Daniel W. Drezner

A mild defense of social networks

A mild defense of social networks

Over the weekend I finally saw The Social Network and read Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker essay about social networks. Both Gladwell and Aaron Sorkin, the screenwriter for The Social Network, have their issues with futurists who embrace these technologies as the beginning of a social revolution. 

Now I’m pretty sympathetic to these arguments. In the past, I’ve expressed a fair amount of ambivalence about the power of Internet technologies to transform the world. After reading the essay and watching the movie, however, I can’t say I’m all that convinced by their theses. 

Let’s start with Gladwell, because it’s the lesser of the two arguments. Gladwell contrasts the relationships and connections forged on Twitter/Facebook with real-world movements. He argues that the latter work when based on a hierarchical structure with strong ties among the participants. The former is based on a networked structure with weak ties. Therefore:

Social media are not about this kind of hierarchical organization. Facebook and the like are tools for building networks, which are the opposite, in structure and character, of hierarchies. Unlike hierarchies, with their rules and procedures, networks aren’t controlled by a single central authority. Decisions are made through consensus, and the ties that bind people to the group are loose.

This structure makes networks enormously resilient and adaptable in low-risk situations. Wikipedia is a perfect example. It doesn’t have an editor, sitting in New York, who directs and corrects each entry. The effort of putting together each entry is self-organized. If every entry in Wikipedia were to be erased tomorrow, the content would swiftly be restored, because that’s what happens when a network of thousands spontaneously devote their time to a task.

There are many things, though, that networks don’t do well…. Because networks don’t have a centralized leadership structure and clear lines of authority, they have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals. They can’t think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error. How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?

This sounds good, except this doesn’t describe networks all that well. Networks eliminate neither hierarchical power nor strong ties — they’re simply expressed in different ways. Actors in central nodes, with lots of dynamic density among other actors, can command both power and discipline. Not all networks will look like this, but the ones successful at fomenting change will likely resemble it. To put it more precisely: social networks lower the transactions costs for creating both weak ties and strong ties, loose collaborations and more tightly integrated social movements. 

It’s not either/or, a point Oliver Willis raises:

Things bubble over to real world via social networking when influencers push the influenced to do something. Social networks tend to magnify this, and the web does give some of us who would never be real-life leaders a way of having some sway. I find it odd that Gladwell misses this, because this is the whole point of his bestseller The Tipping Point.

I’ve no doubt that getting your followers to do something in the real world is more complicated than getting them to retweet or “Like” something, but I don’t think the barrier to doing that is social networking’s distributed nature but rather the intensity of the network following you. But this is the same as in the real world. Network leaders need to have leadership skills no matter the medium.

The movie The Social Network was far more interesting. There is some controversy over what’s been fictionalized, what’s been mysoginized, and what’s been left out of the film, and I’m sympathetic to some of these arguments. Taking what was intended to be on the screen, however, The Social Network also suggests the ways in which offline and online structures intersect. There were many reasons for Facebook’s rise, but I have to think that the site’s initial exculsivity helped to give it something that MySpace and Friendster lacked. 

The film has many great moments (if Aaron Sorkin was meant to translate any real-life figure onto film, it was Larry Summers). Both the ending and Sorkin’s interviews about the film, however, suggests that there’s an emptiness at the core of Facebook that hollows out 21st-century friendships. 

I don’t buy this. Social networking sites giveth as much as they taketh away. Speaking from my own experience, I’ve found myself becoming closer with some friends and less close with others based on Facebook. 

More generally, there seems to be a generational effect whenever a new social technology emerges. Different generations react in radically different ways:

1) The Mature Generation tends to disdain the technology as yet another example of the world going to hell in a handbasket. 

2) For the Maturing Generation, the new technology is both a blessing and a curse. The adroit learn how to use the new technology to vault to social, political or economic heights that they would not have otherwise achieved. At the same time, a new technology without new social norms inevitably creates confusion about what is acceptable and what is taboo. Some people lose status as a result. 

3) For the Youngest Generation, the technology isn’t new by the time they come to use it. They’re savvy in the ways that the technology is both an opportunity and a risk, and can navigate those waters without thinking too hard. For this generatioon, the social technology is part of the new normal. 

Sorkin has demonstrated his Oldest Generation credentials since the "Lemon-Lyman" episode of The West Wing. Which is fine. But there are other generations out there, and they’re not relating to these technologies the way that Sorkin thinks.