You don’t have to say much to be social these days. Thanks to LibraryThing (now with Groups!) and Flickr, my books and photographs have more of a social life than I do. I like things this way. It may seem counterintuitive to extroverts, but social software works for me because:
- Social software is mediated communication
If you message my avatar in Second Life when I’m not online, your message will be forwarded to my email — but you never see my email address. (Of course, my avatar is the ultimate mediator, a me-but-not-really digital creation.) Flickr does something similar, allowing members to send flickrmail, cloaking actual email addresses. So does facebook. I’m sure these systems were created to keep email addresses from spammy eyes, but the practice is useful because it means avenues of communication are only as open as I want them to be.
As a participant on a social site, I set the risk level. Whether or not I connect my various online haunts is my choice. I can be as open and transparent as possible, or I can be pseudonymous or anonymous. If you bug me, I can just ban you — and never get another message, see another photo, or notice another of your bookmarked links again. And you can do the same.
- Social software maintains the strength of weak ties
In The Impact of Social Structure on Economic Outcomes Mark Granovetter says that weak ties “are much more likely than strong ones to play the role of transmitting unique and non-redundant information across otherwise largely disconnected segments of social networks.” (In other words, folks you know only casually are generally much better at getting you your next job than people you know well.) The problem with this theory, if you are an introvert, is that you probably put zero energy into maintaining your social network — you don’t keep the business cards of everyone you meet, and you don’t have dozens of phone numbers in a contacts database.
But if you are a blogger, you’ve got a blogroll. You’ve got some regular readers. If you are a geeky introvert, you’ve got an OPML file. All of these things are capable of “transmitting unique and non-redundant information across otherwise largely disconnected segments.” And don’t discount the ability of your meatspace weak ties (past coworkers, roommates, friends of friends whose names you can’t remember because you are bad at that kind of thing) to find you via your blog.
- Social software can create pockets of quiet and focus in the noise
An odd thing sometimes happens when you aren’t standing in front of the crowd in person — it ends up being easier to get more personal, not less. Because you don’t have to think about the crowd (maybe there isn’t one after all) you can post the photographs you love, say what you really think, and tell the story your way.
Thinking of several different posts I’ve read in the last year that stuck with me in some way — Breaching the Web on religion, Medley on what it means to be political, Words for Snow’s medical advice, and Suzy writing about grief — I realize that I don’t really know these people. Yet that statement feels like a like lie. The truth is, I haven’t met any of them, but I’ve been following them on the web for years. Connecting online counts. It matters to me, sometimes I’m surprised by how much.