Beyond the "Social Network"

Conor’s analysis of the rise of Facebook is right as far as it goes, I think — historically, at least — but it comes to the wrong conclusion. Exclusivity is hardly an intrinsic good in social networking. Of the dozens upon dozens of invite-only social networking sites I’ve heard about, DC’s Late Night Shots is the only one that seems to have met with any success — where “success” is defined by an expose and an upcoming reality series, that is (hardly measures of respectability). The reason that Facebook’s relative exclusivity made it a game-changing site was because Facebook understood the real appeal of social networking as it existed at the time.

At this point I should clarify that the term “social-networking site” is misleading, because it assumes that the site’s purpose is to establish connections between users. Logically, though, this is actually step 2. Step 1 is the necessary prerequisite: creating a user profile. Connections aren’t established between people; they’re between virtual representations, created — performed, even — by users themselves. This sounds a lot more complex than it is. Anyone in the generation that uses social-networking sites most heavily (in which I include both myself and Conor) has been bombarded for years by PSAs about identity theft and cyber-molestation, not to mention Gawker-ready anecdotes of the “incriminating Facebook photo sinks would-be banker’s job application” variety. Is it any surprise that we’ve become compulsive about the face we present to the world?

The fundamental insight of Facebook was in discovering that most people don’t want to perform for an infinite audience. As with MySpace, any Facebook user can add any other user as a friend; the difference is who can see that user’s profile, and how much. The network-based setup promoted a certain set of norms, which, despite a massive influx of users in recent years and vastly more sophisticated privacy options, most users continue to follow: people outside your networks shouldn’t be able to see your profile; friends should be able to see most or all of your profile; you shouldn’t add anyone you haven’t met in real life; etc. These norms help users define the audiences to whom their profiles are designed to appeal.

Five years ago, a site that toggled easily between online and real-world relationships was a safe space in a Web that still seemed anonymous and impersonal, yet terrifyingly omnipotent, to “average people.” But the Internet of 2009 isn’t identical to the Internet of 2004. As spurious as much of the “Web 2.0” hype might be (and yes, of course that Time magazine cover was absurd), the fact of the matter is that the act of presenting yourself online and generating content is now part of the typical user experience. So the challenge has shifted from Step 1, the user’s node in the network, to Step 3 — in particular, how those connections might be used to filter the vast amount of content everyone’s producing.

Facebook has tried to solve this by filling its News Feed with notifications from third-party apps, but this is adding more content, not filtering what’s there. Meanwhile, the “hot” tools — Twitter, Tumblr, even the “share” function on Google Reader — leverage connections to allow users to flag interesting content for each other. Just like the norms of Facebook profiles, which encouraged people to use the site as an interface between the Internet and the real world, Twitter has unofficial codes of etiquette that encourage users to share links with each other and engage each other in direct conversation. It’s an interface between an individual’s personal network and the Internet itself: other Twitter users, sites, blogs and countless other sources of content. It’s as much an aggregator as a social-networking site as it’s commonly understood.

The nature of Twitter doesn’t directly address Conor’s concern for separating “‘Tweets’ one actually wants to get from ‘Tweets’ one doesn’t.” What it’s done is promote norms that have made that easier. For one thing, Twitter etiquette doesn’t compel users to reciprocate when people follow them, which MySpace does — and which Facebook requires for “friendship” to be established. This makes it harder for a user to gain “prestige” merely by establishing connections — he has to generate content interesting enough for people to want to follow him.

For another, I’ve noticed that “unfollowing” someone on Twitter is much less stigmatized than “unfriending” them on Facebook. A Facebook friendship is codifying a connection, the culminating act of the site. As such, most Facebook profiles are designed as much for people who aren’t friends as people who are: nonfriends see a user’s profile first, while friends see her wall. Following someone on Twitter, on the other hand, is tantamount to subscribing to their content: an introductory step. Unfollowing, by extension, isn’t a broken friendship, merely a cancelled subscription. So a user can continue to refine both his intake streams and his audience, which is defined by nothing more than the people who care about what he has to say.

This makes Twitter often feel more intimate than Facebook, in fact — the size of the audience may vary, but it’s always a friendly one. Maybe it goes a little too far in this respect, preventing followers from pushing back against users who mix interesting and uninteresting content. But as the site continues to develop, I wouldn’t be surprised if users deliberately changed the way they used Twitter to implement norms that favored consistently compelling Tweets. This is the other thing it’s useful to remember when talking about this kind of site: it’s absurd to talk about how the site “is used” as if individual users have no agency. The question is how individuals use the site, and which kinds of use the company running the site facilitates.