Monday, July 13, 2009

Populism and Mass Social Networks

We all know social networks on the Internet are the big thing these days. From Twitter to Facebook, from Flickr to even the oddballs like digg and, mass audiences are finding places to explore, have fun, comment, criticize, vent, rant, praise, rave and otherwise hobnob with their fellow wizards.

But at what point do the wizards have to hobnob with the commoners, pull back that curtain and, perhaps, reveal that they might just possibly be a humbug?

I've spent a lot of time over the past year thinking about social networks and social networking. I'm on facebook. I'm nearing my thousandth tweet on Twitter. I've got two blogs, and am a contributor to a third. I've got ideas for at least a half a dozen other blogs which, for the most part, appeal to tiny little niches on the Web and elsewhere, because that's the kind of thing I have the time and energy to focus on as an individual.

For the broader market, the mass social networks, the Facebooks and Twitters, you need company. But I come back to that same question: When do the wizards hobnob with the simple folk?

To be sure, there is room on the Internet for social networks that appeal to niche markets, the professionals, the fetishists, the hobbyists. I'm sure, somewhere out there, thanks to services like, there are Twilight-based social networks. There are Harry Potter-based social networks. I'm part of a social network set up for 1990 graduates of Bonneville High School, of all things. I get regular updates. I visit occasionally. They're gearing up for our 20th reunion, and it all looks to be wonderfully social and organized.

But the Facebooks, the Twitters, can't do that, at least on the surface. Subgroups might develop -- and sertainly have -- inthose networks, but the networks themselves, on the whole, are established for mass appeal, not limited to a single, or even a small collection, of audiences.

Enter the populist view. Populism, in the paradigm of social networking, means opening the ubiquity and inexpensiveness of the Internet to anybody with a computer and a reasonably fast Internet connection. This is no startling revelation, I know. The likes of Clay Shirky and others have long opined that the advent of the Internet is akin to the invention of the printing press in freeing expression from the gatekeepers who beforehand kept things under control or at least among the hobnobbing class.

What is the appeal of social networks? To me, it's the ability that such networks afford anyone to upload a photo, write a story or a post, and have it read and perhaps enjoyed by someone else. The photographer and poster may indeed recognize that there are others out there much more capable of producing better photograpsh and batter-written posts, but that is of no consequence. What matters is that the poster is able to share what he or she has created with those who might be interested. And for friends and family, there is interest. Maybe outside that circle, there is interest. There is competiton, of course. It's fairly easy to get onto the Internet and say, "Eew. I can do better than that." And the beauty is they can go ahead and do better than that, post their own, share it with their friends, and the one who has an inferior product need not be bothered. Or even jealous. Or even aware.

Maybe Anne Elk can explain this better than I can:

Yes, it's a stupid, poorly developed theory. But it is hers. She is proud of it. And she doesn't really care if someone out there has a better theory. It is her right to share her theory with the world, and social networking can help her do that.

This is the populist theory of social networking. Maybe it's not what the niche markets want. Maybe it doesn't have professional appeal. But it allows everyone out there to participate, contribute, share and explore.

Does this mean I don't find professionalism appealing? No. But it does mean that I object to the thought that professionalism is the only lens through which one may observe the world. Let me illustrate by example:

How many times have you asked an English teacher “Can I go to the bathroom,” only to have the teacher respond, “I don’t know. Can you? I think you mean ‘May I go to the bathroom.’” The implication here is that the word “can” implies ability – Am I able to go to the bathroom – and the “may” implies asking permission – “I need to go to the bathroom. I am asking your permission to leave the room to do so.” Technically, maybe there is a difference between can and may. But isn’t the overarching message from the teacher to the student that he or she needs to use the bathroom and is asking permission to leave?

Here’s the point: Do we let the English language drive us, or do we drive the English language? Those who can get past the fiddle-faddle of an overreliance on precise language agree that we shape the language, it does not shape us.

It's the same with professionalism being the sole driver of a social network -- or anything else for that matter. The Internet allows us to remove the gatekeepers, to pull back the curtain on that wizard.

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