Social Partitions, Honesty, and the New Social Media

More open and honest relationships with the entirety of our social network are coming soon whether we like it or not.

Things are changing. The speed of evolution of communication technologies is moving at an unreal pace when viewed in a historical perspective. But it’s like the physics experiment of shooting a projectile straight up from a moving cart (the incomparable Julius Sumner Miller – skip to 7 minutes), or jumping in a moving airplane. These leaps and bounds are taken more or less in stride because, from our perspective, we’re standing still as this system we’re a part of is hurtling from one paradigm to the next.

Telegraph: 1844 – First Telegraph line btw. Baltimore and Washington
Telephone: 1878 – First Telephone Directory: 21 listings in New Haven, CT
Mobile Phone: 1979 – First commercial citywide cell network set up in Japan
Email: 1986 – First dial-up ISP on West Coast of U.S. formed (Best Internet)
Text Message: 1992 – First commercial text message sent
IM: 1996 – ICQ shows up on the scene
Online Social Networks: 2003, MySpace Founded; 2008, Facebook overtakes MySpace
Twitter: Founded 2006

Social partitioning is nothing new, and people have been managing the different segments of their social networks for probably as long as we’ve been social primates. Sometimes the social partitions are weak… perhaps you have dinner parties with your bacon lovers and dinner parties with your vegetarian (or ovo-lacto, or pescetarian, or whatever) friends. And they’ll all get along fine socially, but it’s hard to pick a menu when the two overlap.

There are any number of reasons why two people, or two groups of people from within your social graph should not meet. Maybe you have two antithetically rabid politico friends, and you simply know that putting them in the same room would erupt into politically charged badness.  Maybe you have two friends who have had a falling out and never want to see each other again, but you’re stuck in the middle.  Maybe your buddy is a lothario and your sister-in-law has a penchant for co-dependence and self-destructive relationships (my sister-in-law, by the way, is happily married). Maybe you are the lothario and you don’t want your various conquests to know who each other are. Maybe you’d just like to keep your work life separate from your social life.

“No One Must Know”

All of these examples, just for starters, are reasons why you may wish to control how much the people you interact with are able to know about how you interact with others.  Though there are the select few who just want to put it all out there…

The question is: How have these new technologies, culminating in Twitter, affected this social partitioning?

Telegraph: Sending messages is easier. The recipients of those messages can’t really find out about each other. Biggest information hub is the telegraph operator who knows everyone’s messages.

Telephone: Faster, easier communication. Centralized location for receiving in the house leads to others intercepting your messages (for good or bad). People trying to talk to you inevitably end up transmitting messages to those around you – can lead to severe information leakage between partitioned segments of your network.

Mobile Phone: Communication on the go. Able to check in or respond from anywhere. Much more secure in that messages meant for you go straight to you. The only way around that is if someone intercepts the phone itself – the transmission is basically secure. Plans can change on the go, no need to arrange specific meeting times and locations, and no need to adhere to commitments to make those dates (though I wish people still would!). This allows significantly more freedom of movement between segments of your network without risking that those segments interact, and while maintaining contact with all segments.

Email: Password protected. Stored in the cloud. Able to easily manage several accounts. These are good ways to keep snoops out, and archived conversations in asynchronous time allow for effective management of communication to different segments of your social network. There are occasional snafus due to inadvertent “Reply To All” or wrong address events, but we’ll chalk those up to human error rather than blaming the technology.

Text Message: Discreet communication becomes easier and faster. Snoops are happy because actual conversational information is now available on the phone rather than in the cloud. They’re more efficient than voice calls for many types of interactions, allows user to multitask, but it doesn’t effectively change how you interact with your social graph.

IM: Now there’s an additional online account to manage. Having multiple IM accounts and multiple email accounts could start to get hairy, but the people you talk to on the other end of IM still don’t know much about each other just from the fact that they’re both talking to you.

Online Social Networks: Now things are getting really hairy. Everyone you connect with can access information (sometimes a little, and sometime a whole lot) about the other people you connect with. Managing multiple accounts is less secure than other technologies, because even if you try to maintain segments of your network that are completely separate, it is beyond your control. The 2nd and 3rd degree tendrils of friends of friends probably connect to each other, and the only way to prevent members of one segment from stumbling upon your profile with another segment is to remove all identifying information… and that removes much of the utility that makes the social network worth using to begin with.

We are now seeing that the utility of social media to the user is directly related to the user’s ability to engage their entire social graph without concern about detrimental leakage of information across social partitions.

Twitter: The culmination of social communication. You are effectively dumping your messages into the cloud for anyone to access. To get the most utility, you do not micro-manage who is accessing your stream of information (who is Following you), and therefore you must be prepared for any information you release to potentially be accessed by anyone. Furthermore, this information is archived and cached, so it’s not just anyone on Twitter now – it’s anyone who may ever be on Twitter or perform a Google search that might return results from your Twitter stream.

So what?

Hmmm… good question, actually. But I’ve come prepared for this… Here’s what:

Sometimes with good intentions, and sometimes with bad intentions, people have been grouping, filtering, partitioning, and managing the segments of their social networks. For most of our history people who intelligently organized their social relationships were able to do so with the reasonable expectation that the chances of a breach of a social partition with a seriously negative impact was pretty slim.

Forecast: We’re going to have to maintain more open and honest relationships with our social networks. If we want to get the most out of new communication technologies like Twitter, we must be able to use them with only slight inhibitions, and with the understanding that all parts of our social networks will potentially have access to all other parts.

We have, whether we know it or not, whether we would like to admit it or not, partitions in our own personalities. For every social group with which we affiliate as individuals, we have crafted slight variations on ourselves to optimize our interactions with that particular group. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I eat tofu with some friends, and steak with others.

The point is not that I have to choose between steak and tofu. I don’t, and won’t. The point is that we need to be open so that my tofu friends aren’t under the impression that I never eat steak, and vice versa. My tofu friends do know that I eat steak (regularly), and that’s fine with them. Problems only arise when different partitions of your social network have conflicting ideas about who you are, and when the realization of their error results in pain, mistrust, or an awareness of previous infidelity. Some people manage their lives this way already. Kudos and all that, but humans are weak, and it’s easy to let things slide when there’s no reason to do otherwise.

Soon, anyone who uses the new technologies, but continues to manage their social networks based on the old paradigm will see increases in the frequency of social conflicts that start because of information exposed via Twitter or Facebook. These people will alienate members of their social graph until they’re left with only those who aren’t offended by the extremes of their behavior. The more extreme your behavior or deception is, the smaller your network is, and denser it is with others who are not bothered by your extreme behavior or deception.

Consider white supremacists on social networks. They are densely connected with each other, but how many of you would allow a connection from your profile to anything anywhere near that partition of the network? Sure, they have a functioning network, but they are quite separate from the network as a whole, mostly linking in to one another rather than out into the world at large… and there, the world at large, is where the value is.

So you don’t have to be all business. You don’t have to be all social. You don’t have to be all tofu or all steak. Unless of course that’s who you are… but most of us are a melange. Embrace your melange-ness, but consider how others will embrace it as well. And ideally (without trying to get too utopian here), new social communication media will lead to increased openness, honesty, and acceptance throughout all of the partitions of our social networks.


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