August 19, 2017

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Sociological Networking

Sociological Networking

Nearly every discussion on the rising popularity of social networking sites will contain the following mantra: “social just means people” or “conversation.” It is an attempt to simplify the complex system of human interaction and ascribe the popularity of the services to events and actions that seem “natural” and inherent to the human condition. When we’re at parties, we talk to each other, so why wouldn’t we do the same thing in the online world?
We would, but only if the context of the online community and the reason for the virtual get-together is as clearly defined as the physical counterpart. A party is only a party when there’s a purpose. Put a group of strangers in a room without a purpose or shared experience, and the interaction will be vastly different from a Super Bowl party. The participants may form bonds, but they will likely be around the shared thought: “What are we doing here?”
I recently stumbled upon (literally, with StumbleUpon) an article from Jyri Zengestrom entitled “[Why some social network services work and others don’t — Or: the case for object-centered sociality](http://www.zengestrom.com/blog/2005/04/why_some_social.html)”, which explained how we connect, the context in which the connections exists, and the nature of the connections. He explains:
> the term ‘social networking’ makes little sense if we leave out the objects that mediate the ties between people. Think about the object as the reason why people affiliate with each specific other and not just anyone. For instance, if the object is a job, it will connect me to one set of people whereas a date will link me to a radically different group. This is common sense but unfortunately it’s not included in the image of the network diagram that most people imagine when they hear the term ‘social network.’ The fallacy is to think that social networks are just made up of people. They’re not; social networks consist of people who are connected by a shared object.
Zengestrom then gives examples of popular social services and the object around which participants gather:
• Flickr- Photos as the objects of sociality
• del.icio.us- URLs
• Upcoming.org- Events
• LinkedIn- Jobs
• Dogster- Fido
• Microblogs- Short, reply-inducing assertions
Even Facebook started as a network centered on the college experience.
To take the object-centered sociality model one step farther, we need only take a look at Actor-Network Theory, which maps relationships that are:
> simultaneously material (between things) and ‘semiotic’ (between concepts). It assumes that many relations are both material and ‘semiotic’ (e.g. the interactions in a bank involve both people and their ideas, and technologies. Together these form a single network).
ANT tries to explain how material-semiotic networks come together to act as a whole (e.g. a bank is both a network and an actor that hangs together, and for certain purposes acts as a single entity). As a part of this it may look at explicit strategies for relating different elements together into a network so that they form an apparently coherent whole.
You’re now saying “Okay, I get it. But so what?” I’m glad I pretended you asked. Looking at the current social networks through the lens of the object-centered model and ANT can:
• Help to predict the success or failure of a network
• Identify market niches that are currently underserved (or potentially ignored)
• Give an understanding of the organic nature and growth process involved in developing and scaling social communities
With that, I’ll just give a brief peek into some of the core concepts of ANT, and how they relate to the establishment of a community online.
1. **Problemisation** – What’s the problem that needs to be solved, and who is going to be involved? In the case of Flickr, the problem was that people did not have an easy way to share their photos.
2. **Interessement**- Getting the participants interested and negotiating the terms of their involvement. Again, using the Flickr example, the promise was simple: anyone can have a free account as long as they completed registration. Users would get a limited amount of storage space, if they needed more, they could pay for an account. Users can also comment on other photographs, make friends, create groups, etc.
3. **Enrolment** – The actors accept the terms and roles defined in step 2.
4. **Mobilisation of Allies** – If the promise of Interessement sufficiently addresses the problem introduced in problemisation, mobilisation becomes the perpetuation and process of spreading the community.
The process of creating and scaling an online community or social network is much more than allowing people to talk. Social is not just people, and social is not just conversation. Instead, any successful network is a complex combination of human and technological factors with shared connections, common interests, clear context and an understanding of the costs and benefits of participation.
In other words, this stuff is complicated.
*Nathan Burke is the Web Community Evangelist for Boston area tech startup [matchmine](http://matchmine.com). He also co-authors [Blogstring.com](http://blogstring.com).*

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