Conducting the social network cacophony

24 juni 2011 | Opinie – When talking outweighs listening, web communities will turn into low forms of coexistence where triviality fills a hunger for entertainment.

Remember how we used to communicate long distance? Back in the old days we took a pen and a piece of paper, sat down and thought thoroughly about the messages that we were sharing. Communication was time consuming and there was only one shot to get it right. Later, the telephone added tone to the words and enabled real time interaction. Communication sped up. Then came the Internet. At first there was emailing, then blogging, and now we are liking and tweeting. We are flooding each other with words. Everybody is talking, but who is listening?

This is not a plea to go back to the old days. On the contrary, these new platforms add to the social cohesion of our communities. They are a welcome addition. And that is what they are: an addition, a new way to do the same. But that is not how we are using them. We are hunting for connections, friends and exhibiting our lives to strangers and people we think we know. Our online relationships extend beyond our real ones. There is a desire to be heard and to be connected. The talking outweighing the listening. And herein lies the tragic: real contact requires both.

It is worrisome that especially the young are drawn to the social networks. There is a risk that social skills are not being developed for use in the real, everyday, world or of social alienation, where friends are predominantly virtual. Additionally, content on the Internet becomes a leading source of information, where teaching materials are substituted for the average opinion of the online community. For businesses and institutions the threat comes from within. Classified information might easily be leaked and employees’ opinions damage the carefully built image of an organisation.

Online communities are developing into ‘low’ forms of coexistence. They would bloat 19th century address books with trivialities that only people we are intimate with care about – those close to you as opposed to online ‘strangers’. Shared opinions and activities become a form of entertainment, social voyeurism without profound interaction. And as we are hoarding connections and friends our online ‘walls’ will collapse under the avalanche of content. If we want to keep the benefits of social networking – low threshold to contact, staying in touch passively – we must treat its downsides.

Firstly, there is a need for selection. Suppose a person would only have one fixed-length message available per day, what would he or she communicate? Content should be evaluated and reviewed so that only the ‘good’ and the relevant stand out. A newspaper has editorial staff to do this, a social network cannot possibly review the content of all its sources. Therefore algorithms will have to do the job. And it is not the content that is under review, but the publisher.

For example, friends could anonymously rate the content of each posting with a ‘interesting’ or ‘not interesting’. All scores, including the no-scores, would be weighed against number of friends, past activity and so on. This would then determine the publisher’s total number of available posts per day. It could distinguish between friends who frequently comment or recommend and those who do not. The former would see all the posts, the latter only the maximum number of available posts per day. Many customisations are possible.

Secondly, we could extent this mechanism further to include disconnecting with friends. Friends that do not care to express interest in our messages are not considered to be friends in the real world. So why would you keep them in your online inner circle? Proposals to continue the friendship or connection with inactive contacts could be sent to both periodically, where both need to reaccept in order for the friendship to remain. This is probably not very popular, considering the commercial potential of network depth.

Thirdly, minors can only create accounts that are linked to the profile of one of the parents. The parent has full control over their child’s profile and communication. Abuse is expected to be limited, as profiles are most valuable when they contain accurate information. And when it occurs, a child’s profile will appear in the ‘people you may know’ section. When the child becomes major of age the account will be automatically disconnected from the parent’s.

Our online social networks are out of touch with the real world. It is a place where we inflate images of ourselves and of our real world relationships. It allows for unidirectional communication, where the talking outweighs the listening. A real world relationship would not survive this imbalance. If we want the social networks to survive we have to re-establish communication by removing the irrelevant and by appreciating the good. The same holds true for the connections we maintain. Without this, the noise created by social networks will eventually cancel itself out.