#2: The social life of social networks

Alex Steer writes: To understand some of the ways in which online social networking may change as it evolves, we also need to understand what will remain constant. This has been difficult, because much of the development of social networking over the past decade – and much of the media commentary and advice to businesses, brands, and marketers – has been led by technology and has privileged novelty. Over the past few years, the hot topics in social networking have included photo and video sharing, in-network apps and games, mobile social networks, social commerce, geo-location, barcode scanning, and of course real-time search. It can seem like a never-ending game of catch-up.

But interactions between people are a constant, and they can be captured simply through “Four Cs”. People use online channels to communicate (stay in touch), to create/curate (originate and pass on content with their stamp of approval), to collaborate (work towards shared objectives), and to consult (give and receive information, advice and opinion). These four activities are the heart of the user value in the online space. And by way of a brief diversion, this model also makes it easier to see some of the social origins of social networking in older platforms and systems such as email, Usenet, instant messaging and blogging.

Social networks are social phenomena, after all, and much of the best work on their dynamics has been done by anthropologists and sociologists, not technologists or marketers. As social entities, networks are understood as clusters of shared relationships and interactions between individuals. These interactions can be brief or persistent, light-hearted or serious, and so on. Our social interactions are not lined up like dominoes – I know you, and you know Jim, and he knows Kim, and she knows Tim – but tend to be mutual and interconnected. Whenever several of your friends forward you the same email, you’ve been hit by a network effect.

This is why networks are powerful social forces: they transmit and reinforce ideas. Social scientists sometimes use the word meme to describe these ideas transmitted through social networks. Anything from a religious or political belief to a running joke can be considered a meme. Though there’s been a tendency to ascribe the success of ideas in networks to the influence of certain highly-connected individuals (the “influencer theory” popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point), research by sociologists including Duncan Watts of Yahoo! suggests that there are no specific influencers, and that a trend can start anywhere. Ideas spread because they are worth spreading, and they spread through social networks.

So there are some constants to why people choose to interact online. What changes more rapidly is how they choose to interact. In the next two posts we outline the six Pivot Points – today’s interaction decisions that will shape the future of online social networking.

This is the second of four posts this week by Alex Steer, introducing our latest analysis of the future of social networks. Post number three will run tomorrow.  The first post can be found here.

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