Reinventing Social Networks

Notes from Mark Pesce’s keynote “You-biquity” at Web Directions South 2006.

The web’s been dull for five years, but right now, anything is possible. The heart of that possibility is that we’re starting to understand what the web can do for us as human beings.

I’m trying to understand how we interact with each other and with technology. To do that, I need to peel back the layers of technology, language until we get back to what we were like millions of years ago–like chimpanzees. We’ve found the gene that gives us bigger brains, but what is it good for? Nature didn’t give us a big brain for nanotechnology. But we need it for socializing. We’re all social animals.

Why are we social? Why is it important to be social? If you are social, you will live longer! When you are social you stand to live long enough to pass on your genes. Chimps grooms, humans gossip. The social is essential to our origins. But being social is one of the most difficult tasks we can perform. Last stage of brain development happens as a teenager: the capabilities of being social. Learning to model all our social interactions. We carry around a model in our brains of all the people we interact with all the time. The better you are at socializing, the more you can manipulate the model.

Social modeling takes place in the neocortex. There’s an average number of relationships humans can hold in the model: The Dunbar Number. About 150. The reason we have a bigger brain is so that we can hold a bigger social network in our head because it confers benefits.

The term social network has become the topic de jour. But is MySpace really like your neocortex? Not really. Why is MySpace big? The network effect. Why is it good? Possibly lots of reasons. Not all that interesting except that I can make a map of my social networks.

Their big secret? These social networks are currently a lot of work. My MySpace page isn’t really me. This is the achilles heel of the social networks today. They are passive. They wait for you to feed them. If you don’t feed them, they die.

What really could be going on could be so much more profound. We’re being asked to fill the social networks with time. But time is a scarce commodity.

No one is thinking about tying together things like email to social networks. Finding, Filtering, Forwarding. Each of us are finding things then forwarding that on to people we know. We’re sharing media in ad-hoc social networks. We find things, we filter them, and we forward them. There’s a lot of potential here for social networks to help us communicate more effectively than ever before.

When you are a human being living in the Western World right now, you have a data shadow that follows you around. All electronic communication can be used to model your social networks. But all that data is being poured on the floor. We don’t use it, we get rid of it.

The mobile phone is an even bigger offender of getting rid of useful data than the computer.

Even anonymous social networks (like Amazon) are useful.

Mash-ups are just the beginning of the job. We need to comprehensively and obsessively mash up our data. The web is the universal glue between our devices. How do we reinvent our social networks using the data we already have.

We’ve forgotten the real world. It’s easy to forget about this these days. But our neocortex is wired for the real world. We need something to tie them together: the mobile phone. It’s a nexus for social communication. For human communication. It’s the place where the real and virtual world touch. But most of the time, it is doing nothing at all. This is an enormous waste.

We need to start thinking about that device as the center of the social world, the way into the data shadow. We need it to start active listening. Email, IM, Skype, World of Warcraft…all need to actively listen.

Just by letting devices listen, we can produce a model of our social networks. The ubiquity and utility of mobile phones lets them do this. The value of this information will increase once it’s shared. And it all has to happen invisibly. It doesn’t have an interface, it just sets the stage for everything else.

Lots of people are nibbling at this problem, but no one is tackling it head on. If we don’t get in front of this, we will be run down by it. Users will do it themselves.

One thought on “Reinventing Social Networks

  1. can smarter devices actively share useful data? what a great question you-biquity poses. what is the best UI for a mobile phone? voice?

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