What if our social networks brought together birds of a feather?


For this Sunday’s (sporadic) #DayoftheThinker, I am going to talk about Danah Boyd, a specialist in social networks from Microsoft.  I learned about Danah due to our mutual participation in the anthology TIC 2025, les grandes mutations (Translation: TIC 2025: Mutations).  Publised by EPITA, a prestigious French engineering school, the TIC has essays and interviews from key players in the digital world.  As far as I know, this anthology is only available in French :(.

Danah, as you will see in the video above, is a fast-talker who is full of fascinating ideas.  What she has to say about social networks is fascinating and full of good sense, even if her inights seem to go against the grain.  Case in point: according to Boyd, the idea that social networks connect us to people we do not know, who are different from us, is not at all true.

A PhD from Berkeley’s iSchool (School of Information), Danah Boyd currently works as a “social media researcher” at Microsoft Research New England and is a “fellow researcher” at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.  As of 2003, her research on the behavior of young people on social networks has been featured in Wired, and the New York Times.  You can also check out her site, her blog or follow her on twitter at @zephoria.

In the chapter titled “Life in the Network” of the collective anthology TIC 2025: mutations, Danah Boyd reminds us why we love digital sociability: it allows us to keep in touch with those we already know (friends and family), it allows us to get close to people who share common interests and it reinforces friendships established in preexisting networks.  In short, there is very little place on social networks for unknowns or those who are truly different.  Even if the main theme of online social life is in the encounter, it is most likely an encounter with someone who “looks” like us.  I guess this is the digital version of the saying “Birds of a feather flock together”: on Internet, we construct neighborhoods that attract similar types.  According to Boyd, this trend will most likely remain.  In her opinion, social networks will begin to permeate other services, in the same way that search engines have.  What’s more, the over exposure that social networks can create, is not necessarily an enemy of intimacy: “The more Angelina Jolie convinces us that the press is constantly following her, the less interest the public will take in her personal life.  Thus, she can keep her private life more private.” (this quotation is translated from French) From her perspective, social networks won’t be giving each person their “15 minutes of fame”, but rather will make everyone famous for some 15 people.  On Facebook, for example, the network isn’t all that open, and one can only truly communicate (by chatting, emailing and meeting up) with a relatively small number of “friends”.

From this perspective, we have less to worry about when it comes to leaving potentially embarrassing digital traces: in theory, they would be shared only with people like us, who know us.  Instead of creating clones, “the web reflects and expands a preexisting social dynamic”: one where like seeks like.

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