Social Networks: A Peek into the Past, and a Glance at the Present

by Paul on March 10, 2010

It’s become almost cliché to say that right now the biggest buzzword in tech is “Social Networking”. People find in what they’re describing as Web 2.0, a crystal ball of future possibilities for marketing, advertising, gaming, law, education, business and ultimately communication. It’s nice that people and companies are beginning to recognize the ‘net’ part of the internet, but what we really have with social networking, however, is not the future of the web, but merely the past and the present.

Now before we go on, this isn’t going to be one of those “ack, these kids nowadays with their new fangled gadgets” kind of diatribe. Nor is this some kind of dismissive, reductionist treatment of what the internet and what social networks are. I’m excited about what we’re seeing develop right now. I’m immersed in the tech as much or even more than the average user (on the home screen of my iPhone, I have apps that allow me to interface with this WordPress site, and my Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin accounts, as well as all of my active email accounts, and I still have habits ingrained in me since graduate school about keeping up with them).

What we are going to do together here is to explore, what social networking is and what it can be used for, at its very core. Ultimately we’re going to wind up with an exploration of what Web 3.0 is going to look like. Right now, were still in that evolutionary stage of making that TV camera more than the best seat in the house. Web 2.0, or the expansion of the tool of social nets, is like the addition of that second camera, where we can finally add multiple angles and even some tape delay. Web 3.0, where any visionary entrepreneur is heading right now, is where we will finally add the special effects to the movie to create all of its futuristic looks.

Before we can see the future, let’s get a critical base of the past and the present. Social networking, or any of the other terms people use for it, is what the internet has been about the entirety of its existence. In the early 1960s, when a few university faculty members began to dream of computers talking to each other they envisioned a space where researchers could share their ideas. The Department of Defense sponsored the project and ARPANET was born allowing these researchers to share aspects of their work and the ideas for its direction (it also allowed government offices to do the same).

Although at first, a few very large computers were grouped into small networks called nodes (the first four were UCSB, the Standford Research Institute, UCLA and the University of Utah), information began to be shared node to node. As the number of nodes slowly grew and more and more information was able to be transmitted at faster and faster speeds, researchers and scientists began to develop more and more tools to make information and services more and more accessible to more and more people. In 1979, USENET, the first discussion group was developed. From then until the World Wide Web was created in 1991, the number of nodes and hosts grew to over 12,000. By 1993, just two short years later, the use of the internet increased by about 350,000 %. Although the technology enabled more and more people to be able to be able to have access to shared information, the purpose which drove the increases in the speed and the amount of information which could be transmitted was the ability to share information with others. All the tools and “technology” associated with the Internet has been developed with this foundational goal. Collaboration and networking is not a new feature of the World Wide Web, but an intrinsic feature of it.

In 1988 I began a graduate program at Purdue in Linguistics. I chose Purdue to study with a particular professor, Victor Raskin, whose work on Semantic Networks intrigued me. The week before classes began, he gathered every one of his students together and laid out the ground rules for working with him. He insisted on only a few things, but one of them was that we were to master email and Unix and that we were to communicate with him via email at least four times a day. Victor has always been on the cutting edge of technology and tied to instill that foresight into his students.

Victor was a night owl (having had to develop that trait to avoid being a sideshow for all the dignitaries the Soviet administration at that time would bring around to ogle at the Jews working for the University of Moscow, a duplicitous display of their “tolerance” for allowing Jews to work there). Serendipitously most of his graduate students were night owls as well (the exception being Dallin D. Oaks, who never needed to be—see his body of subsequent work, such as his newest Structural Ambiguity in English: An Applied Grammatical Inventory published by Continuum; for more on Dr. Oaks, cf., so answering his replies and getting responses became fairly immediate, no matter where we were working at the time.
Our medium sized group (which began, as with all socialities, to spawn subgroups within it) began to share information with Professor Raskin, but also with each other via email. The more we used the internet the more we noticed how much information was being shared.

In 1990, Tharon Howard, a visionary in electronic communication (it was he who authored and named the rules of Netiquette—I was there when he did it), came to a colleague, Salvatore Attardo, one of Raskin’s top students, and I to help him with the first academic listserv group for Rhetoric, which he called H-Rhetor (for the History of Rhetoric). Although he had cajoled people to sign up for the group (graduate students and a few professors), he couldn’t get a lot of discussion going, so we three began an argument online. That seemed to do the trick. Suddenly, people wanted to weigh in on the topic (it was fairly controversial in the field at the time, and a Rhetorician, Tharon, a Linguist, Salvatore, and someone who had been able to navigate both camps (I’m always the Taoist) were the perfect trio to articulate the disparate views).

