “real” world. Peers from school, relatives, and coworkers are the first people that a MySpace or Facebook user “friends.” It is only as an individual’s usage continues that the net of who gets called a “friend” expands to acquaintances—the friend of a friend you met briefly at a party on Friday night or someone who you share a class with, but don’t really know. The third type of connection that occurs is random friending—connections made not because of any affiliation in “real” life at all. This third type of friend connection happens much more frequently on MySpace than on Facebook, most likely because it is an open network that doesn’t take root in “real” life communities like college campuses and also due to the high number of musicians on the site looking for new potential fans.

On both Myspace and Facebook, users are engaging in social activity that goes past simple chat rooms or one-on-one messaging and instead allows for personal expression and information transmission to a larger extent than previously possible. Benkler’s claim that networks provide for increased communication and information transfer between individuals who already know one another (like friends and relatives) is directly reflected on social networking sites. Up-to-the-minute information is available on your friend’s love life, her new interests, photos from last night’s concert, and now (only on Facebook) where she might be located in real time. Facebook and MySpace add another way to share information and communicate with people in general, but the first people to really benefit are most often close friends.

Similarly, the networks open up a new space for creating, preserving, and potentially strengthening what Benkler calls “weak ties,” a term first formulated by sociologists writing on social capital. In layman’s terms, these weak ties are the people that you know, but are not necessarily close friends with. They are the names that you would recognize in everyday conversation, but they are not the people you would call or email to spend time with unless you had some formal reason to meet with them. Keeping up such ties on social networking sites such as MySpace or Facebook is facilitated by the relative ease of searching for such people and the lack of inhibition that may come with adding someone on such a site versus a phone call or even email.

With the creation of social networks like MySpace, Facebook, and even the earlier Friendster, information on the weak ties in an individual’s life is collected in one place and thereby made more accessible when the need comes to “take advantage” of them. When one looks for a new job or moves to a new city, weak ties can become very useful to gain the much-needed social footing to make the transition. Preserving weak relationships—not to mention contact, job, and location information—has been extremely difficult until the emergence of such social networking sites.

A final advantage of networks that Benkler does not emphasize in his chapter but is increasingly clear with the advent of MySpace, Facebook, and Friendster is the opportunity to connect with individuals who share similar interests. Fans of music groups, supporters of political campaigns, and collectors of the arcane are empowered to find one another and associate more easily. Social networks go a step further than the “regular” web in encouraging the spread of interest associations. Whereas in the past, individuals had to search for a group related to one of their interests, a group leader can now search for people interested in the topic and ask them to join. The opportunity to create an association is now bi-directional instead of unidirectional.

It is impossible not to take note of the importance of the spread of social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook. Even though they are radically altering the social landscape for the tens of millions of users who return to them daily, their growth seems to follow pre-existing patterns of the effect of the Internet on social relationships in general. It is a testament to Benkler’s analysis that the emergence of social networking sites has confirmed his own earlier conclusions about the effects of networks on social connectivity.

Counter-examples

The Problems of Instant Messaging

Professor Benkler makes some great points about social networking on the Internet, but there are lingering questions about how effective Internet social networks can be as an extension of real-life connections. In particular, the use of instant messaging (IM) raises some concerns about the quality of those social connections.

It seems fair to consider “buddy-lists,” utilized by instant messaging programs, as a perfect example of Professor Benkler’s idea of a more networked individual. In the book, Professor Benkler mentions a Pew study on the use of instant messaging. While Benkler mentions the study’s assessment of the number of Americans using instant messaging -- 53 million -- the study provides plenty of other reasons to believe that instant messaging represents an extension of terrestrial contacts.

