the end of accidental networks

Networks Think of the most influential kid you knew in high school. Think of the friend who had the biggest effect on you in college.  Who are you because of them?   What difference did their difference make?

Ok, multiply the "influential friend" effect by 5.  Who are you now?  I bet you are unrecognizably different. 

the old world model

In the "old world" model, we make friends by accident.  Our family is from Seattle, so that’s where we were born.  Or, our Dad got a job in Chicago, so that’s where we went to school.  We like to ski, and that’s how we ended up in Vermont.  Accidents of birth, occupation, inclination, all of these constrain the set of people with whom we can be friends. 

Once in place, some channeling takes place. We’re grew up in Seattle, say, and as it happens we lived in a neighborhood called Laurelhurst.  This increased the chances that we would go to Lakeside School, and this, in turn, is why we know Bill Gates on a first name basis, and this, in turn, is the reason we retired from Microsoft some years ago to work on our golf game.  (And this is why people struggle to get into the right neighborhoods, clubs and schools…to tap channeling and improve on accident.)

But even within the channeling, there is accident.  It just turns out that we end up with a locker beside Bill Gates at Lakeside.  Or, no, this advantage goes to some guy called Paul Allen.  Our "best" friends will be supplied by serendipity.  We will never know that these kids are not nearly so interesting and formative as three kids in a grade ahead of us.

the new world model

One of the things that the internet extinguished was the need for accidental sociality, for post-kinship connections that depend on spatial or institutional proximity.  And if there is a mission for the next generation of the internet, Web 3.0, as it were, it is a magnificent sorting of the world that identifies people with whom we are most likely to see eye to eye, meet idea with idea, draw innovation from creativity in a pell mell rush to revelation.  I mean, that’s what the world could look like.  In the short term, it will be nice if we build these networks.  In the longer term, it will be obligatory. 

Linkedin does a very bad job at this.  People use MySpace and Facebook to "audition" friends and I would love to hear about relationships so discovered.  As it stands, machines can sort the social world for us, they can begin to craft more interesting networks, but so far they haven’t done very much of this.  As I was saying in a previous post, I have met new friends through the internet.  But machines didn’t find them.  I did.  (Unless we consider blogging a great sorting exercise, and this might be exactly what it is [among other things].) 

My guess is that machines once they are dedicated to this purpose will do a much better job of building social connections than I could do even if I were to devote all my time to it.  It can detect patterns in the stuff I put on line, and find hidden resonances with the stuff others put on line.  And this would be interesting.  It would be fun to get an email that says "we’ve found a match."  I get these know from the DNA databases that Andrew Zolli persuaded me to join.  There are a couple of people out there with whom I am virtually identical from a genetic point of view.  No, it turns out we don’t have anything else in common. 

But this much is clear.  One of these days our descendants will be astonished to hear that we build our social networks by hand out of accident and coincidence (aka randomness, chance and probability). "What," they will want to know, "that was enough for you?"

7 thoughts on “the end of accidental networks”

  1. Web2.0 is already enabling people with a common interest to find each other (indeed, it is in many cases, also creating the common interest), and your “Friend-of-the-Month Club” is an obvious extension.

    But I’m reminded, Grant, of many discussions I’ve had with people from cultures with arranged marriages (particularly when I lived in South Korea and Zimbabwe). Their argument is always: How could you leave such an important decision as finding a marriage partner to chance? Surely (they say) wouldn’t it be better to put this decision in the hands of an experienced intermediary, who knows the two families and their histories, knows both the two people better than they do themselves, and can therefore match one with the other far better than leaving things to mere happenstance. Not many modern-day westerners find this argument compelling, though.

  2. Who are you now? I bet you are unrecognizably different.

    Not really, according to Jack Avery after reading this blog, Grant McCracken is exactly the same and back in high school “could find something interesting to say about a rock on the ground”. So, perhaps unrecognizably different in your own mind, but not to the ones who knew you.

  3. I’d be a bit concerned that eliminating serendipity in friend-making would cause more like-with-like linkage, potentially squeezing out the occasional like-with-unlike encounters from which we might benefit greatly. I suppose one could tune the software to vary the appropriate social distance for linkage, though, to deal with this problem.

