This little essay is intended to describe my growing interest in social software. I’ve been spending more and more time on 43 Things and affiliates, Friendster (which is waning, as its niche is overtaken by MySpace), and more obscure sites like my high school and college alumni networks. I also went to a panel discussion a little while ago called “Facebook: A Social Phenomenon” as part of CU Boulder’s annual public Conference on World Affairs, and I’m starting to follow the social software blogs. I’ve been posting semi-regularly on the 43 Things “43 Ideas” page (itself a great piece of social software) on how 43 Things can best be developed and adapted, always with the question in mind of how to build the ideal social software.
I want to focus on the flipside of the question as it’s normally approached. I want to take social software to its conclusion, when the whole world is connected by means of an online social network, and see what happens. Not really how people are using social software, but how their worlds will be different when it’s a fact–how social software uses you; how you become different when seen through social software. The whole internet could be described as a giant social network: a forum where one/many communicate with one/many. The difference with these specific social software applications is that the users are the information. It’s a catalogue of humans; it’s library science meets political science. It’s you, made explicit.
Perhaps it’s the persona development, the looks-good-on-paper, that appeals to me. Certainly it’s a reflection of exclusively quantitative being. Don Giovanni, a great liver of a kind of quantitative life, would have the ultimate MySpace profile (1,003 in Spain, and growing!). As would any of the equally quantitative GTD/ super-achiever/ life coaching guys. There’s a nutball on 43T who’s done thousands of things, he’s utterly quantitative. On his list are things others, even just slightly internal people, would keep to themselves, but he’s only concerned with building a big collection of everything. His insides are all out. When he dies, the electronic record will be huge (what will die with him?).
These networks can be protectors against a certain kind of forgetfulness. If my mood swings low and I momentarily discard all my goals, projects, and half-finished anything, they’re all bookmarked there on my various profiles. I can return to the characteristics I’ve carefully laid out, put in the realm of permanence (out there! where they are made real by way of witness!), so I can return and remember what I was trying to become or imagining I was. I am propped in place, and the “real” identity can be out there. Is this good? Whatever. The new goods/inevitabilities are two, listed below.
Social software replaces humans with humanity; everyone is searchable and taggable. Social software allows two things for the community of humans: mobility (tends toward freedom?) and efficiency (tends toward immortality?). Your location no longer matters, because there’s a human there who fits the qualities you’re searching for, everyone is a friend, and you can keep in touch with anyone no matter how much you all bounce around. They’re all secured in your friend pool–bookmarked resources, never lost, upkeep made much more efficient. Efficiency is brought about through tagging. You can find and label, things are easier to remember, there can then be more individual terms because they are grouped. Efficiency allows many things to become fewer things, and everything is more manageable. Human beings will become so manageable that we’ll all be a few degrees of separation from everybody else. And, information will evolve faster and better because total collaboration will be possible. Everyone in the world along the same obscure wavelength will be linked. I imagine nations will fall apart, or become ornamental.
You run into the problem that I’ve been badgering 43T about in some of my entries, which is this: when does the quantity of information become representative of the person? Does it acquire quality? Can a person be represented accurately by social software? The answer: of course not, if for no other reason than that the self illustrated by the self isn’t the self at all (just like the parents you’ve internalized and have to wrestle with psychologically aren’t really your parents as people, a fundamental truth that will help you heal). As a panelist at the Facebook discussion pointed out, the testimonials (or equivalents) provided on some social software networks maintain a modicum of honesty. Still, all the representation in the world isn’t the thing itself. [Addition: The test is whether these profiles could restore a full retrograde amnesiac to himself– if these things provide a fully backed-up identity. But alas, you are not just the sum of your experiences, and there’s no dispensing with your soul.]
I suspect my interest in social software will fade as I become less egocentric and get more into funky psychology. It’s a situation not unlike that of this guy in an Irvin Yalom story (In Search of the Dreamer, from Love’s Executioner & Other Tales of Psychotherapy) who was really into being an accountant and collecting antique political buttons, until the surface stopped being so interesting and he thought more about his dreams and his soul than what he had on display. It’s strange that these are distinct, possible modes of being. The panel kept circling around whether social software expands or isolates a social network: does someone leave humanity and live in this realm, or is his normal realm augmented and better organized (the former the obvious evil, the latter the questionable evil)? They seemed to me to blend nicely into one, bigger, weirder way of getting along. Ultimately, it’s a way of communication in a context, not a replacement (not a second life!!). Just something that can make you bigger and better, your reach longer, your reactions faster; but you can’t become your improved hard drive, nor invest in it more than it’s worth. You’re a little less human because you’re a little better–more able, of course more mobile and efficient– but you won’t be if you leave humanity altogether.
I suppose this all adds up to this rule for social software: make sure that it stays a tool, and not an end. Don’t worry about collecting the most, or donning the most/best tags—eventually this will collapse the system, anyway, as connections will lose all meaning (witness the trend on MySpace). Another way of saying what I said in the previous paragraph: Social software is somewhere between a perfect map, a mirror of what is, and a way to expand and network, to build, to speed up, to track, with all the power on its side. It’s not much use as a map, other than it’s neat and sort of fun to see things all mapped out, and it helps with not forgetting stuff. It’s a useful tool, but if you go too far, you lose reality and just create a second virtual one. Which is sort of dumb because it’s superfluous, if you imagine that everyone in the world will participate in it. Organization becomes congestive repetition.