Subgrouping in Social Networks

by Rob Horning

27 May 2011


In this SAI item about “the end of the social network era,” Jason Schwartz claims that people want to continue sharing as much as possible automatically, only they want to share it only with select friends:

When people talk about privacy concerns around check-ins, it’s not that they don’t want ANYONE to know where they are, they don’t want EVERYONE to know where they are. The problem is the lack of tools to create the dynamic, intimate groups of people they would be comfortable sharing with. Once that problem is solved, this space will see a huge uptick from mainstream users.
Facebook has quite a few tools for managing groups of friends. These fail because they rely on the user to manually curate these groups. Users won’t do the manual work necessary to make a Social Circle work, just like they won’t be selective with whom they friend on a check-in service.

It’s no surprise that people don’t seem to bother with Facebook’s group controls very much. It runs counter to the initial attractiveness of social networking—that everyone from your life ends up there—to then turn and use it as an awkward means of negotiating the various levels of intimacy that social networks compress. The novelty of using social networks is in that flattening, perhaps. Using Facebook is a temporary escape from the negotiations and anxieties over who is in and out: The interface presents itself as a way to control it all and permit us to consume sociality on strictly individualistic terms. But once you start having to make decisions about who belongs where and who gets to see what, you get into trickier turf of reciprocity—every update restricted to a certain audience then becomes an implied insult to those on the outside. Restricted messages to a private audience is no big deal in real life; it happens all the time and is an ephemeral moment of choice that isn’t archived forever online as a proved potential sleight.

Schwartz then claims that technology must now solve the problem of people being too lazy to form smaller groups within the larger group of contacts they assemble in online networks: Some clever startup must figure out a way to balance our desire for as many tokens of attention as possible from the widest set of contacts with our somewhat vestigial privacy concerns. But it seems to me that certain properties of online space militate against forming “intimate groups,” no matter how dynamically or automatically it can constitute them. (Incidentally, nothing bothers me more than when Gmail tells me who I should add to an email. Stop telling me who to talk to! Stop trying to get me to run my private email like I am a corporate middle manager negotiating different workgroups!) Social networks serve as archives and scoreboards more than private drawing rooms; the time-space of exclusivity runs against the medium’s accumulative nature. That is to say, social media are by definition for broadcasting, not for the sort of communication that sustains intimacy.

I can’t be alone in regarding virtually everything on social media as purely informational or promotional, akin to Christmas-card-letter copy that has no emotional valence whatsoever. Unless it is a direct and private message, communication through these networks assimilate me to an implied mass audience as I consume it. Evoking a feeling of belonging is not part of the circuit. I get the sense that all social media discourse merely serves to reinforce the significance of what is absent, what is deliberately held back. And that material must be kept offline to retain its aura, as everyone seems to know by now that anything mediated online is always already as good as broadcast. The “social circle” is going to be defined specifically by face-to-face encounters and the communication that takes place during them. If you are not getting facetime, you are not in the social circle, no matter how much of someone’s social media you are privy to.

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