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Think Big. Move Fast.

Social Networks are widely accepted to be the latest evolution of online communications, tracing a line back through instant messaging, webmail, chat rooms and bulletin boards. Now that we’ve had a little more time and perspective on how they are used, we’re starting to see a few differences between how social networks are used for online communication and previous forms of online communication. I can think of three primary differences:

Stages for Performance.

As danah boyd has noted before, the public nature of many social network communications leads to performance aspects to communication. Users are simultaneously communicating with not just the recipient, but anyone else who happens to stumble across the recipient’s profile. An example I gave in a previous post is a helpful illustration:

Suppose it’s your birthday, and I know it. If I send you an email wishing you “Happy Birthday” then you’re happy that I remembered. This communication is part of the social lubricant on which relationships are built.

But supposed that I post “Happy Birthday” to your Facebook Wall instead. Then not only do you know that I remembered, but ALL OF YOUR FRIENDS know that I remembered as well. They may find out from the feed, or by visiting your page, but they will know that I’m a good enough friend of yours that I know when is your birthday. That is the performance element of the communication.

Lighter Weight Communications

Historically, an important part of communicating with someone is having something to say. Emails are not sent blank, calls are not spent silently. But as the quantity of one’s relationships increases over Dunbar’s number, it becomes impossible to maintain the full overhead of communication with each person. Put simply, for some of your weaker ties, you just don’t have the time to think of something original to say to each one of them. But you still want to maintain some “heartbeat” to the relationship with an occasional ping.

People have found lots of solutions to this problem. One is the Holiday card, often with an annual update letter enclosed. Another is the non verbal communication often seen between coworkers in an office or competitors at a conference. Smiles, nods, back slaps, high fives as you pass each other in the corridor are enough to keep a relationship acknowledged without having to stop and talk each time. A third is the chain email. Whether forwarding inspirational passages, funny videos or jokes, chain emails let people keep in touch with their friends without having to spend a lot of time thinking about what to say.

These lightweight communications are native to social networks. Whether they be exchanging pokes on Facebook or pasting a glittering “thanks for the add” .jpg into a Myspace comment, “content free” communications abound. The meta message is clear though “I’m thinking of you”, and that is often enough of a ping to keep the connection open. Many of the Facebook and Bebo apps fulfill exactly this lightweight communication function, including Hug Me, Zombies and Scrabulous. Many of the social games on facebook wrap this lightweight communication around a casual game.

Context for communications

Facebook’s innovation in the feed is now being widely imitated by the other social networks, and with good reason. As I mentioned earlier, two of the challenges of having a large number of relationships are (i) keeping on top of them all and (ii) being able to communicate often enough to keep the relationships alive. The Feed dramatically simplifies this process, especially when combined with Facebook’s birthday notification and the full status updates list. All three features provide triggers for communications with friends, whether commenting on their pictures, posting witty comments to their wall about what they are doing or wishing them a happy birthday. Facebook and other social networks are helping prompt more communications between their users by helping to surface topics for communication.

Yahoo, Google, AOL and Microsoft are all rumored to be revamping their communications products; it will be interesting to see if how they start to incorporate some of these social network native features into their email and messaging products.