Do all social networks suck at groups?

Web 2.0 is supposed to be all about harnessing the wisdom of crowds, playing simultaneously off the glorification of the individual via personalized profiles and services and the algorithmic magic that happens when individual data is mined.

But inbetween there’s the critical level of community — remember that term they all love to throw around in press releases? I know, newsgroups, webboards, mailing lists: it’s all so… Web 1.0. Is it a rejection of Web 1.0, strengths and all, that fuels the shockingly poor management of groups on sites like Facebook and Last.fm?

I “lead” 2 groups on each of those sites, and belong to many others. Almost daily I shake my head in disbelief that people who devote their lives to building social networks would be so inept at supporting the voluntary *group* affiliations people build through their sites.

For instance, neither site provides me any means of being notified when new members join my groups. Neither provides a means of seeing which members are newly joined. In a group like Internet Researchers on last.fm, I can figure it out because they list members in order of joining, and there aren’t very many members. In a group like the Association of Internet Reseachers on Facebook, with over 800 members who appear in random order every time they’re listed, there is simply no way to tell. Opportunities for welcoming new members? So Web 1.0!

Neither site does a remotely adequate job of informing any group member when there are new things happening in a group. Facebook provides the ‘groups’ link. Apparently, group interaction is not worthy of NewsFeed status — I am notified every time a friend joins a group, but never notified when someone opens a new line of discussion in a group to which I already belong. The groups page you get when you click that link is pathetic. You can’t click to see which new people have joined, you can’t click to go directly to the new posts. It requires continuous individual mining of each group’s page to see if there are discussions happening. You’re continuously prodded to join new groups via the listings of groups friends have joined, but there’s no support for making those groups work.

Last.fm has a similar “groups” page, except for that it offers absolutely no information about activity in the groups. The “recommending reading” is supposed to tell you if there’s new discussion in the groups to which you belong, but it rarely bothers to let you know which group a new post comes from, as though that absolutely essential piece of information does not matter. About the only thing Last.fm does right with groups is in identifying which songs and musicians each group recommends and letting you turn off recommendations from any group.

These sites have extraordinary potential to foster networking at the group level. Yet they persistently fail to leverage that by providing meaningful scaffolding to support group interactions. If groups can’t carry on effective discussions and group members don’t have easy ways to see who’s joined and how discussion is progressing, groups become what they are in both of these spaces: identity badges, labels we can put on our profiles to help categorize us. It’s a grotesque waste of the power of human connection and cannot serve either site well.

And don’t even get me started on how terrible the mechanisms are for searching for groups of possible interest in each site.

Are there any social network sites that really help members create communities rather than one-on-one connections?

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The Place of Mystique in the Internet Age

The Detroit Free Press had a piece over the weekend by their pop critic, Brian McCollum, contemplating the loss of mystique in rock and roll now that there’s so very much information available online. He writes:

There’s a reason they call the Internet the great leveler: As technology increasingly lets us get a glimpse into the star machine, peeking behind the scenes and absorbing all manner of minutiae about our favorite acts, the gap between audience and artist gets ever smaller. Details and developments are recorded, shared and analyzed at a dizzying pace and volume.

YouTube, MySpace, message boards, band chats, DVDs, reality shows — for a fan, it’s all hard to resist. Knowledge is tempting. Information promises relief, the chance to unravel mysteries and satisfy questions. But today’s rat-a-tat-tat multimedia culture presents us with a hard question about our relationship with our artists: Is more actually less?

The barrage of easy information makes it difficult for the mystique to stay intact. We get access, the mystique takes a hit, we quickly lose interest, we move on.

I’m not so sure that we move on when the mystique is gone, but other than that, yeah. Later in the article he asks:

But are we losing something valuable when we keep the curtain pulled back? You don’t have to be a cynic to suspect so. Mystique long played a special role in the music fan experience. It helped build tighter bonds to artists and their music. It strengthened their grip on our imaginations. It gave them staying power.

“To me part of the magic was that you imagined what John Lennon was like, or what these songs were about. You read your own meaning into the music and the people who were making it. That was part of what made you an active fan — you engaged on a personal level,” says Glenn Gass, 51, a music professor at Indiana University. “When you get a little too close they get a little too ordinary. And you don’t want your stars to be ordinary.”

