Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Purposeful Connections

I was thinking this weekend about connections and relationship symmetries and how a few lines of policy (code) can either enhance or distort our ability to make purposeful connections. While so many Residents of Second Life worry about the "Facebookification" of the world, consider this my simple plea to consider some healthy "twitterification".

I've always described the distinction between Facebook and twitter on the basis of the respective relationship model symmetries - Facebook is symmetrical, while twitter is asymmetrical. This seemingly small distinction, as it turns out, changes the nature of the two platforms in a meaningful way. Facebook becomes about who you know, and twitter is about what you know (or want to know). Facebook is primarily a social network, while twitter is an information network. 

This isn't to say that these are mutually exclusive - certainly some people use twitter as a social network, and others use Facebook for information - but rather that the basic structure of the relationship model does shape predominant behavior, and stimulates innovative work-arounds by people who are unhappy with the imposed constraints. 

That social graph thing is plural, Zuck
Despite Mark Zuckerberg claiming that "Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity" many people have more than one Facebook account so that they can manage their social graphs (plural, not singular) in ways that are meaningful to them - whether it be personal versus professional, corporeal versus avatarian, or any other perfectly valid distinction. 

I may be perfectly happy to friend you in the context of our acquaintance and shared interests such as a co-Resident of Second Life, but that doesn't mean I want to share the pictures of my kids, my cat, or my vacation with you. People set up Facebook accounts to play social games without exposing their actual friends and family to game play, updates, etc. while still allowing them to connect with other social gamers.

But Facebook wants you to have a single named identity and place in the world, as prescribed by your birth certificate, your location, your employer, your education, etc. People have learned - or are learning - that those old containers are no longer necessary or sufficient for the types of connections they want to make. That's not having a lack of integrity, that's being human. 

The single identity and uni-dimension friend or not friend Facebook model is, as so eloquently described by Lev Grossman, the social equivalent of liver failure.
Facebook runs on a very stiff, crude model of what people are like. It herds everybody — friends, co-workers, romantic partners, that guy who lived on your block but moved away after fifth grade — into the same big room. It smooshes together your work self and your home self, your past self and your present self, into a single generic extruded product. It suspends the natural process by which old friends fall away over time, allowing them to build up endlessly, producing the social equivalent of liver failure. On Facebook, there is one kind of relationship: friendship, and you have it with everybody. You're friends with your spouse, and you're friends with your plumber. SOURCE: Time.com
Purposeful, albeit asymmetrical, connections
In contrast, while the twitter asymmetric relationship model is still quiet primitive, it does afford more profound ways to easily connect with not just people we know, but ideas and information from people we don't know but sit at some intersection of our social and information graphs. 

Twitter delivers a unique blend of what I called structured serendipity - a place safe enough to be yourself with those like you while still discovering that and those which you might otherwise have missed had you had made those loosely knit and purposeful connections

This is a core tenant of the platform. Speaking at CES, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo tells Kara Swisher:
We want to instantly connect people everywhere to what’s most important to themSee, that’s a good statement. We’re not just a social network that’s connecting people. It’s connecting for a purpose
Purposely connecting to those people and things that are important to you - instantly.  I love that.

Those words to me sound like a good alchemy for renewing Second Life. However, the Second Life relationship model feels strangely symmetrical, sort of like Facebook, and at what cost? A few come to my mind - unwieldy friends lists, limited scale groups (25 or 40, still too small) and unreliable and inflexible group communications.

What if relationships in Second Life were asymmetrical? What if I could choose to tell people I was at a live music performance, and instead of spamming my friends or enduring a group message failure, it would go out to people who followed me?  

I follow all kinds of people who are Second Life Residents outside of Second Life because they share interesting things - events, places, ideas - not because we are "friends" but because something in our collective graphs overlap. Why can't this be part of the Second Life experience instead of some disjointed flickr, twitter, Facebook, FriendFeed, tumblr, posterous, etc. mess?

Allowing people to publish and subscribe to social transactions in world is a good way to stimulate interest and interaction and would go a long way to answering the "What is there to do here?" question that has been asked since the dawn of the grid, by newbies and oldbies alike.

Going into the year of connectedness, Second Life could use a social detox - a healthy overhaul of all things that connect people to people as well as to places, events and things. Maybe the place to start is reconsidering the relationship model, delivering chances for structured serendipity and refocusing on a mission of making purposeful connections.


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