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Granularization of structures influencing interaction

Designers, programmers, and entrepreneurs face a significant challenge in creating software: how do you balance the social aspects of the tool with the object/content? Facebook started out social – the content pieces were added later, first and foremost, interaction with people (hence *Face*book) was and still is the central task. In Facebook, content exists to add value to the social. Google selected content as its critical focus – “organizing the world’s information”. Over the last few years, Google has paid more attention to the social dimension of information (social circle, buzz). In contrast with Facebook, Google uses the social to add value to content. Tools like Cloudworks and Elgg walk a fine line between “content” and “social” – at times exhibiting attributes of Facebook…and other times, more like Google.

Groups and networks have been defining structures influencing interactions online. We argue about this in CCK course every year. Those structures of social organizations, however, are moving into the background as interaction is granularized to smaller units against the backdrop of groups and networks. I interact with a reasonably large network on Twitter. I read a fraction of the total tweets and I likely interact regularly with about 2% the people I follow. Where I do interact, it’s on a fairly casual sequence of topics – perhaps the budget of the US (though I’m not a citizen), or volcanic activity in Iceland (though I’m not impacted by it), crime in Winnipeg (though I don’t live there), and so on. My interaction in these areas has a wider range than what would be suggested by a community of practice…and yet is more fragmented (but social) than would be suggested by a network. The network and community exist in the background, but they aren’t the key focus of my actions or my engagement with others.

The cohesion or sociality that hold an online group together are far less explicit than I recall even a decade ago (Yahoo groups, or prior to that, online bulletin boards, the Well (I never joined)). The enabling structure of engagement is no longer the group or network. Instead, it’s a tweet, or a single picture. The concept of granularization of interaction, against the back drop of groups and networks, became quite transparent today when I was playing around with Quora. Quora is a Q & A service that includes elements of network and group interactions (profiles, topics of interest). However, the ability to shift from one topic to another seamlessly is a bit startling, even online. Social structures often indicate or at least shape some degree of content cohesion. In Quora, however, I encounter a range of topics from Greek debt, to online education, to politics, to peace.

The registration process makes it quite simple to pull in contacts from Twitter/Facebook/Gmail. (this topic of networks transference from one system to another is a fascinating concept that deserves more discussion – how much overlap exists between your blog/twitter/facebook/flickr/delicious networks? I’m surprised that I haven’t seen more on this topic). Google altered my relationship with content. Facebook/Twitter altered my relationships with others. The object of Quora is neither the content nor the social. The object is much more ephemeral – it is a feeling of contributing or of voicing “not knowing” or of jointly searching with people I don’t really know.

One Comment

  1. Dear George,

    The thin line between “content” and “social” corresponds quite remarkably with the division in Interest Driven participation and Friendship-Driven Participation that was described by Mimi Ito (and others) in her Digital Youth research project:
    “Friendship driven participation leads to the most common kinds of practices that we see in young people’s online behaviors today. (…) This is the relatively unstructured, often impromptu ambient social activity where so much of youth socialization happens.”
    Interest driven participation is (…) is more about the lives of the geeks, freaks, musicians, and dorks – the kids who are identified as smart or creative, the kids we see at the margins of teen social worlds. (…) its about expanding an individual’s social circle based on interests.”

    It also resembles the way Ulises Mejias differentiates networks and communities: “(…) I wish to differentiate between these two concepts in terms of how social agency is distributed between humans and machines. (…)
    - A network is a social reality comprised of humans and objects where humans delegate social agency mostly to objects.
    - A community is a social reality comprised of humans and objects where humans retain most of the social agency.”

    The social cohesion (either friendship or object centered sociality, maybe both) is probably not always congruent to a degree of content cohesion, i.e. confined to certain topics, themes or subjects. The ephemeral character of Quora you describe somehow reminds me of the concept of ‘ad hoc transient communities’ that is being studied at the Open University in the Netherlands.
    “These communities serve a particular goal, exist for a limited period of time and operate according to specific social exchange policies that foster knowledge sharing.”

    Tuesday, September 21, 2010 at 3:28 pm | Permalink