It’s better in the flesh?

by danhon

Zoe Williams has a piece up on comment is free entitled It’s better in the flesh with the strapline:

Social networking sites don’t foster meaningful communication. They are a complete waste of time.

The gist of the article, given that Williams is, in her own admission “a Luddite who claimed for ages that mobile phones would never catch on because people always like to know where the person they’re calling is,” is that:

Meaningful communities are still small in scale, built on time, effort and contact. Gangs of 200 people saying hello to each other are just so much landscape.

which seems to be missing the point somewhat.

Just because the most obvious behaviour of social networking applications like Facebook and MySpace are a collecting mechanic, that doesn’t mean that that’s what those sites are about. In fact, it’s probably one of the reasons why Facebook is accelerating ahead of MySpace, never mind the hammering that everyone thinks Facebook is giving MySpace. Facebook, with its new platform, is slightly less about the collecting mechanic and instead more about allowing small pockets of community to develop.

I don’t necessarily expect Williams to know about maximum group size, to know about social anthropology – her piece, after all, is a comment op/ed piece, but it disappoints me that it’s a comment op/ed piece that misses the point.

I’ll take the example of Facebook (I’m going to ignore MySpace, as it’s a heinous crime against humanity, and that’s just speaking about the design that, yes, the useres choose for themselves in their own self-expression). The new apps allow you to discover smaller pockets of community, for example, everyone who likes the same movie as you. You’re not, and won’t, connect, on a genuine level to which Wiliams seems to want, with 200 people at the same time. You just don’t have the time, or, some argue, the neural capacity, to maintain those relationships in any meaningful way other than, as Williams says, saying “Hello” to them every so often.

Instead, what these social networks allow you to do are to find smaller groups of people with whom you do share genuine interests. I wonder how much of what Williams rails against has to do with the lack of fine granularity in social web apps where you can’t distinguish between a true friend and “someone you once met, or read about, but don’t really have any real physical sort of relationships with, where physical means ‘have met in a pub for a drink at some point more than once'”. I suspect that if Williams instead found, say, the stereotypical example of cancer sufferers banding together in Facebook, unified by a common purpose, she’d change her tune somewhat, but her piece instead reads like a reactionary op/ed written by someone who already has pre-conceived opinions. So what then is the utility of her piece, and what does it add to the conversation?

It’s depressing that this is exactly the same sort of argument we’ve had about the internet before: that just because something’s mediated online means that you can’t really form meaningful relationships out of it.

Just tell Mrs danhon that.