Social Networking – This is Big!

Wikipedia gives the following description of social networking services: “A social network service focuses on building… social relations among people, e.g., who share interests and/or activities. A social network service essentially consists of a representation of each user (often a profile), his/her social links, and a variety of additional services. Most social network services are web based and provide means for users to interact over the internet.”

By now, most of us are familiar with social networking services such as Facebook and Twitter.  These are still relatively new technologies which continue to grow at double and triple digits year after year.  For most people social networking is just that, a way to socialize with others without being physically present.  Others have made social networking an integral part of their lives and have built their livelihood on it.  Still many don’t see the point of using yet another means to contact people they already can contact nor opening themselves up to public scrutiny. 

Businesses, too, are grappling with the value of social networking and whether it is a path to higher productivity, innovation and personal growth or simply a distraction.   Regardless of how you see social networking, it is having a fundamental impact on the way we as humans interact.  So is social networking just a fad or is this the beginning of a quantum shift in human culture?   For those still on the fence, I say, “…you ain’t seen nothing yet.” 

There are basically two schools of thought concerning social networking;.  Younger generations have internalized (at least some of) these services and use them extensively to expand their networks and maintain connections.  Often they don’t distinguish between meeting someone in person or in the virtual world.  Those who haven’t yet warmed to the technology aren’t convinced that connecting legions of people, generally through asynchronous means, is something they need or want. Businesses, too, haven’t decided whether all this interconnectivity can improve productivity, reduce costs or increase innovation, although there are noted exceptions.  (For example, Sales and  Marketing and Communications groups generally benefit merely by reaching new and larger audiences.)

Advocates see social networking following a similar trajectory to the rise of the PC and email.  When first introduced, these technologies appeared to have limited value. (Ken Olson, who was then President of Digital Equipment Corporation at the Convention of the World Future Society in Boston in 1977, said “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home.”) and it wasn’t until people began experimenting with and improving the technology that it’s value was realized.  Social networking tools also are immature and haven’t yet realized their potential, nor do we know how integral they might become in our work and everyday lives.
As they exist today, social networking services are just another high tech tool, and like many technologies and gadgets, we simply accept them and find ways to integrate them into our daily lives.  As social networking services and technology continue to evolve, they have  the potential to become a game changer, affecting human culture and collective human intelligence in a very fundamental way.  This will be big and could possibly be the biggest cultural, productive and innovative change since the invention of the printing press.

I believe this will happen for two reasons.  First, as already mentioned, young people have embraced this technology and therein lies the future. They use Instant Messaging (IM), Facebook, Twitter, iphones, etc. as naturally as most of us use the telephone. This need to be constantly ‘connected’ seems primal, crossing cultural, socioeconomic and educational divides.  Young people are comfortable living in the real and virtual world simultaneously and do so without distinction.  As the technology becomes more accessible, and as more and more people remain perpetually connected, virtual social networks are likely to be indistinguishable from the physical networks we experience with family and friends.

The second, and perhaps more compelling reason stems from the idea behind connections themselves. Social networking is all about making lots of connections with lots of people. In biology, connections are a very powerful thing; increased connections in the brain indicates more complexity and higher intelligence, both between species (i.e. worms to reptiles to animals to man) and among individuals within a species.  Similarly, increased social connections among members of a group (i.e. wolf packs, monkey troops, human tribes, etc.) enables theses groups to function better and accomplish things which individuals cannot accomplish alone. We consider these groups of interconnected individuals more evolved because of the social connections they make.  One of the many theories of why modern humans evolved as they did is due to their ability to connect as a group, to share knowledge, pass it to subsequent generations and accomplish tasks enabling them to meet basic needs thereby freeing time for other pursuits.

We find an analogous situation with technology.  More powerful and complex computer systems can be created by connecting multiple computers together to form a network.  Now, each computer doesn’t have to store all the information it needs, it just needs to know where to go to find it. Computer connections go beyond just increased storage capacity. Networked computers can handle ever more complicated tasks by enabling parallel computing (where many tasks are handled simultaneously) and by tailoring computers to specific functions.  For example, it is common today for computer systems to be comprised of multiple servers, some very efficient at storing data, others optimized to display web pages, and still others designed for number crunching.  Linking these servers together results in a computer network much more efficient than if all these tasks needed to run on a single machine.

Still another area where new and different connections yield innovation and discovery is when different knowledge domains ‘connect’ with one another.  For example, a lot of work is occurring at the intersection of healthcare and engineering.  One such line of research involves nanotechnology as applied to drug delivery.  Here scientists and engineers are working to ‘package’ powerful anticancer drugs inside nanotubes (very tiny hollow molecules in which other molecules can be inserted), which then are made to be attracted to tumors where they release their contents while leaving healthy cells largely unaffected.

From these examples, we see that by just increasing the number of connections intelligence can increase, groups can accomplish more than individuals alone and the cross pollination of ideas can lead to innovation. 

The question is whether increased intelligence, improved performance and discovery will result from the ‘connections’ enabled by social networking.  Consider what might happen when someone wrestles with a problem – maybe it’s financial, maybe it’s medically related – it really doesn’t matter.  Many of us faced with a difficult problem would look to others we know who have knowledge in that particular area.  We ask friends and relatives, and maybe look for advice from a professional, if we can find ones we are comfortable with. Using conventional approaches, how many different ‘connections’ can an individual make and how many of those will be ‘expert’ in the relevant subject matter?  For many people, their conventional networks might yield 10 or maybe 20 expert opinions.  But how broad a spectrum would those opinions represent? More than likely, people in your immediate network are similar to you, so even if you do locate 20 experts, much of their advice might derive from a common perspective.

Now suppose you had a social network of just 10 people and each of them had a network of 10 people which you also had access to.  You now have access to 100 people, but there may only be a few experts among them. Now suppose there was a searching and sorting technology that goes beyond one level and could find qualified ‘experts’ across many levels and selectively organize and sort their advice.  Instead of 10 opinions, you might be able to tap into hundreds or maybe thousands of experts and have all that knowledge synthesized down to a short synopsis. Further, your problem could be compared to vast stores of similar problems (housed somewhere on the web) and cross referenced against hundreds of experts well beyond your network(s).  Does it sound like science fiction?  In fact, it is not too different from what Google can already do.

The idea of instant access to knowledge experts has been around for a while. When this will become commonplace is still unknown, but it is just a matter of time.  Social networking has the potential to create an easily accessible giant collective of human knowledge. Imagine instant access to hundreds of experts on any topic you wish.  The potential is mind boggling.

Another quantum advance derived from social networking might take the form of  cross cultural communications.  Anyone who has worked where multiple people are required to accomplish a task or project knows that most problems are ultimately traced back to communication failure(s) somewhere.  Omissions, misunderstandings, cultural idiosyncrasies, etc. all contribute to communication failures and missteps, even when everyone on the team has a common background.  This problem is only compounded in our global economy.  Imagine if there were social networking tools which could ‘translate’ communications between people and cultures.  Or perhaps be intelligent enough to ‘detect’ ambiguity or confusion between parties? 

Relatively modest advances in social networking might also multiply the power of connections in ways we cannot yet image.  We are just beginning to feel the effects of social networking.  If current rates of technology change continue, we should see major developments in our ability to form connections and acquire knowledge in all sorts of new ways.  Along the way the very nature of human interaction, social development and human evolution might be changed.

Leave a Reply