is social technology really social?

rhiannon sawyer, a fellow graduate student in sydney, is writing her thesis on friending on myspace. she tells me she has just started conducting interviews with myspace users, and is finding “that everyone has their own definition of friendship on MySpace and that often they don’t actually call it that… Businesses and individuals seem to be the only ones who think of their friends as more than just contacts, artists see their friends as either collaborators or fans and myspace then just becomes a forum for discussion and to come together around a particular interest.”

this is stuff i’d observed before, and it mimics the findings of the survey fono and i did for our livejournal friending paper a few years ago. but something clicked when i read rhiannon’s email. before, i was obsessed the kinds of social consequences result from the design of social software (ie LJ DRAMA) but now i’m realising what’s really fascinating about social software might actually be obfuscated by the use of the “social” descriptor. is social software really social before it is anything else? we all go to the movies together and share an experience with everyone else in the theatre, but does that make it a social experience? do we just use the term social because the technology involves interacting with other people, but really, we’re moving towards something else?

danah boyd and others have written about autistic or socially-inept social software, referring to the fact that social networking sites force users to interact with each other in ways that would seem socially inept in any other situation. for example, forcing binaries on your relationships with others – are we friends, yes or no? in her 2004 piece on the subject, boyd argued that this sort of design was problematic for users (forcing people to act as if they had mental disorders, even!) and needed to be overcome by listening to users and trying to mimic the fluid and multiple way in which people actually interact.

im beginning to think that what we’re doing on these sites isnt really about replicating offline relationships and interactions as the original designers of social networks had in mind. i mean, if thats just what it was, why do we need to do it both online and off? i’m thinking that social networking sites are scratching another itch of ours. i’m not sure what, but i think it has something more to do with communication flows and distribution channels and less with other things we associate with socializing, such as building trust or providing support. think about twitter, for example. one would assume people would use it to say where they are so their friends could join them. but it seems that people are using it more like a microblog, to tell the world what theyre doing for the sake of it, rather than with the purpose of meeting up. think, too, about how much of the literature about social networking is about identity management, construction and articulation, especially for teens on myspace. sure, identity construction is an element of socializing in the conventional sense, but is it the defining element or activity? i’d say no, and i think that indicates that social networks are really about something other than, or beyond, what we understand as social. and i dont think we know what that something is yet.

all this leads me to wonder:

are friending and networking just metaphors we used so we could use an existing and familiar concept to explain this new and unfamiliar way of interacting and communicating?

do we finally understand what it is that we are actually doing on social networks enough now that we can go beyond an old metaphor?

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