The first reason to believe that instant messaging reflects an extension of an individual’s social network is how the buddy list is maintained. According to the study, people add contacts at a faster rate than they remove them. For example, 22% of IM users add people to their buddy lists every few months. In the same time frame, only 9% of IM users remove contacts. In addition, 44% of users say they never remove anyone from their lists. (Interestingly, the AOL instant messenging protocol used to have a maximum number of buddies--200--poentially resulting in those with large buddy lists having to remove old contacts to add new ones. They have since removed this limit.) These statistics suggest that the buddy list grows as people’s social networks expand and do not reflect only their current set of frequent contacts. Thus, it is more reasonable to think of buddy lists as a social network than the speed-dial settings on a land-line phone.

The second reason to believe that instant messaging reflects an extension of a social network is that instant messaging has become a form of self-expression. As the study notes, 34% of users create profiles that are accessible to other users – these are viewable to those not on their buddy list. Profiles can contain contact information, personal information, inspirational or funny quotes, and links. This suggests that users expect other users to look at their profile and use both the messaging and profiles to keep track of contacts.

So Benkler appears to be correct when he suggests that instant messaging should be considered an important part of the arsenal of tools available for social networking. There is little reason to believe, though, that it replaces face-to-face human interaction. Instead, it would appear to be an extension of terrestrial social networks – particularly for maintaining connections with peers in geographically diverse locations. At the same time, however, it has become a prime mode of communication for a generation that spends far more time on the Internet than it does in front of a TV, and that communicates primarily via cell phones, e-mail, and IM.

That said, there are concerns about the quality of the communications expressed through the medium of instant messaging. In fact, these same concerns apply to e-mails and cell phone text messaging, as well as to the more collaborative and community forms of networked communications such as blogs and wikis. The concern is that even when these technologies are used merely to supplement face-to-face and phone communication, these tools can lead to misunderstandings and anger.

This danger was made apparent in a recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In the study conducted by Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago and Justin Kruger of New York University, they determined that the tone of e-mails is misunderstood almost 50% of the time. The senders of e-mails were quite confident that their messages would be understood, but they were often incorrect in their assumptions. In comparison, when users vocally communicated their message, the recipient was much more likely to understand it. The problem appears to be deeply rooted: “people aren't that good at imagining how a message might be understood from another person's perspective.” See Stephen Leahy, Wired Magazine, The Secret Cause of Flame Wars, Feb. 13, 2006.

There are anecdotal reasons for believing that miscommunication in instant messenging and email can be quite a problem. A Google search on instant messaging misunderstandings leads to websites such as this one by Danielle Weintraub, which lists “laws” for instant messaging. The first law states: “What you write is rarely read the way you would have said it in person, especially when you're trying to be funny.” The site then goes on to recommend that one should never fight with a significant other via instant messaging. While only anecdotal, this site, and the others like it, suggest that that the tools of social networking have dangers. Even worse, the scientific studies suggest that we are largely ignorant of these dangers.

This concern is not just applicable to instant messaging or e-mail, but also to the collaborative tools of wikis, blogs, and social networking sites. It does not mean, though, that instant messaging, e-mail, and other collaborative technologies cannot be used to improve networking. However, it does suggest that if these tools are to become as important as Benkler suggests, more thought should be given to how we can use these tools to convey the full meaning of our writing. Any text-based statement (both old media and new: newspaper, magazine, book, blog, wiki, etc.) suffers from this weakness, but where the communication takes on a more personal and direct tone, as happens in many posts, instant messages, e-mails, and text messages, capturing the full range of human emotion becomes more important. Capturing that range is likely necessary for the Internet to become a stronger extension of terrestrial networks.

Key Concepts

The Magic of Wikis?

Wiki does not equal magic. This collaborative technology that enables users to easily and quickly edit what others have written in an online format without any complex technical skills has, according to some, taken the Net by storm. Benkler in his chapter on Social Networks refers to "social software" as "software whose design characteristic is that it treats genuine social phenomena as different from one-to-one or one-to-many communications" (373). According to Clay Shirky, who first defined the term, at least from the perspective of the software designer, the user of the social software is the group, not the individual (373).