The internet allowed us to share information and create networks of collegiality (in both senses of the word), more widely and more immediately than we could previously. It was more than just airmail leaving the Pony Express behind; the progression was that we could have multiple conversations at once with multiple audiences members whether they were participants or not (There was, in fact, somewhat substantial pressure to participate. People who joined groups but didn’t respond were called lurkers, and often spoken of derogatively, almost like a cyber peeping Tom. This also contributed to the complaints about unsubstantial comments, so apparently people wanted substantial participation, but with some substance behind it. We often saw intolerance for different views, ironically from those most loudly preaching tolerance; it’s part of academics, just as with politics—I guess because Academia is so political). It was this explosion of, what my friend Enoch Chapman calls the movement from “‘one to one’ to ‘one to many’ back to ‘one to one’”. For him, social networking is just another tool, but the underlying principles of communication are still the same as what we’ve always been able to do with the internet: communicate with one another, but allow others into the conversation (Enoch, let me know if I’m distilling your intent correctly).

I completely agree that there aren’t any new principles of communication here. That’s what drives some people a little crazy when they hear all these people all abuzz about this “new technology” of social networks. We see companies getting on a bandwagon of using it in their “customer service” to build “lifelong relationships” with consumers.
But again, there’s nothing new here, merely another way to go about it. Successful businesses and services have always maintained relationships with their customers, hoping to create a lifelong loyalty to the brand. This is the essence of good business. More money is spent on advertising to retain the customers a company already has than to get a new one (it’s a lot more pensive to go out and get a new customer than to retain one the company already has). Badly run businesses haven’t learned this.

In the highly affluent economic arena of just a few years ago (it seems a dream now), the arrogance of several businesses including automobile manufacturers, banks, medical offices and even schools is now bearing fruit, that is those organizations that for so long made their customers an after thought after they purchased, ignoring any kind of relationship amazingly enough don’t have one now that the economy is poor. They didn’t put any effort into creating or maintaining lifelong relationships so there is no customer loyalty from companies who have created cultures where no loyalty exists toward either their customers or to their employees. As new money has dried up, those who will still spend are choosing to go elsewhere. Why should they be surprised now that no one wants to work with them? You reap what you sow here—that’s the Law of the Harvest.

This nurturing of customer relationships, the basic tenet of customer service (like the old corner store or the family doctor of old) is the basic key to success in industry. Old school businesses are failing because they haven’t thought to nurture the relationships during the good years (it’s also why incumbents are being thrown out of politics this year), but new and younger ones are succeeding because they are paying attention to customer needs and fostering those relationships. They happen to be using the tools of the internet to help with this, but ultimately people are paying attention to those businesses that treat them well.
Now here we begin to be able to understand the benefit of any of the social networking tools that are out there. They allow us to broaden the audiences we can connect to (the very purpose of the internet), providing an immediate stage with a wider reach. They act as our own multimedia listserv group, allowing us to choose who we connect with and when we connect with them. But we can cast the net as wide as we choose. We can create audiences for ourselves; we can be audience members for others, but on this stage, we get to react to the performances we see, creating a show together with multiple authoring. A truly collaborative experience.

This is the essence of relationship building. This is the essence of creating something new. We don’t merely seek the Sage on the Stage lecturing, nor do we just want the Guide on the Side coaching (although these have their place at times, and there are social networks with these configurations—which I will explore in an upcoming post); some of the most successful uses of networking allow decentralized communication—creation via multiple authors to produce something greater than the sum of its parts. Perhaps the biggest surprise to some is that what we’re calling social networking has been what social groups have done all along with each other, and what they most successful companies have been doing all these years—building and nurturing relationships.

Recently on Facebook one of my friends posted that one of her friends (now there’s some relationship building—but that’s just how she is–generous) needed a good photographer in New York who also takes video. As she lived in Utah, she was looking for a recommendation. The request itself is unique in that by virtue of posting it, she had at least some confidence that someone could indeed help her with the reference. Even more astounding is that she got 3 responses, all with actual references, from her facebook network of 421 friends, none of whom live in NY (actually, one lives in Utah, one in California and the other in Oregon). This is just one small example of the wider net she could cast to get the information.

For businesses, as with individuals, the one on one relationships are each played out on the stage (the one to many), where multiple audiences can see how companies treat their customers. Because the net has evolved to include even more nodes at even faster speeds, we can share our experiences with more people. We’ve always done this though (tell our friends if we had a good or bad experience somewhere); now we just get to do it on that bigger stage.

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