Asymmetry: The problem with social networks

Clive Thompson writes on his blog (and in Wired) about how social networks such as Twitter become dysfunctional when the network gets too big and, as a result, too lopsided:

When you go from having a few hundred Twitter followers to ten thousand, something unexpected happens: Social networking starts to break down.

This is a point I’ve been making for a long time, not really from personal experience but from observing various friends who have very high follower counts. Clive goes on:

Technically speaking, online social-networking tools ought to be great at fostering these sorts of clusters. Blogs and Twitter and Facebook are, as Internet guru John Battelle puts it, “conversational media.” But when the conversation gets big enough, it shuts down. Not only do audiences feel estranged, the participants also start self-censoring. People who suddenly find themselves with really huge audiences often start writing more cautiously, like politicians.

When it comes to microfame, the worst place to be is in the middle of the pack. If someone’s got 1.5 million followers on Twitter, they’re one of the rare and straightforwardly famous folks online. Like a digital Oprah, they enjoy a massive audience that might even generate revenue. There’s no pretense of intimacy with their audience, so there’s no conversation to spoil. Meanwhile, if you have a hundred followers, you’re clearly just chatting with pals. It’s the middle ground — when someone amasses, say, tens of thousands of followers — where the social contract of social media becomes murky.

‘Microfame’ is a term I first heard used by Danny O’Brien at OpenTech 2005 in his keynote, Living Life in Public (available from the UKUUG site, embed coming soon!).

This was in an era before Twitter, before Facebook opened up to the world, when most people became ‘internet famous’ through their blog. But becoming ‘microfamous’ puts people at the centre of an uncomfortable social dynamic. As Danny said:

There are people out there who know something about you, but you have relatively little knowledge about them.

This becomes problematic because the microfamous rarely have the resources that the truly famous do to protect their privacy. But more importantly, it creates a disconnect, an unbalanced power relationship that we don’t really have the societal experience to understand. Knowledge is, after all, power.

This relationship asymmetry has been amplified by Twitter especially. Twitter is a very good example of how poorly we understand these dynamics and how the tools that we create and use are not designed to take the microfame effect into account.

It’s appears that there are a number of stages in the growing asymmetry of one’s Twitter network. The first is when the majority of @ messages you receive come from people you don’t know. That happened a while ago for me, probably at around the 2000 follower mark. Then @ messages from people you know get swamped by @ messages from people you don’t. Finally, the @ messages to every last thing you say flood in, killing your ability to have a conversation with anyone and making it impossible to build connections.

I’ve not experienced those last two stages, but I’ve seen it happen to friends and it’s not pretty. It puts them in a difficult position where the people @ing them feel put out that they don’t get a personal reply, but the amount of time it would take to read and respond to every @ makes it extremely difficult.

This is the eternal problem of social networks. In order to be financially successful, social networks need to grow large. But in order to be socially successful, they need to stay small. Seemic was a good example of this. In the early days, it felt like a small, intimate community where one could upload a video and have a real conversation around it. As it grew, the conversational seeds, those first video uploads that broached a new subject, became so numerous that it was hard to find one’s own, let alone the responses to it. In fact, it became so time-consuming to participate I had to give up.

With Twitter, the problem is just as much about the tools as the network itself. Twitter clients tend to be designed for people with small networks and don’t deal well with asymmetry. Most tools, for example, have two ways to show @ messages: you can see @s from your friends in your timeline or see all @ messages lumped together, regardless of who they came from.

I’ve yet to see a tool (although clearly I’ve not used all Twitter clients) that gave you a third choice, to see all @s from people that you follow in a separate view. That would at least allow the Twitterer to focus on maintaining relationships with the people they have chosen to follow, whilst facilitating a dip into the faster-flowing stream of @s from the rest of Twitter whenever they wanted.

It might be tempting to dismiss this problem as one that only the cool kids suffer from, but that would be to miss the wider point. In some situations, creating small trusted networks with variably-permeable boundaries is key to creating a sustainable broader network. This is particularly of collaboration spaces, where you want to invite only key people to work with you, although that group may change from project to project.

(Now, you may think that Facebook achieves this, but it doesn’t. It gives one the sense of being in a small sub-community without actually delivering on that promise – the boundaries are far too porous, and their porosity is not entirely under your control.)

We need to do a lot more thinking about this problem. It’s relevant in a whole host of context – hot-desking enterprise, for example – and most social networks focus on creating broad opportunities for interaction without considering how to let people create natural boundaries where they feel comfortable.

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