A while ago I wondered how our relationship to social networking services will change when instead of adding new contacts, we begin to feel like we’d be better off cutting the links to the people who we actually don’t know, stopped liking, or no longer want to be associated with for whatever other reason. I was reminded of this on reading that Russel Beattie has now decided to link out of LinkedIn. He explains:
Yes, I thought about just deleting the people I didn’t know, but each deletion of a contact requires an individual request to customer service (it’s not just a check box and submit operation) so I finally just decided to cancel the whole thing. I think in general, people who would want to use this service are pretty contactable without using this system, no? … And if you’re a hard to reach person, you’re most likely not using this sort of thing anyways. Anyone can contact anyone in five hops, so what real use is it?
I want to use Russell’s question about the ‘real use’ of LinkedIn as a window into what I think is a profound confusion about the nature of sociality, which was partly brought about by recent use of the term ‘social network’ by Albert Laszlo-Barabasi and Mark Buchanan in the popular science world, and Clay Shirky and others in the social software world. These authors build on the definition of the social network as ‘a map of the relationships between individuals.’ Basically I’m defending an alternative approach to social networks here, which I call ‘object centered sociality’ following the sociologist Karin Knorr Cetina. I’ll try to articulate the conceptual difference between the two approaches and briefly demonstrate that object-centered sociality helps us to understand better why some social networking services succeed while others don’t.
Russell’s disappointment in LinkedIn implies that the term ‘social networking’ makes little sense if we leave out the objects that mediate the ties between people. Think about the object as the reason why people affiliate with each specific other and not just anyone. For instance, if the object is a job, it will connect me to one set of people whereas a date will link me to a radically different group. This is common sense but unfortunately it’s not included in the image of the network diagram that most people imagine when they hear the term ‘social network.’ The fallacy is to think that social networks are just made up of people. They’re not; social networks consist of people who are connected by a shared object. That’s why many sociologists, especially activity theorists, actor-network theorists and post-ANT people prefer to talk about ‘socio-material networks’, or just ‘activities’ or ‘practices’ (as I do) instead of social networks.
Sometimes the ‘social just means people’ fallacy gets built into technology, like in the case of FOAF, which is unworkable because it provides a format for representing people and links, but no way to represent the objects that connect people together. The social networking services that really work are the ones that are built around objects. And, in my experience, their developers intuitively ‘get’ the object-centered sociality way of thinking about social life. Flickr, for example, has turned photos into objects of sociality. On del.icio.us the objects are the URLs. EVDB, Upcoming.org, and evnt focus on events as objects. LinkedIn, however, is becoming the victim of its own cunning: it started off thinking it could benefit by playing up the ‘social just means people’ misunderstanding. As Russell put it,
That was the “game” right? He who has the most contacts wins. At first you were even listed by the number of contacts you had, remember?
Reid Hoffman’s choice (however unintentional it might have been, I don’t know) to encourage the use of LinkedIn as a game is what activity theorist Frank Blackler would call the introduction a ‘surrogate object.’ The surrogate object is actually not sustained by the economic, technical, and cultural arrangement that the activity relies on to sustain itself. Playing ‘Who has the most connections wins’ might have been fun to some people for a while, but it was not very valuable to the users and developers as a collective in the long run. Now LinkedIn is trying to change the object of sociality that it offers, and persuade people to re-orient their networks around their actual jobs. (Don’t get me wrong—I’m the first to support Reid and his team on their endeavour to make LinkedIn more useful as a medium for job-centered sociality!)
Last but not least, we can use the object-centered sociality theory to identify new objects that are potentially suitable for social networking services. Take the notion of place, for example. Annotating places is a new practice for which there is clearly a need, but for which there is no successful service at the moment because the technology for capturing one’s location is not quite yet cheap enough, reliable enough, and easy enough to use. In other words, to get a ‘Flickr for maps‘ we first need a ‘digital camera for location.’ Approaching sociality as object-centered is to suggest that when it becomes easy to create digital instances of the object, the online services for networking on, through, and around that object will emerge too. Social network theory fails to recognise such real-world dynamics because its notion of sociality is limited to just people.
For a much more elaborate academic argument about object-centered sociality, see the chapter on ‘Objectual Practice’ by Karin Knorr Cetina in The practice turn in contemporary theory, edited by Theodor R. Schatzki, Karin Knorr Cetina, and Eike von Savigny (London 2001: Routledge.)