Data-driven social interaction: The difference between analogue and digital part III

Data-driven social experience is an entirely new manner of social interaction, one that obscures our emotional connections to people. Data makes social relationships visible, knowable, and countable in unprecedented ways. But it does not — and cannot — convey the emotional experience of social interaction. I’ve already discussed how digital technologies transform text and time. Now I want to explore how “data” transforms social experience.

Take the notion of the “social network.” Most people (especially those that read blogs!) think these synonymous with Web sites like Facebook. Truth be told, social network analysis has existed for almost a century. We’ve all heard the term “six degrees of separation,” but most of us don’t know that was coined by none other that Stanley Milgram, of the “shock experiments” fame, when he tracked letters mailed around the world.

Social networks are exceedingly difficult to know from a quantitative perspective. We all live inside social networks but we have a very hard time knowing how these networks are constructed. We may know, for example, that our friend Jeff is friends with another one, Sarah, but we don’t know if Sarah knows Jeff’s partner Sam. Social network analysis is a set of methods designed to learn exactly that.

Now imagine your social network, as it is represented on Facebook (what, you’re not on Facebook?). Below is an image from Visual Complexity that renders a social network visibly but also very easily, simply by mining the data inherent in Facebook’s structure:

from Visual Complexity

from Visual Complexity

Note how we instantly and easily know how institutions are connected, and through which people. Previously, researchers would have to conduct extensive and expensive surveys to get these data. Now these data are easily calculated and visualized by anyone with access to a social network online.

Some people are talking about this visualization as a piece of intellectual property. Alex Iskold on Mashable, for example, asks “Who owns the social map?” I go further and ask, “What does it mean that our social world is mappable?”

Our social world is now infiltrated by masses of data. These data inform us about the structure of our interactions with others in ways that we could not recall correctly if asked. Suddenly we can now see our social world reflected back to us, punctuated by  institutions, and social structures. When we see our social network through the eyes of data, we see the names of organizations, or the institutional affiliation of the people. We do not “see” the emotional experience that created our connections in the first place.

Suddenly, we may think we really are not that close with Jeff, because his partner Sam is really not friends with anyone I know. I can also see that Sarah and I have very few friends in common, which may lead me to think I don’t have much of a future friendship with her.

Those data crowd out the qualitative, embodied experience of the laughs I shared with Jeff and Sam at their cottage last summer. Those data obscure the fact that Sarah and I shared 3 long months as call centre employees together, a time that bonded us forever. A data-filled social world is one that masks the visceral, emotional experiences of face-to-face interaction.

Digital social life is revealed to us in fragmented, mashed up ways. Such ways were impossible before the freely available data on social networks, data that is now so ubiquitous, we don’t even see it.


7 responses to “Data-driven social interaction: The difference between analogue and digital part III

  1. This is Amazing as always Sam.

    You and I have talked about my concerns about social analytics. A couple of weeks ago I did a session at BarCampSeattle09 called “Social Analytics are Evil”. While I don’t really think they are evil I do believe people need to concentrate more on the “Social” (conversations) and less on the “Analytics” (followers).

    On a ridiculous note I have nightmares that as a society we don’t create a system like SkyNet but we create systems that turn society into SkyNet.

    • Well if it’s any consolation, Bryce, I’m with Hubert Dreyfus, who argues that we totally understate the requirements for AI, most of which are actually emotional, not mechanical or analytical.

      And I DO think social analytics are evil! They’re getting a little too close to home!

      • 🙂

        I guess I’m not really talking about AI. I wonder if people will have the attributes and behaviours of machines long before machines share our attributes. I Robot.

  2. Freaky, Bryce! No wonder you’re having nightmares.

  3. Hello Sam,

    I totally agree re: the weaknesses inherent in data visualization of social networks. I think that if more contextual data entry points were made available at the user’s end, and ‘exploited’ by the data mapper, more meaningful mapping could take place.

    For example…what if — say on Twitter — the user was able to expand on a follower’s portrait and (maybe via sliders or checkboxes — whatever) indicate whether that person is a real life friend or virtual friend, how long that person has been ‘known’, how important that person’s tweets are relative to other tweets, etc. etc.

    In a way this is related to talk of a semantic web (given the fact that any semantic construct requires additional inputs for which a framework is required).

    – Raymond

  4. Re the analysis end, aren’t these current tools also blind to the effects of time? Think about a Linkedin account. I’m sure I am not the only person with old contacts from prior jobs, schools, etc. Does anyone on a professionally-oriented site break a link to a former contact? I doubt it. How do you “break up” professionally – and if you can’t, what does that imply about the quality of relationships in network or assumptions made about them?

    • You’re absolutely right, Joan. I talk about this a little in my post about Facebook and how it jams everyone you know together, in a big, confusing and embarrassing mess. LinkedIn has the same potential, but it is more narrowly focused on business contacts. You can “break up” with someone you know through business through obscuring or masking the machinations of the online social network. You may have noticed we already do this; read the recommendations on LinkedIn and you’ll see what I mean.

      The “real” relationship is not represented by LinkedIn or Facebook. The “real story” is less apparent. However, our “real story” may be blurred, affected or transformed by the online social network. In other words, it may lead us to believe that we are actually closer to or further away from people than we actually are.

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