Social Networking Sites Are Dead Unless They Go Virtual

* Editors Note: The following is the closest thing to a white paper commenting on the inevitable failure of Social Networking Sites like Facebook or Myspace by Elissa Rose and Derek Maune of The argument comes from the idea that sociologically, we as a species are not equipped to handle the rejection of our social circle. Theories which are supported by the Dunbar Number. I personally believe it’s a valid argument, which is why I’ve invited Quillpill to Author on my blog. The solution? Social Networking sites need space. Recently Mark Zuckerberg spoke about how Social Networking sites are changing the world. He’s wrong, they are repackaging spam, and locking us into a Social applications that make it uncomfortable for us to leave. Space and freedom is what Virtual Worlds offer. They allow for the negative affects of a disbanded social circle to be “eased out of”. Elissa, Derek, thank you for writing the following post.*

Our friends lists are full of headstone profiles. The casual
acquaintance, or someone introduced to us by an associate, who we
friended or who friended us and whom we haven’t spoken to in six
months. Maybe we connected on a topic for a day or a week, but the
relationship hasn’t been maintained for whatever reason. Why is it
that we don’t want to de-friend them? Why do we instead maintain
lists full “friends” that are headstones commemorating conversations
long dead?

Drifting apart is a natural consequence of meeting people and
interacting with them. We meet someone, find common ground with
them, and this is the basis for all of our social interactions.
However, not everyone can become each other’s best friends and the
social pressures involved in maintaining these relationships demand
that we pay more attention to some people than others.

We all experience this process in our daily lives. For instance, our
extensive college network diminishes over time as our connection as
classmates dissolves and we pursue other endeavors and interests. A
few of these relationships we will maintain and they’ll become
stronger over time until the common interest that drives them is
simply each other.

It’s these relationships, driven by the common interest of the
friendship itself, that we formalize in various ways and to various
extents. The most extreme example of this formalized relationship is
a marriage. It is publicly announced to our social circle and even
visible to strangers who glance at the ring finger. At that point,
drifting apart is no longer an option. An end to such a formal
relationship must also be formally announced, in this case with a

Another example that is commonly seen is any relationship formed in an
isolated and insular group, be it the schoolyard, the work
environment, or our families. In such an environment connections are
often tagged with terms such as “favorite” and “best” but more
importantly the nature of your relation is visible to the entire
group. As a formalized relationship, we also cannot drift apart.
Instead, we experience falling out, breaking up, or disowning. These
events are often precipitated by a phenomenon commonly known as

Humans are pre-programmed to function within a social network, a
complex tribal structure in which we know where everyone stands
relative to everyone else. While individual relationships are in
constant flux the group as a whole can be quite stable. This
stability is something humans instinctually crave. Online social
networks were created to help us track these complex relationships
between people, and ideally this assistance should serve to increase
the stability of our personal social networks.

The existence of these headstone profiles and our reluctance to end
the connections to them is a sign that social networks are not
achieving their intended function. To be clear, these headstone
profiles are not necessarily inactive users, though some of them may
be, but they are inactive in their relations to us specifically.
Worse, when meaningful contact has ended, context free spam may
continue and further clog our ever expanding social network. Read more after the break.

Anthropologists have done studies to try and determine the sizes at
which social networks, our tribal associations, become unstable.
Probably the most widely recognized estimate comes from Robin Dunbar,
who used neocortical sizes in primates and some historical evidence to
arrive at an estimate of roughly 150 persons. A larger estimate was
arrived at by H. Russell Bernard and Peter Killworth, of between 230
and 290, based on studies of contemporary social groups in the United
States. It is thought that groups that exceed these numbers must rely
on stricter rules and codified associations between members to
maintain stability.

Because we are formalizing so many relationships outside of our core
social group, our overall networks are becoming bloated and the level
of intimacy unclear. Although no close connection exists with these
headstone profiles we are loathe to end them in a formal way due to
our natural aversion to social instability. Some attempt to avoid
distress by abandoning their profiles altogether, creating a new one,
and populating with their core social contacts; a temporary fix at
best which is not available to everyone.

Another method employed and built into some platforms is the
segregation of contact lists, essentially a self imposed social
codification. Although one may be able to temporarily group
individual contacts together, thereby limiting the number of social
connections between multiple groups, this arrangement is fragile.
There also exist tools to aggregate groups and profiles, which work
directly against the segregators. A single leak in connection between
two groups can often irreversibly mix segregated networks, increasing
the number of relationships one has to keep track of. In this way
the aggregators and segregators do not address the core problem.

There is a difference between “I know this person” and “This person
and I both share a common interest” as well as “I am interested in
what this person produces.” In the latter two cases there is no
formalized intimacy, and so while organic relationships may still
develop, there is no need to formally end them if the common interest
becomes less valued or the content becomes less important to the
consumer. In this way common ground networks and content networks
can maintain a much higher level of overall social stability than
purely social networks.

Purely social networks encourage, by their very nature, dramatic
events when the network topography changes. To provide a useful tool
for managing our personal social networks a platform needs to either
subscribe to the common ground or content network models or, if it
intends to remain purely social, fundamentally change the friending
option and display. It needs to be recognized that relationships are
organic and will form and dissolve and that some relationships are
entirely one sided. If you formalize a relationship then you have to
formalize the dissolution of that relationship. To avoid the drama
that would come with a dissolution, but still allow us to cull the
headstone profiles in our lists, we need to avoid the formalization of
these relationships altogether in a way that still allows connection
and contact.

In the physical world we do this by sharing space rather than sharing
lists. Social networking tools should simulate shared space and help
us manage our internal understanding of the relationships in our
network. The phenomenon of abandoning a profile to start over is
similar to moving to a new hang out spot and telling your close
friends about it. Likewise segregating your social lists is akin to
creating a VIP room. However, presence on a list requires next to no
personal investment, whereas a core relationship requires continued
maintenance and presence. Current social networking sites don’t
require investment in relationships or track it, and the etiquette
works against this further by encouraging us to grow lists and
discouraging us from shrinking them.

The keys to clarifying relationships, rather than lists, are space,
presence, investment, and maintenance.


~ by Elissa Rose on March 13, 2008.

5 Responses to “Social Networking Sites Are Dead Unless They Go Virtual”

  1. […] Social Networking Sites Are Dead Unless They Go Virtual The end of MySpace and Facebook? Oh no! […]

  2. “Space the final frontier”

  3. […] Sites Are Dead Part Two: Tools * Editors Note: The following is part two of the series “Social Networking Sites Are Dead” , which is the closest thing I can find to a white paper on the subject, written by Elissa Rose and […]

  4. omg.. good work, dude

  5. Great arguement! As an active user of Second Life and Facebook, I agree. The irony is that my closest friends on Facebook were made in Second Life and we just use Facebook as another way to leave messages for each other.

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