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November 19, 2003
Pen and Inkster
Imagine doing Friendster in person. You go up to the people you know and ask if they want to sign up as your friend. None of them say no, of course, unless you are badly deluded about who your friends are. Then you see someone who is a friend of a friend. You go up to him and strike up a conversation based on nothing except the fact that you both know the same person. You get to state what your interests are and read the other person's list. "So, you like ice skating, Victorian embroidery and the Pats." Pretty grim scenario. Social networks - both artificial ones like Friendster and real ones like the people you cc - often depend on the connective thread being vanishingly thin.
So, last night we had 15 strangers over to our house to write letters to undecided Democratic voters in Iowa explaining why we think they ought to consider supporting Dean. This is a very weird exercise, like doing Friendster not in person but via personal, handwritten letters, and without the mediation of a shared friend. The only personal relationship vaguer and more artificial than this is, perhaps, the penpal: "So, you live in Greece! I live in Boston. Do you like souvlaki? I do, but not as much as pizza. Do you eat pizza in Greece...etc." At least we had something to talk about.
It's weird (yet slightly thrilling). You're connecting without context. How old is the recipient? Political position? Socio-economic class? Favorite Beatle? You've got nothing. Sometimes you can't even tell from the person's name what sex s/he is. I wouldn't have been shocked if this campaign had been received as intrusive or offensive, yet, there's some evidence that it works: Dean's polls numbers have gone up after mailings like these. Could be a coincidence. Might not be.
So, what do we learn from this? A few things, I think:
First, it's a reminder of how weird it is to set out to build a human connection on purpose rather than have it emerge from a context rich with gestures as small as an eye glance. That's as true of Friendster as it is of penpals.
Second, the thinness of the connection permits us to take social liberties that in a real-world, embodied meeting we would not.
Third, if you want to stop spam, make the spammers write each of their damn messages in longhand. Oy, my aching digits!
Sorry to be writing about the Dean campaign again, but I've been spending more time on that than I have on social software in the past few weeks.
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