In contrast to those who just whine about the evil changes the internet has wraught, McCullum’s got the wisdom to realize this is how it is, and that’s not going to change:

But here’s the deal: There’s no turning back the clock, and until somebody unplugs the Internet, the changes in our relationship with artists are probably here to stay. The idea of pop musicians as untouchable icons might one day be seen as a dusty relic from a time when artists had mystique by default. For those future musicians who want to conjure that old-time magic, the trick might be working hard to make a name — then working hard to hide in plain sight.

He also spends some time on bands for whom the mystiquelessness is working well.

Now no one knows the wonder of mystique better than I. To this day I avoid interviews with the singer who melts me down to a puddle of atoms and I really want to know next to nothing about him. When I saw a tiny blurb in Pitchfork saying he’d been spotted passed out drunk in the gutter I wanted to cry (though it seems it may not have been him, but his guitarist, who died not long thereafter, making me really cry). I don’t even like watching his videos that much because I don’t want to really have to face the fact that his body’s not as massively hot as his voice.

But I do want to take issue on a few points. There are in fact still bands who are working the mystique even in the internet age. They have obscure websites that make it hard to find information. They have MySpace pages that throw noise at you but nothing else. They eschew videos. Furthermore, though all that information is tempting, it can be resisted.

And what’s more, there’s little to ruin a rock star’s mystique like seeing them live. Long before the internet, I  lost my affection for plenty of rock people I thought I loved when I saw them in the flesh and realized how little there was to like. On the other hand, I had a few meals and drinks and coffees with Michael Stipe for a decade there and he never lost an ounce of his mystique. Real mystique transcends information.

Most importantly, mystique is not the only way to make people into active fans. You can know everything about a person and still have plenty of room for making meaning and engaging on a personal level. Half the time (if not more) the people making the music don’t really know what that force that comes out of them means. Knowing who they are and feeling like you can know them personally doesn’t mean that the MUSIC loses its mystique.

One of the people I interviewed for my Swedish indie study, a musician, who also has a voice that undoes me (and whom I really had fun talking to) had this to say on the topic:

It’s important to remember that people who play music are just people. The internet helps that, it’s not this huge iconic book of characters, rock stars. Personally I think the rock star thing is boring and played out. Its good its just people playing folk music. Music by the people for the people.

Indeed, the Swedish musicians I spoke with were all thrilled to get rid of mystique. Only one label guy had any desire to maintain it, and that was for the label, not the bands on the label. It’s a lot easier to be yourself than to be a false idol.

Short take: I’ll trade relationship for artificial mystique anyday. If the music can’t generate its own fascination without the persona of its maker, then no amount of mystique will make it worthwhile over the long haul.

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Social Network Panel at AoIR and Colbert pushes 1,000,000

The roundtable on perspectives and challenges in studying social network sites that I put together for the Association of Internet Researchers’ meeting has been blogged by Sarah Ford here. You have to imagine the conversational flow, but the main points are all there. Thanks Sarah!

On a somewhat related note, Stephen Colbert fans on Facebook have created a group meant to rival Obama’s “1,000,000 Strong For Obama” group. The news here is that within a few days they are nearly there. Obama isn’t. Nor are any of the other “1,000,000 strong” groups for or against people who are actually politicians running for president.

Update: The Colbert fan group just surpassed one million members.

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Life Online Means More Life Offline

In class this week I showed Stephanie Tuszynski’s recent documentary “IRL In Real Life” about an officially-sanctioned online community that formed around Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The film raises a number of issues about how the cast and production team (not least Joss Whedon) interacted with the fans. For instance, there is tremendous excitement when they show up at the first party fans have organized, which turns to irritation as the parties are overrun by those who want a glimpse of the celebrities but are not participants in the community, and then a sense of betrayal when promises to give the fan site a new home after the show switched networks are not kept.

But what got my students going was a concern that engagement in this group would increase the fans’ social isolation. Those she interviewed talk about having no one around who’s into the show, about not relating to people at work and therefore socializing on the board instead of around the coffee urn, and about many or even most of their “real” friends now being people they met through the board. Justifiably, I think, my students asked if their use of the board was preventing them from going out and meeting people they could relate to in their local communities.

