In a few different ways and places, lately, I’ve asked the question: “How many social networks can one person join?” The context for that question was the recent appearance of the social network fatigue meme.
Discussion of this topic has focused on how to make it easier to join and participate in multiple networks. That’s an interesting challenge, and it invites technical solutions in the realm of data portability. If I could carry my reputation and group affiliations with me from one social network to another, the argument goes, I could more easily hop from one network to another.
Maybe so. But that argument begs two key questions. First, why would I want to hop from one network to another? Second, is making that easier a good thing for me and for everyone else involved?
On one level the answer to the first question is obvious. Every social network provides its own unique experiences and enforces its own set of rules. Those experiences and rules are designed for different purposes. Flickr is about sharing photos, not finding a mate, though I’m sure Flickr has made more than a few matches by now. Conversely Match.com is about matchmaking, not photos, though photos play a central role on Match.com. So in order to satisfy multiple needs we may be obliged to join different networks, have different experiences, learn different rules.
A subtler answer to the first question is that having different experiences and learning different rules is inherently valuable. That’s why travel is a good thing. When we visit other places, and observe (or ideally participate in) other cultures, we’re better for it. We learn new things about the cultures we visit, and we deepen our understanding of the culture we return to.
From this perspective, the answer to the second question is that there are wrong ways and right ways to grease the skids for culture-hoppers. An example of the wrong way is the Burger King on the Champs-Élysées. An example of the right way is the ATM machine next door that takes my American debit card and dispenses Euros.
I mention all this because I’m returning from a meeting that brought together people from very different networks and cultures. The purpose of the meeting was, somewhat reflexively, to discuss how to build bridges of understanding among people from different networks and cultures. These kinds of cross-disciplinary efforts are always fun and interesting, but in my experience they end when the meeting ends.
In principle we could visit one another’s worlds more often by visiting them virtually. In practice I’ve never seen a virtual exchange program, but it’s a conceivable application of online multiplayer gaming. And it would be a valuable one.
Culture-hopping is a skill that, like any other, improves with practice. In the real world it’s one that’s slow, expensive, and arduous to improve, so most of us don’t improve it as much as we could. Simulation could help make the process faster, cheaper, and easier.
The best culture-hoppers are the ones Malcolm Gladwell calls connectors. They are scarce resources and prime movers. Lois Weisberg was able to bring people together and make things happen, according to Gladwell, because she could move in many different social circles and adapt to a variety of cultural protocols. That’s a hardwired talent fully expressed in relatively few Lois Weisbergs. But it’s also a talent that we all possess in some degree, that we could improve with practice, and that would make us more effective to the extent we did.
A good simulator would make it easy to visit a foreign culture, but not too easy. Your ATM card should work, because without it you wouldn’t be able to do anything at all. But no Burger Kings, that’d be cheating. To play the game properly you’d have to sample the local cuisine.