embodies two of the weaknesses inherent in artificial social networks: it requires us to be clear and precise. Those are virtues when it comes to invoices and jury verdicts, but they are how real social networks are not
The precision shows up in the digital choices we're given: Is Phil your friend or not? If he is, is he one-star, two-star or three-star sexy? Choices you are not given include: (i) Sort of sexy. (ii) Could be sexy if he dressed better. (iii) If I were a woman, I think I'd find him sort of sexy if I went for that type and if he dressed better. So, exactly how many stars does that work out to?
Ah, but as several commenters
on a previous blog
entry pointed out, Orkut lets us write testimonials precisely to get around the over-precision of the yes-no rating system: We can write what we want and say what we can't say with 1-3 stars.
But, while testimonials need not be precise, they do try to make explicit something important about a relationship. Sometimes, of course, that's exactly what we need to do. And, if the testimonial system is working for you, fine. For some people in some situations it's going to be exactly what they need,
Nevertheless, you can only build a real social network by overcoming
clarity and precision. Groups form by creating messy darkness. A team "bonds" as the relationships among the members become so tangly and ambiguous that the members can no longer sum one another up in a few words, much less by reference to their official roles. A mailing list becomes more than just a distribution channel when, over time, the participants learn enough about one another through the implicit body language of messages that their off-hand descriptions -- "She's a curmudgeon" "He's a total geek" -- feel inadequate. Our most important relationships -- our family, for example -- we can't fathom fully much less explain clearly. Groups become real through ambiguity, messiness, the implicit and the unspoken.
We can be somewhat precise and somewhat explicit about these real relationships, but there's a price to pay: Any clear and explicit description I gave you of my daughter would obscure more than it showed, and would have an effect on my relationship with her if she were to read it here.
Artificial Social Networks like Orkut get it backwards. They are built on explicit and precise declarations of relationship.
Does this mean they're worthless and doomed? Not at all, although I personally am finding Orkut to be all maintenance and no value. Humans are so doggedly social (hmm, something wrong with that sentence!) that we take every instance of proximity as an opportunity for relationship, and we overcome every obstacle to find someone else to care about: A line for tickets becomes a nonce encounter group if the movie is sold out, and even prisoners in solitary will tap on the walls to talk with someone they may never see. (BTW, what exactly is the baud rate for cell-wall tapping?) So, connect millions of us by digital lines that are clear and precise, and we'll figure out some way to overcome the system's limitations and bring it into genuine sociality. Something will emerge. We just can't tell what yet.