While Benkler rightly elaborates on various aspects of wikis (in the context of Wikipedia) that may foster group participation and what he terms "stickiness," (in the form of requiring user log-ins to complete various tasks as well as giving different users different capabilities), Wiki communities clearly require just that: a dedicated community that is committed to working on a particular project.

Wikipedia has been the star example of many scholars of collaborative technologies on the internet and the new forms of communication and regulation that have resulted from them. Benkler analyzes this Wiki-based community in detail, demonstrating the potential of peer production to produce what some may consider the world's most comprehensive encyclopedia. Wikipedia, however, possesses several characteristics that have lead to its success. First, it strives to achieve a Neutral Point of View (NPOV). As an encyclopedia, its goal is to be informative in a neutral fashion, as opposed to facilitating disputes between various parties on contentious issues. Such a goal, however, will not always pan out, as Wikipedia has seen. There have been numerous articles on the website that have been locked due to what some term "edit wars," or people from various factions that have continually edited and re-edited entries from various sides of a controversial issue. As a result of such scenarios, the Wikipedia admins have chosen to lock particular entries from any further edits for a period of time. (Examples in the past include the George W. Bush entry and the Falun Gong entry. See Wikipedia's current list of protected pages for a full list of current pages.)

Furthermore, a successful wiki community requires grassroots efforts on the part of individual uses that form the "group" that Shirky refers to. A wiki alone does not spur on a community in and of itself--wikis are a technology that can greatly enable and facilitate collaborative editing, but the technology alone cannot and will not produce the editors. Wikipedia works the way it does precisely because of the dedicated fleet of editors and administrators that keep particular articles on watch--and revert vandalous edits within minutes or even seconds. To assume that merely by the installation of MediaWiki (or other wiki-based software), such a group would emerge, would be quite naive. Indeed this was the sentiment when the LA Times attempted to "wikify" its newspapers' editorials in a short-lived experiment. In June 2005, the LA Times opened up its editorial page to users from across the web and allowed them to modify what was written in what they termed "wikitorials." First, as editorials, these articles were clearly not striving for a NPOV. As we have seen in the case of Wikipedia, without such a goal toward NPOV, edit wars between people on various sides of a controversial topic can quickly ignite. Further, there was no grassroots community surrounding this wiki--instead, it was just open to anyone to edit, and vandalize. As a result, there were no dedicated admins as in the case of Wikipedia who would quickly revert any vandalized posts within minutes. Spammers and jokers alike were able to easily change the pages into something they found potentially lucrative or just plain funny. While there were several honest contributors to the project, it was cancelled within days primiarily due to problems of vandalization. Clearly, the LA Times in embarking on this endeavor did not consider the potential prerequisites for a successful wiki-based project and community, but instead assumed in a way that a Wiki would produce magical results. There have been other efforts of questionable success to create a wiki-based project without the sufficient community, such as Lawrence Lessig's Code v.2 project, where readers were solicited to update his seminal 1999 book. To date, however, the effort has seemed to have not have been entirely successful in the number of edits made (granted, updating a book is no small feat), although perhaps the assigning of various law school courses to edit the project has given it a push in the right direction.

When communities are pre-determined, such as university courses, student activities, or collaborative writing and editing endeavors such as journals, wikis can prove to be effective tools for realtime collaboration. At the same time, such wikis may be password protected, and may not seek to allow the public at large to edit, unlike Wikipedia. Further, when a public wiki seeks to present various points of views, such a non-NPOV stance may prove problematic when it comes to the collaborative writing aspect of wikis. When I do not agree with someone's comments, I may post a comment on the respective entry's "talk" page, but at the same time, it is entirely possible that the original author and I may not come to any kind of consensus. What, then, should one do in that case?

Perhaps the hardest part about wiki collaboration is attempting to balance various viewpoints and still coming up with a valid, coherent response. As such, I invite people to edit this entry in order to provide further, group-based insights on The Wealth of Networks. While wiki does not equal magic, it does, given the right circumstances, provide a platform for the expression of the power of community and peer-based production.

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