If you are like me and you have joined an online social network (OSN) site within the last few years, then this might be a question you find yourself asking from time to time. Indeed this is a question one should ask not only from within an OSN but your physical daily world too, but the difference is that in the world at large you actually get judge for yourself physically.
As human beings we are incredibly sensitive to a wide variety of external sensory input, especially to that of our own species. We have been observing our own behaviour and hard-wiring it into own DNA since before modern humans ever evolved; it is a survival trait to understand the meaning in your own species behaviour. When we physically interact with other people we are actually involved in a highly sophisticated and mostly subconscious flow of information, which is conveyed in hundreds of different ways like posture, smell, clothes, gestures, intonation, and especially the ceaseless subtle movements of our most expressive features; our face and eyes. Whether we realise it or not we do read, analyse and act on this constant stream of information.
So when faced with a profile instead of a person we immediately throw out a good percentage of these hard earned human judgemental abilities. This is not to say we loose all judgement ability but rather it is severely curtailed by a profound lack of information that would be normal in a face to face physical encounter. But in order to properly understand current popular OSN’s like Facebook, My Space and Orkut, it is necessary to go back some hundred years to a man called George Simmel.
Though George Simmel was not the first to theorise about large social structures, he was the first to address it in terms of an actual social network as opposed to a social group. The difference being a social group is normally a set of people drawn tightly together for specific reasons like family, location and work. But a social network is a loose larger set of people that may be a part of different groups but are connected to others above and beyond those groups. We can find the relevance of social networks in the adage “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know that matters”. Through his essays George birthed what would become known a Social Network Analysis (SNA) and lead to the formation of new disciplines like Sociometry, the quantitative study of social relationships.
Where SNA was different and indeed new in its approach was to place more importance on the quantitative statistical relationships and bonds between individuals rather than the individuals themselves. This is kind of like looking at the negative space around a sculpture and between other sculptures in a gallery, rather than the actual individual sculpture, which signified a major paradigm shift in our thinking of social structures. There have been many applications of SNA especially within the work place. The power of the individual worker is governed by the number of people that have to connect to them to get something done. This is all too often in no way the actual job title and appropriate remuneration of that individual’s status within the company, yet they actually have more real power than those above them. Another more documented or popularised application of SNA is the Six Degree’s of Separation (SDS) or small world phenomenon.
In 1967 Dr. Stanley Milgram decided to try and test the actual interconnectedness and social capital within human networks. These experiments were highly publicised due to his earlier work in 1963 on the Behavioural study of Obedience in which most individuals if so ordered and pre-absolved of any wrong doing will kill another unknown individual. Though it must be noted that the SDS experiment had been theorised in 1929, by a Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy in his short story Chains. But Stanley armed with SNA actually proved with his experiments that in general most people are only six people or six degrees away from anyone else in the whole world. Though these experiments came under much contention at the time, in 2001 Duncan Watts through an internet email experiment re-confirmed Stanley’s findings of six degree’s. In contrast to Stanley Milgram’s SDS experiment in 1992 British anthropologist Robin Dunbar decided to take a look just how many relationships an individual human can realistically maintain.
What spurred Robin into action was that there seemed to be a definite relation in non-human primates to the size of their neocortex region of the brain and how many social relationships they could maintain. If this was the case for non-human primates then what about us humans, did we have a limit too? Through various means, studies, research and experiments Robin sought to find if this was the case and came to the prediction that for individual humans that number would be around 150. Through further studies this number seems to hold true in quite a few instances. 150 people was the average size for a Neolithic farming village, the splitting point for Hutterite settlements, the basic unit size for professional Roman armies and then became standard from the 16th century to present day. Today this number of a maximum 150 sustainable social relationships is known as Dunbar’s Number.
Now if we go backwards a bit from Robin to the dawn of the computer age. In 1985 the idea that linked individual computers could form the basis of a new computer aided social interaction was expressed by several people. By 1995 this idea had become a reality but was divided into two mediums. The first was through sites like Classmates.com which emphasised pre-existing real world relationships to build an online network. The second was though sites like SixDegrees.com which emphasised exactly the opposite in line with Milgram’s original experiments and never the twain shall meet. That is until 1999 when people like Jonathan Bishop decided to combine the two into a Friends based network which incorporated the people you already new with the SDS effect, but most of all it was trust based. It is this Trust Base that forms the backbone to all today’s OSN’s.
It works like this; no-one can become your friend or access your information/profile unless you actually let them or have allowed that information to be publicly accessible. Well in theory anyway, because if you take Facebook as an example then Facebook themselves do have access to all the information you have ever uploaded into their network. This can also include information you may have deleted which can be held in storage indefinitely, you gave Facebook/My Space/Orkut etc. the authority to do so by agreeing to their Terms and Conditions of Service. In this Facebook etc. have taken a page from Google who do exactly the same thing, try running Google Web History on yourself for awhile. You might be surprised at the vast amount of information they have collected on you and your activities, and it pays to remember that the web history only shows you what is actually going on all the time. This is what enables Google/Facebook etc. to deliver individually customised advertisements to your computer. So whilst you may choose who to display what to, and it will work for everyone else the service provider will always collect and store this information for their own purposes.
So there we have it the reality behind OSN’s, but even though this is the reality, all it takes is a little bit of caution and understanding to make this new array of social tools work for you rather than against. Make no mistake I am all for OSN’s because essentially I believe that they will work predominantly for the individual users benefit, provided that use is based in a understanding of the technology and it’s larger implications. Which brings us back to the question are they really your friends, if you have never met them physically and you only see what they want you to see? Yes it’s a tricky one, but if you disregard all that you see which could be manufactured, and take the time to develop at least a message friendship with a healthy dose of paranoia then time will tell. It works just like any other normal friendship as long as you factor in the considerably reduced information flow and take the time to let that information build up into something upon which you can make a judgement. Which means not running off to physically meet someone off the net days or even months after meeting them, and when you do don’t go alone. The same rules of life apply in equal measure to any kind of virtual life so be commonsensical, not that any of this will protect everyone. As we all know from the daily news etc. no one is immune to being conned at least once in their lifetime whether for money or something more insidious. Life is a struggle, a survival, and there are always casualties along the way, but don’t let his stop you from spreading your virtual wings, just as you don’t let it stop you from living your life.