Social networks then and now

On a recent vacation during which I helped a friend who’s building a house on Prince Edward Island, I picked up a copy of The Guardian and happened upon the death and funeral announcements. At first glance what’s remarkable is the amount of detail about the family of the deceased, the entire cast of characters involved with the funeral, and even the hymns sung. Scanning all this information, it took me a while to realize that something was missing. There’s almost no information about the life and times of the deceased. What is recognized in these pages is not the person but rather the social network to which the person was connected.

We caught a glimpse of the power of that social network when we were raising the first wall of the house. Word got around, people showed up to help, and we felt the force of community in a place that modernized fairly recently and still retains a strong flavor of pre-industrial culture. In that world, social networking isn’t a lifestyle choice, it’s a matter of survival.

On the way home, waiting in the Charlottetown airport, I saw a copy of Newsweek with a cover story about Facebook. Arguably our new modes of Internet-based social networking really are lifestyle choices, at least so far. As they mature it will be interesting to see how we use them — both to recapture lost ways of life, and to create new ones.

9 Comments

  1. I think the oldest extant social networks, and the ones with the most to teach us about how to make today’s electronic networks more than mere curiosities, are those developed by minority ethnic communities to sustain business and marriage relationships. For example, many of the Sikhs I went to school with in BC in the 1970s had arranged marriages, and the practice was common as recently as the 1950s in Prairie Jewish communities (as were letters of introduction from various “old countries” that were worth their weight in gold to someone trying to set up a business in the New World). I’ve only ever been an observer, not a participant, but the information that goes back and forth sounds a lot like your description of obits: it isn’t really the person who’s being described, but rather the network around them that validates their suitability for a certain social role.

  2. I have a copy of a 1950s “Social Register” for Detroit. In it is listed the social upper crust of the time, addresses (winter and summer), and of special importance all of the clubs they belonged to. It reminded me faintly of Facebook’s “groups” and how some people collect them and some don’t.

  3. it seems to me that “social networking sites” on the net are creating nothing new, but rather recreating things we do already – and things in some sense that have been destroyed by our modern/suburban urban designs. in the old days, you knew your neighbours, knew your shop keepers, knew the people around you. with urban life, suburbs, big box stores, commuting, scattered families, and non-local entertainment (TV etc) we’ve lost the connection with the place and people around us. this is all brand new, and i don’t think we like it very much.

    the net is helping us rebuild what used to be there. and it’s interesting that – in my internet networks at least – the cyber community we are build craves geography as well. hence the barcamps, podcamps, blogger meet-ups, etc. all take cyber networks and bring them back down to real people in real places. we want to meet and know the people in our networks.

    with modern society, we’ve removed our our geographical connection to our social networks – and removed many of the connections themselves. the net is rebuilding them, *and* allowing us to find them around us in the physical world as well.

  4. Do you think the obituaries have information about people involved in the funeral because that’s more important than the person, or because that’s what information is available? Or because the obit is written for people in the community who knew the person, not people who don’t know them?

  5. “with modern society, we’ve removed our our geographical connection to our social networks – and removed many of the connections themselves. the net is rebuilding them, *and* allowing us to find them around us in the physical world as well.”

    I think that’s right. A short-term deterrent is the fact that for many people still, the Net is an inherently untrustworthy medium — even when interaction is local and potentially reinforce by all sorts of real-world relationships and identity cues. But that’s changing.

    “Or because the obit is written for people in the community who knew the person, not people who don’t know them?”

    That occurred to me. However this newspaper is based in Charlottetown which, at pop. 32,000, is beyond the scale of everybody knowing everybody.

  6. It seems that online social networks will force everyone to sign up, just as people were forced into email. If you don’t have an email address, it’s hard to communicate w/ others. It cuts your off. Social networking will eventually reach that critical mass, too.

  7. I agree that “social networking” is, in many ways, attempting to restore to the electronic population some of the community dynamics that we apparently miss, having left out small towns for the big city’s bright lights and tiny cubicles.

    But it’s not all rehashing! Electronic networks permit some new kinds of organization, and we’re experimenting with these as well. For example, at least three of my “social backbones” have ways to exclude specific people from your own network, even if they’re present in the networks of your networkees. This, it seems to me, is a direct contrast to the natural community, where everyone knows everyone’s business.

  8. > Electronic networks permit some new
    > kinds of organization, and we’re
    > experimenting with these as well.

    Agreed. I was surprised by the way I used Twitter during this past week when my dad died. Not normally my style to be so public about such things, but as you say, it was an experiment, and I don’t regret trying it.

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