January 27, 2007
Siklos on Antisocial Networking and Big Media's Crush on Social Networks

Richard Siklos continues his intriguing coverage of many of the aspects of convergence culture we write about so often in the New York Times, this time focusing on last Sunday's article on social networking and how it is transforming people's lives. The article is really more of a two-headed beast, the first part a personal narrative explaining his own disconnect with the growing connectedness of social networking and his trouble with balancing out the delicacies of how to handle himself in many of these situations--maintaining various lists of friends and having to decide what to do when given an invitation by someone he's not sure he wants to invite.

The second half of the article looks at big media's "crushes" on social networking and the many business models built up around the practice.

What most intrigued me, though, was his discussion about how the social networking invitation has transformed what one does in life, whether it be a MySpace Top 8 request, a Facebook friend confirmation, someone who wants to LinkIn, an instant messaging buddy, or a Second Life friend. He displays the ambivalence of inviting someone who he doesn't really know and finds himself relieved not to have a LinkedIn account when someone he likes wants to "link in" after only one meeting.

In my Harvard class on new media public policy last semester, Kathleen Gilroy, the CEO of The Otter Group, came to speak to us about Web 2.0 and the need for professionals today to be linked to a variety of social networking platforms in order to be best positioned in today's media environment. Back in October, I wrote that she said to the class, "I believe everybody needs an online presence, if you are going to be competitive in what you are doing" and that "to be competitive, most people today should have a profile on a social networking site, should maintain a blo and should also provide images and podcasts online."

I was talking with Cabell Gathman, a University of Wisconsin-Madison doctoral candidate working on social networking and the ways in which the activity is transforming communication, here recently about this phenomenon. Cabell is a visiting student here at the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT this spring. I explained to her that my philosophy of social networking is that, for the most part, I don't want to accept any invitation if the invitation is the first point of contact I've ever had with the person and prefer, for the most part, to have met the person face-to-face at some point. That depends on the relationship, of course, as business contacts are increasingly online, so I am now LinkedIn with many people I don't otherwise know.

However, these new social behaviors raise a laundry list of potential problems. Take this situation--I got a MySpace invitation from a guy I knew in elementary school back in Beaver Dam, Ky., and I accepted. Soon, thereafter, I got an invitation from his boyfriend. I knew that I didn't want to accept because I had no connection to this man at all but also realized that not accepting might look as if it were a commentary on his lifestyle choice, which I wasn't intending it to be. Rather, I sent him an e-mail explaining to him why I was not accepting his invitation, particularly that I hadn't talked to my acquaintance from elementary school for years and had never met him. That seemed to be a way out of the situation, but it's hard to know the correct social protocol in these instances. I find that having 1000s of friends, most of whom I don't know, defeats the purpose of these social networks.

Another case: a couple that my wife and I used to be neighbors with and very close friends to divorced. We never heard from the wife but remained friends with the husband. When I found the wife on MySpace, I sent her a friend invitation, only to have her never to respond to that or a subsequent message. Now, prior to social networks, I likely would have never came into contact with this former friend again, for the rest of my life, especially now that we both live away from "home." However, the awkward feeling of that rejection has left me guessing why she wouldn't accept my invitation. Was it because I remained friends with her ex-husband, a life she wanted to distance herself from? Was there something I did and said that caused a permanent break in our friendship that I'm not aware of? Or were we always really more friends with her husband and, now that they are divorced, she was no longer required to pretend to like us anymore?

Who knows...but I would have never even had to encounter these questions before MySpace.

Even more problematic, potentially is LinkedIn, where the social value of connections is even more definite. Social climbers will want to send invitations to people to bolster their number of connections, while those wishing to protect the importance of their connections will be more guarded in who they accept. In this environment, I've tried to tread carefully, but it's hard to know when to strike the right balance. For instance, I hit some roadblocks when sending an invitation to a professor I have even worked with in the past, who responded to the LinkedIn invitation with an e-mail entitled "LinkedOut," explaining his disdain for the form e-mails that these companies often send out.

Of course, no one is forcing anyone to be a member of these social networks, but the value is becoming increasingly apparent, in both personal and professional communication. That's why Richard Siklos' idea of "antisocial networking" may have a hard time coexisting with an increasingly networked world.

And on the business side, Siklos makes another key observation: "It can be a tricky business when audiences evolve from being consumers to members. For instance, the need to keep out the wrong element adds a new layer of complexity to the media mix."

And, as evidence of "big media's crush on social networking," by the way, news broke that Oxygen is launching social networking sites. According to Jon Lafayette's story in TelevisionWeek, the cable network is launching a social networking site called Oomph and a broadband site called SheDidWhat.

Oomph is "designed to connect women with shared interests such as pop culture, careers, art, culture or sex."

And, for more on Richard Siklos' work in the Times on convergence culture, see my past pieces on his articles.