Conveniently enough, the topic scheduled for the next day dealt with just this issue: Does use of the internet impact people’s engagement with offline community. There have been several studies that deal with this, including ongoing work by the Pew Project on the Internet and American Life, Jeff Cole’s World Internet Project, the Carnegie-Mellon Homenet Project, Katz Aspden and Rice’s Syntopia Project, Sandra Ball-Rokeach’s Metamorphosis Project, John Robinson’s time use studies, and others.

The evidence is not 100% clear, but there’s a consistent finding that time spent online does not lessen time engaging others face-to-face in one’s local community. It may lessen the time spent with members of the household, by very small amounts, although that may be an artifact of people who use the internet a lot being home less often to begin with. All in all, in comparison to people who use the internet very little or not at all, people who use the internet seem to be more likely to socialize with friends and family members outside the household in person each week, to have more conversations and phone calls with more people, to attend more cultural events, to belong to more religious organizations, to be at least as and sometimes more involved in clubs and civic organizations, and to be more engaged with politics.

The evidence to support the fear that people who are into the internet, including spending time in online fan activities, are somehow dissociating themselves from more meaningful offline life is just not there. The differences aren’t big, but if anything, people who spend more time online are less socially isolated and more socially engaged with the people around them than those who spend little or no time online.

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Adventures in the Pacific Northwest

I am back, finally, from my week of adventures. First I stopped off in Redmond at Microsoft Research, where I gave a talk called I Heard It On the Network: Recent Developments in Music Fandom, in which I used the example of the Swedish indie scene to argue that in an age where people are bombarded by musical choices, bands and labels have a greater challenge in getting people’s attention. As a result, they need fans to serve as promoters more than ever, leading to shifts in the way fans are conceptualized and the powers that fans have. There is a video which is supposed to be posted on the net somewhere, so I hope to have a link to that soon.

Then I went on to Vancouver for the Association of Internet Researchers’ conference, which was, as always, a fantastic combination of food for thought and food with friends. For the first time there were many many papers about social network sites, including the roundtable I had organized. Some of the interesting points I took from the papers as a whole on this topic were:

  • people have no confusion between the term “friend” as used outside social network sites and as used on them. If you ask how many of their Facebook friends are “actual” friends, as Ellison, Steinfeld and Lampe did, you get fairly low percentages in response.

  • there are big cultural differences in how these sites are used and we really need more cross-cultural research.

  • the challenge to do work that is going to be relevant next month is higher than ever since these sites change so rapidly. Fortunately, little of the work I saw seemed particularly dated since they were very careful about how they framed their population.

  • While American scholars are obsessed with Facebook, other sites are getting very little analysis. I hadn’t even realized that the Danish youth are all about Arto, though I did, at least, know that the Swedish kids are into LunarStorm, Koreans into Cyworld, and Brazilians into Orkut. But how many other networks are out there with huge national followings that most of us have never even heard of?

There was almost no work on fandom and less than usual it seemed about intellectual property and digital rights. I did see a really nice paper by Hector Postigo who spent a summer interviewing people at the Electronic Freedom Foundation and was able to summarize the rhetoric they use in conceptualizing the issues, and another by Tarleton Gillespie, who talked about the simplistic and problematic ways in which the RIAA framed the issues in a set of educational materials they’ve created for use in high schools (for instance, the concept of “fair use” was completely absent). On fandom, I saw Stephanie Tuszynski compare the users of the Buffy fangroup she had studied to Daily Kos readers when they meet, which was interesting but not surprising, and Rhiannon Bury did a nice followup on five friendship pairs who had met years ago in X-File fandom and had remained close friends.

I also FINALLY got to sit down with Henry Jenkins, with whom I’ve corresponded for 15 years and whom I’d never met.

Henry and Me

The other highlight of the conference was that after 9 years of thinking about the association every single day (I was one of a very few founders, organized the first conference, was VP for 4 years, president for 2 and past-president for 2), at the General Meeting, the new executive committee took over and, for the first time in the association’s existence, I have NOTHING TO DO WITH running it! Well, except for being on the organizing committee of next year’s conference in Copenhagen, that is. Still, a big change for me, and a welcome one. It was particularly nice to be presented with a bottle of French champagne at the meeting and then smooched from all sides by AoIR presidents past and future (photo by Marj Kibby):

presmedium.jpg

Nothing beats being appreciated :)

Now on to writing up the Swedish indie work, the Last.fm work, the book, tomorrow’s class, and I don’t even want to think about all the other things!

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