Ushering In a New Phase of Social Networks


The term social was big in 2009. Whether it was social networks, social media or social context — this six-letter word had quite a year. It seems that public and academic discourse is shifting away from the lone, rational actor to the social being making decisions in consort with her or his peers. Whether it is offline, online, or some type of hybrid environment, social interaction has now widely been given its due by decision makers, researchers and the public. We see this in the rapid adoption of tools like Facebook, Twitter, and custom networks on Ning in business, health, and education sectors and by the use of video or photo sharing, citizen journalism, and reader/viewer comments into mainstream media. Even academic health journals from the traditional publishers like the New England Journal of Medicine with its use of podcasts and reader comments to the new Open Medicine, which has explored the use of wikis, are incorporating some social aspects to their online content.

It seems that mainstream institutions have finally picked up what social psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists have always known: we are social beings and we’re more productive, creative and happier when we have opportunities to engage with others.

Lest we pat ourselves on the back for finally ‘getting it’, there is a long way to go before these tools, technologies and systems of working truly produce the dividends that we are looking for in public policy, health care, science and innovation.

What is missing is emotion.

In their new book, Connected, social network researchers Nick Christakis and James Fowler describe the importance of emotion in their exploration of the evolution of social activity:

The development of emotion in humans, the display of emotions, and the ability to read the emotions of others helped coordinate group activity by three means: facilitating interpersonal bonds, synchronizing behavior, and communicating information (p.36)

Our social media and networks have done a reasonable job of the third part (communicating information), but a relatively poor job at the first two. Yes, we can meet people online through social tools or dating sites, but my 15 years of work with online communities has shown me that these technologies are good at facilitating introductions and sustaining relationships over time, but they are lousy at growing relationships. Why? Consider the volume of emotional information that is exchanged when you meet someone and interact with them for even a short period of time. Whether it is a look, a smell, a touch, the tonality of the voice or some combination of them all, the sensory experience that comes from a personal encounter is something that can’t be replicated in our current tools for nurturing social networks.

The rise in the use of video, which provides many more streams of information than text, is one of the hopeful points for social networking. Facebook’s addition of video to its service and the already growing use of Twitter-like tools such as 12 Seconds and Seesmic video suggest that we could be seeing a new style of networking in 2010. Apple’s new iPod Nano also features simple video capture and upload tools. And as video grows in use, so too will the complexity of the messages that are communicated and the ability to express and share emotion within online and mobile networks. Once that happens, we may start to see social networking and social media live up to its full potential.

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