Locative Lab

researching locative media

Why some social network services work and others don’t — Or: the case for object-centered sociality

from: http://www.zengestrom.com/blog/2005/04/why_some_social.html

A while ago I wonderedhow our relationship to social networking services will change wheninstead of adding new contacts, we begin to feel like we’d be betteroff cutting the links to the people who we actually don’t know, stoppedliking, or no longer want to be associated with for whatever otherreason. 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 Ididn’t know, but each deletion of a contact requires an individualrequest to customer service (it’s not just a check box and submitoperation) so I finally just decided to cancel the whole thing. I thinkin general, people who would want to use this service are prettycontactable without using this system, no? … And if you’re a hard toreach 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 asa window into what I think is a profound confusion about the nature ofsociality, 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 networkshere, which I call ‘object centered sociality’ following thesociologist Karin Knorr Cetina.I’ll try to articulate the conceptual difference between the twoapproaches and briefly demonstrate that object-centered sociality helpsus to understand better why some social networking services succeedwhile others don’t.

Russell’s disappointment in LinkedIn implies that the term ‘socialnetworking’ makes little sense if we leave out the objects that mediatethe ties between people. Think about the object as the reason whypeople affiliate with each specific other and not just anyone. Forinstance, if the object is a job, it will connect me to one set ofpeople whereas a date will link me to a radically different group. Thisis common sense but unfortunately it’s not included in the image of thenetwork diagram that most people imagine when they hear the term’social network.’ The fallacy is to think that social networks are justmade 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-ANTpeople 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 representingpeople and links, but no way to represent the objects that connectpeople together. The social networking services that really work arethe ones that are built around objects. And, in my experience, theirdevelopers intuitively ‘get’ the object-centered sociality way ofthinking 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 offthinking 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 mostcontacts wins. At first you were even listed by the number of contactsyou had, remember?

Reid Hoffman’schoice (however unintentional it might have been, I don’t know) toencourage the use of LinkedIn as a game is what activity theorist Frank Blacklerwould call the introduction a ‘surrogate object.’ The surrogate objectis actually not sustained by the economic, technical, and culturalarrangement that the activity relies on to sustain itself. Playing ‘Whohas the most connections wins’ might have been fun to some people for awhile, but it was not very valuable to the users and developers as acollective in the long run. Now LinkedIn is trying to change the objectof sociality that it offers, and persuade people to re-orient theirnetworks around their actual jobs. (Don’t get me wrong—I’m the first tosupport Reid and his team on their endeavour to make LinkedIn moreuseful as a medium for job-centered sociality!)

Last but not least, we can use the object-centered sociality theoryto identify new objects that are potentially suitable for socialnetworking services. Take the notion of place, for example. Annotatingplaces is a new practice for which there is clearly a need, but forwhich 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 asobject-centered is to suggest that when it becomes easy to createdigital instances of the object, the online services for networking on,through, and around that object will emerge too. Social network theoryfails to recognise such real-world dynamics because its notion ofsociality is limited to just people.

For a much more elaborate academic argument about object-centeredsociality, see the chapter on ‘Objectual Practice’ by Karin KnorrCetina in The practice turn in contemporary theory, edited by Theodor R. Schatzki, Karin Knorr Cetina, and Eike von Savigny (London 2001: Routledge.)


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Cityscape LocativeLab.org is Ronald Lenz's research website on locative & mobile media. This is mostly an archive of blogposts I find inspiring and interesting and an overview of my work. I'm a strategist, technologist and researcher in the field of Location-Based Mobile Services and work at Waag Society, a medialab in Amsterdam, The Netherlands where I head the Locative Media research program and at 7scenes, a platform for GPS games and tours as creative director. Picture 4 Find me at Twitter, LinkedIn or via ronald [at] waag [dot] org.

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