November 17th, 2008
One thing that’s been fascinating to watch over past few months has been the flare-up of brief discussions among both friends and strangers related to particular pieces of information posted on Facebook — usually a status update, but sometimes an event or profile wall comment. Are these just transient events, or are we watching the creation of new and potentially enduring social spaces?
For instance, a few days before the election, a group of people who know me but who were mostly strangers to each other argued Obama v. McCain passionately but politely through my Facebook profile — I’d linked from my status update to an e.politics piece on styles of Republican negativity, which sparked a guy I kinda knew in college to put up a contrary comment. Next thing you know, one of my D.C. bar buddies jumps in to defend Obama, followed by another college acquaintance, a second D.C. bar buddy who doesn’t know the first one as far as I know and finally this dude I went to summer camp with about 25 years ago. In the end, this one status update sparked a 22-comment-long discussion thread involving six people (including me), none of whom except the two other Rice alumni were connected in any way other than through having known me at some point.
Thinking about it, the closest analogy I can come up with is a discussion at a party — again, strangers brought together through a social connection, participating in a conversation by choice in a public place. And just as in the real world, the end result may be NEW social connections, since people who “meet” through this discussion thread can start their own side conversations, as can people who read the comments but don’t add their own in public. But they can also fade away without an echo, other than in the Facebook archives.
The internet of course abounds with spaces like these — I can remember being absolutely fascinated years ago by a Geocities site based around the WW2 command simulation game Panzer General II, as strangers around the world helped each other build maps, scenarios and campaigns (“anybody know the order of the 2nd Soviet Guards Tank Corps during the third day of the Battle of Kursk?”) and then compared notes after playing them. Squabbles and full-on flame wars erupted over matters trivial to outsiders, just as in any online discussion group, and members came and went according to their level of interest.
That last word is critical: “interest.” The internet naturally fragments into interest niches, with people brought together based on things that they care about, down to an almost infinite level of specificity — sports people read sports sites, football fans read football sites, Eagles fans read Eagles sites, Donovan McNabb fans read Donovan McNabb sites…. Discussions among strangers are NORMAL on the internet, whether on blogs, in the comments section of major media sites or on listservs.
But the social network-inspired conversations I’ve been seeing feel somewhat distinct because they’re based on a SOCIAL connection rather than an INTEREST-related connection. Does that make them more enduring? Almost certainly not, since they’re generally based around moments that are transient themselves — status updates, events, posted links and the like — while connections based on interest are more likely to be repeated (if you’re into something, you’re into it).
But the social connection may help steer Facebook conversations toward civility, just as debates at a party are more likely to be polite than anonymous messages scrawled on a wall. On the ‘net, the less anonymous people are, the more they have to take responsibility for their words, and the more likely they are to choose them carefully. On Facebook, you can’t help but be aware of being surrounded by a web of shared social connections — and who really wants to be the jerk mouthing off at the bar while all your friend’s friends are watching.