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:
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.