The Social Network Paradox

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Editor’s Note: Nina Khosla is a designer and founder of Teethie, a social blogging startup focused on building interest-based communities. You can follow her @ninakix.

Over the years, there’s been a radical change in the way we interact with our networks of friends online. It used to be that we had a few of our friends (online or offline friends) on a service, allowing us to connect to friends through the Internet and see what their activities were. Where the Internet used to be a somewhat scary world full of strangers, we suddenly had friendly anchors to explore that world with. Sure, most of our friends weren’t online, or at least not using the same services, but the familiarity was comforting and the ability to see what a few of our friends were doing allowed us to find new content and new friends.

We fell in love with sites that made us feel like there are people out there who are similar to us, who we are talking to and having common experiences with. But then, some of these networks — Facebook and Twitter in particular — began to grow explosively. Facebook facilitated a cultural norm of using its service to “friend” everyone we knew. All of a sudden we had tons of our friends everywhere we went. With the experiences gained sharing online spaces with a few friends, logic would dictate that having more of our friends online would make this experience richer. But that isn’t what happened.

Instead, there is a new trend happening: We’re not really paying attention to our friends we’re connected to online. Take Twitter, for example. Twitter used to be a great place for many early adopters to talk tech. It wasn’t so long ago that there were few enough people on Twitter that you could read every single tweet in your stream.

But as the network began to become more dense, and people found more people they knew and liked on Twitter, they began following hundreds of people, and reading all those tweets became impossible. This is such a fact of life that entire companies are based on the premise that you have too many friends on Facebook and Twitter to really pay attention to what they’re saying.

For example, Flipboard, among others, highlights its abilities to share with you the best of your friends’ Twitter and Facebook posts. These companies, and even Facebook’s news feed intelligence, are helping us deal with the disconnect we have with our friends because of our connectedness—they’re sorting through the deluge of information this expanded network created for us.

Therein lies the paradox of the social network that no one wants to admit: as the size of the network increases, our ability to be social decreases.

Like anything else, networks and the information flowing through them follow the laws of supply and demand. As the number of bits, photos and links coming over these networks grew, each of those invisibly began to decrease in worth.

Perhaps that explains the excitement over new products. When a smaller crew of people are using a tool, such as Foursquare, we can keep track of our friends’ locations and whereabouts. At a smaller scale, knowing this information and being able to expect that others have also seen it let us all in on a little secret, it made early use of Twitter feel somewhat magical. But as the number of friends begins to increase—particularly over that magic Dunbar number of 150—the spell begins to wear off. At this scale, we simply can’t easily keep track of it all. When our number of connections rises above 150 everything becomes simply comments, as real conversations tax our already limited ability to interface with the network.

What used to be a small community of web explorers and renegades had turned into nothing more than a large party of somewhat meaningless Foursquare checkins and an excessive use of hashtags. That mythical thing, social connection, doesn’t flow over these networks; information flows over these networks. The only reason the network ever felt meaningful was because, at small scale, the network operated like a community. But that breaks apart at large scale.

Which leads us to communities: Communities, the kind with clearly demarcated lines of membership, have always existed within the context of larger networks, and always broke off in bits and pieces to make them feel familiar. Communities, and the spaces that are given to them to form in, are the only way we are able to work with the network of the physical world. Our soccer team, our school, our workplace, our street, our town, all have their own communities. And I suspect that these are the only things that will make the digital world similarly manageable.

Communities give us an audience and a perspective. We know who we’re talking to. This doesn’t seem like a big thing, but it’s the glue that holds our communication together. It’s the difference between shouting out into the void, and having a conversation with someone standing in front of you.

What’s the difference between live tweeting a sports game or participating in an SB Nation game thread? A tweet is not an experience, it’s the broadcasting of an individuals’ experience to a vague and undefined audience. When I think about the kinds of things I tweet, they’re things like “I just read a cool article, check it out,” or “About to get on a plane,” or “GOALLLL!” if my team (the San Jose Sharks) has just scored.

The thing about all these is that they’re not a shared experience—they are my experiences, which I am sharing with you, but you probably cannot experience with me—my thoughts or fascination with the article I just posted, the feeling of getting on that plane, or the thrill of watching the Sharks tie the game. Perhaps you can compare your notes of your own experience of these things; that’s what most Twitter conversation seems to be, to me, but the experiences are not shared.

This differs from a discussion in a community, such as the type that occurs on SB Nation game day threads. The conversation does not center around any one individual’s experience, but rather the collective condition of the community. The conversation is the experience. Each comment is driven with the purpose of evoking and expressing the emotions that the community experiences, and particularly the ones they hold in common.

This habit of evoking and expressing common emotions is what drives inside jokes and their internet incarnation, memes. Sure, there are disagreements and differences in communities, but the magic is in the similarities: Knowing that everyone on there is also a Sharks fan and just swore at the TV over that goal is emotional and valuable. That’s what expands the sense of belonging and membership that people in a  community feel, and becomes a basis for the entirety of the rest of the discussion (even, especially, differences).

SB Nation is in real-time, but it doesn’t have to be: communities have sprung up for years on traditional, slow PHP bulletin boards. Lost fans populated message boards and blogs, uniting over their common love of Lost, and the way the show antagonized them—what is in that hatch?!

If the pattern of all our networks is to grow larger, as Facebook has pushed others around it to become, consumers will hit these limits on the meaningfulness of these networks. If we are creating social products, we need to create products that do allow people to be social, really social.

We need to build products that don’t just allow users to write and publish, we need to create products that encourage discussion, experiences, and lasting, meaningful relationships. These are the things that create real benefits for users and the products that inspire them. And thus, the future of the social web is no longer on a network, it’s within communities.