  4. It can be argued as an accident or otherwise.

    Because, any other action apart from ones’ own action, can be given the term accident.

    But yes, these social networking sites have provided wider opportunity and means for the ones genuinely interested.

  5. The idea of setting a program to search out new friends is sounds great, but I haven’t been very impressed with any of the BETA versions that are floating around out there. On the other hand, it also sounds rather creepy in a way, tieing in as it does to one of the huge concerns I have with the web and with the trend toward extreme niche marketing.

    While the web has been touted as an extraordinary and unprecedented opportunity to connect with the world, to expand the limits of experience and exposure to limitless horizons, it seems to me that without conscious effort on the part of its users, it actually accomplishes exactly the opposite effect. Instead of introducing the user to a new world, it reduces the world effectively to a set of things that match up with the user’s world view. Why pay any attention to things that are strange or different when it’s so easy to set your search filters for things you already know you like? Why waste time on people with different ideas when people who agree with you are actively searching out your blog? It’s so much more fun and easy to share an existing love for a particular style of music/movies/books/arts/food than it is to try to convince someone who doesn’t respond that way to see your point of view. People are exposed to so much more than was possible before, but so much of it fits into narrow little boxes that line up comfortably with the known.

    I don’t consider myself a luddite by any means — hell, I worked for Atari back in the day, man! — but I have to admit, it was the utter randomness of who and what I came into contact with as a child that DID make me appreciate new experiences. If I’d been able to narrowcast my interests to likeminded souls, I’d probably be a much sadder and more limited person. Granted, I had a lot of options for exposure to the “other” because I grew up in a cosmopolitan environment (San Francisco), but it still makes me a little nervous to think that people can so easily choose to wear blinders that don’t just shut out the outside world, but instead transform it into a recognizable shape that conveniently leaves out all of the unpleasant bits. It seems that for a some people, the more access we have, the less we choose to see…

  6. The idea of setting a program to search out new friends is sounds great, but I haven’t been very impressed with any of the BETA versions that are floating around out there. On the other hand, it also sounds rather creepy in a way, tying in as it does to one of the huge concerns I have with the web and with the trend toward extreme niche marketing.

    While the web has been touted as an extraordinary and unprecedented opportunity to connect with the world, to expand the limits of experience and exposure to limitless horizons, it seems to me that without conscious effort on the part of its users, it actually accomplishes exactly the opposite effect. Instead of introducing the user to a new world, it reduces the world effectively to a set of things that match up with the user’s world view. Why pay any attention to things that are strange or different when it’s so easy to set your search filters for things you already know you like? Why waste time on people with different ideas when people who agree with you are actively searching out your blog? It’s so much more fun and easy to share an existing love for a particular style of music/movies/books/arts/food than it is to try to convince someone who doesn’t respond that way to see your point of view. People are exposed to so much more than was possible before, but so much of it fits into narrow little boxes that line up comfortably with the known.

    I don’t consider myself a luddite by any means — hell, I worked for Atari back in the day, man! — but I have to admit, it was the utter randomness of who and what I came into contact with as a child that DID make me appreciate new experiences. If I’d been able to narrowcast my interests to likeminded souls, I’d probably be a much sadder and more limited person. Granted, I had a lot of options for exposure to the “other” because I grew up in a cosmopolitan environment (San Francisco), but it still makes me a little nervous to think that people can so easily choose to wear blinders that don’t just shut out the outside world, but instead transform it into a recognizable shape that conveniently leaves out all of the unpleasant bits. It seems that for a some people, the more access we have, the less we choose to see…

  7. Please forgive the unfortunate thought that your post made me think of. But do you think that there is any relationship between the breakdown in social or community values or the degenerating levels of respect afforded to elders these days to the increasing levels of social networking?

    Listening to the news (in London) regarding the ever increasing voilent crime, the suggested cause is that young people are making their own rules, looking out for only themselves and dispensing with the respect and defference that would normally be afforded to parents, the church, police etc. Instead forming ‘laws’ amongst social groups.

    Very poorly articulated, but a connection?

    If you think that’s weak… how about this other unconnected nugget. A colleague of mine remarked “there are no heroes in the world anymore. the world needs more heroes”. Since we’re all becoming ‘friends’ who will stand out as a hero?

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