One of the most potent aspects of Facebook, and to a lesser extent Flickr, Twitter and alike, is the opportunity it gives us to pry. Like looking into curtainless windows after dark, we get a unique insight into the lives of other people. We know they’re not faking their profiles – there are too many witnesses for them to misrepresent themselves. And yet they have no idea we’ve been looking. It’s a seductive inequality. But doesn’t it also intrigue us about who has been looking in on our lives.
Despite an abundance of stats, it is notoriously difficult to determine who exactly has visited. Even in closed spaces like Facebook, you cannot find out which of your friends popped by unless they leave a comment or a ‘Like’. Although currently there’s a rash of scams promising to divulge this information, it is impossible to learn who’s simply had a nose around. In fact, Facebook provides less visitor information than just about any other social site despite tracking exactly what each of us is doing and supposedly being a community of ‘friends.’ Flickr and LinkedIn both provide quantitative stats describing views but nothing about who.
However, it is precisely this sort of information that makes these sites so commercially valuable. Google, Amazon, even Facebook, make significant amounts of money from tracking our every move and translating it into personalised advertising. Every click, search or view on their sites helps them to refine their marketting algorithms, honing their understanding of our behaviour in an attempt to distill our essence into something useful.
Wouldn’t it be fascinating to know who has been interested in us? It’s clearly of commercial value, don’t you think there could be social capital there too? Would it help build relationships by exposing the degree of attention we give to each other: highlighting particular areas of common ground but without the need to actually contribute anything tangible? Would help reduce anti-social online behaviour? Back in 1973, the psychologist, R J Watson, identified the negative social effect of anonymity and the associated lack of accountability. Maybe, open transactions might make the web a safer place?
Big Business already has this information about us but looks at it from a purely commercial perspective. What could we do with it?
A couple of weeks ago I talked about a piece of informal research I’d conducted with teenagers about their use of Facebook and wondered aloud how their average of 400 ‘friends’ correlated with Dunbar’s number of meaningful relationships? Could those many hundreds of connections translate into a genuine social circle?
Likewise, Twitter’s ability to broadcast minutiae to the world amplifies our ability to share intimate moments with friends and strangers alike. Does it make everyone a friend? Conversation with David Squire highlighted the illusion of intimacy that these insights present: it feels like we know the person tweeting. But of course the relationship is entirely unequal – celebrities, real or virtual know nothing of us – any conversation will be one-sided at best and embarrassingly superficial at worst.
Charismatic individuals have always flourished. That ability to make people feel important is a priceless gift. Even if not telegenic, I remember one friend telling me how utterly beguiling was John Major, the ex-Prime Minister. Clinton, Obama and Cameron are charmers too. It’s rare that politicians become leaders without an ability to woo (although perhaps Gordon Brown took Machiavelli’s advice that fear was a more consistent instrument for maintaining power). And politics isn’t the only business where personality is the dominant factor in success, showbiz and finance depend as much on an ability to ingratiate as any particular vocational skill. But does the social media industry cynically trade on friendship too?
It is easy to be sceptical. Chris Brogan (146000+ Twitter followers, 4500+ Facebook friends) shared some thoughts about the potential for a social crash in his blog recently. He warns us of a need to be content with ‘ambient connectivity.’ So is that merely an excuse to justify professional acquaintances and maintain the veneer of sincerity? I don’t think so for Chris but then Chris is an exceptional human being.
Just as I was losing faith in anyone’s ability to sustain that many relationships, Chris sent a note to me based on the fleeting moment we met. Given the number of people he meets on a weekly basis, that refreshed contact felt astonishing. But then you don’t forge a career like Chris’s without being extraordinary.
I wonder about us mere mortals though. And the prospects for depth rather than breadth of relationships in everyday social life. Perhaps the two positions are not exclusive. Wily celebrities will always exploit new technologies to endear themselves to a wider audience and I suspect we will always be willing participants in the delusion of a “relationship” but I see no evidence in the mainstream of people expanding their connections online at the expense of intimacy with their real-world friends. More likely, social media enables us to enrich our real friendships with ubiquitous access to their lives and simultaneously increases the penumbra of our personal society by exposing us to people who might otherwise pass us by.
Carlton is the founder of Play with Learning. He has a PhD in the design, development and deployment of game-based learning resources. Complementing his academic background, Carlton has years of practical experience at the BBC and independent media companies producing and commissioning world class and award-winning media for the likes of the United Nations, BBC, National College for School Leadership, Open University and the Victoria & Albert museum.