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How the internet helps us make sense of things


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How the internet helps us make sense of things

  1. 1. Social Networks, the internet and how they help us make sense of the world<br />The internet has redefined the way we interact and communicate. The world is smaller and information travels faster than it ever has. Traditionally relationships have been defined by our geography, language and culture. This is no longer the case. Why should we be limited to those in our locality when virtually everyone in the world is only a mouse click away? As we’ve moved from an industrialised world driven by the movement of atoms (physical products) to a information age where music, movies and other media fly along fibre-optic cables we’ve also seen a growth in the idea of information as currency and networks as the trading areas. <br /> <br />We are what we know. <br />We are defined by what we share. <br />Mass collaboration, not mass communication. Together we are stronger. These are the ways we operate now. <br />So firstly it’s worth understanding why some people devote such a large amount of time to contributing online. Why do people spend hours a day contributing to DIGG and writing Wikipedia articles? There are a number of reasons but I’d argue that these are the most important: <br />To promote themselves or their brand online<br />To help other people in a similar way to helping people in the real world<br />By contributing they’re often helping define themselves and crystallising their thoughts<br />Being an expert is cool and seeing something you’ve published rise to the top of a chart is a great rush<br />There are so many different ways of contributing and these all affect the levels of our relationships. I read blogs and feel I have an intimate knowledge of the bloggers who I read regularly. This is odd as recently I’ve started encountering these bloggers in the real world. It’s bizarre to have such an imbalance in understanding, similar to regular Joe to celebrity I suppose. <br />You can roughly break people into 3 groups in terms of internet interaction. Passive recipients, active engagers and content producers. The first are mostly anonymous and haven’t really started building their online lives, they use it the internet mostly as a utility, join facebook, buy stuff from amazon and maybe check tripadvisor before a holiday. The second group are dipping their toe in the water, starting a blog and commenting on others, joining Twitter, writing amazon reviews etc. The third are the most active ambassadors, the Ze Franks, the Robert Scobles and myriad of other popular bloggers, life-cachers and vloggers. These are the people who we admire, they help us make sense of the world and help us define our thoughts. They are massively influential and have a reach far beyond their locations/cultures. As with great writers, comedians and philosophers, we like them and read their work because they are stating ideas we concur with but say them in a far more clever way than we ever could. <br />The internet really encourages the idea of the social in everything it does and the most successful internet properties encourage contribution. This is brilliant as not only does it get people engaged with the site on a deeper level but it also gives them constantly updated low-cost content which other users implicitly trust. If you look at the number of user generated areas on Amazon, it’s clearly not just the reviews….. <br />You have the lists, the customer generated photos, the wishlists, the ratings, ‘other people who bought this album’, all of these contribute to the richest, most immersive buying experience on the web. I not only treat reviews far more seriously than I would the manufacturers description but when I read a well-written review I’ll often go and look at the reviewers blog & other reviews and make purchasing decisions based on that. This is the beauty of serendipity online, just one example of the random way the web encourages exploration and investigation. Find a site, click on a link, read a comment, look at the originators blog, click to see their twitter feed and what they’ve been reading on Amazon. In a similar way to the way psychics appear to work (ultimately we want to believe everything’s about us) the internet is a beautiful example of serendipity and happy chance. It is a place full of resonances and long spirals of investigation. I’ll start out looking for a book and end up signing a petition on freedom of speech. <br />Although we define YouTube as a video portal it’s massively social in the way it operates. I can create my own page, add other users as friends and subscribe to their videos. It’s allows me to virtually meet and follow other like-minded people and comment on their work in a very social way. Fair enough, most of the comments on YouTube tend to be pure digital graffiti, totally inane and badly punctuated but this doesn’t preclude it being used for better purposes. The boundaries of what are and aren’t social networks are blurring as websites diversify and develop. They virtually all allow friends, contacts or fans. How much you’d like to interact with contacts pretty much depends on where you are. is a great place to see the future of video consumption. You don’t comment on the video when you reach its end, you comment on it at specific places in a social way.<br />Flickr’s now added the facility to upload videos but has mainly stayed true to its original roots of helping people share photos. It does this very well and encourages interaction through comments or adding notes to photos. You can see both here: <br />Why did this photo get so many comments and notes?<br />So many people, all passionate about her work. <br />Another place for sharing photos (usually not the quality of Flickr images) is Facebook, the big success story over the past 2 years. It’s naturalised many traditionally geeky processes (uploading videos/pictures/tagging etc) and looks to be still growing strong. The main issue in my mind is the inflexible way it’s setup to treat friends. The issue is to have such a black and white qualification as friend or not-friend is very outmoded. I’ve got people I'd take a bullet for, people I'd cook dinner for, people I’d meet for lunch on my employer's tab, people I fancy, people I’ve met once in a training seminar and so on. This is crucial to the way we relate to each other and understand this new territory. Although Facebook was initially setup for real world people you’ve actually met, the networks which succeed in the future will be far more fluid in the levels of interaction and trust. Typical Facebook use is quite predictable; join, accumulate dozens of semi-friends, spy on a few exes for a bit, play some Scrabulous, get bored, then get on with your life, occasionally dropping in to respond to a message or see some photos that have been posted. This won’t really engage forever which is why Facebook has added applications and instant messaging to its abilities. One area Facebook has been surprisingly successful is that of facilitating group action. The HSBC student campaign is a great example of people working together on a common goal.<br />Of course we’re seeing more niche social networks emerge for every interest area, golf, travel, car, style, fashion; all these have fast-growing user bases. is a great example of a niche social network, specifically for mothers to be. Very simple in layout it allows you to find out more about your stage of pregnancy as well as build a blog, join the forums. Again, why would you contribute to forums and blogs? Well in terms of forums it’s all about helping people. In terms of blogs it’s generally to promote yourself. The more I link to your site and comment on it, the higher my rating on authority lists and search engines will go. BabyCentre gives mothers who are often operating in isolation a great chance to engage with others in a similar circumstance when traditional supports are disappearing. is an interesting experiment in a niche network which you have to be invited to join thus trying to keep the rarified atmosphere of a private members club. is a network made up of, well the clues in the title. You need to submit a photo and have it voted on by a number of members. Hmmmmmm. <br /> is a site which allows you to build your own social network on any subject. There are already thousands. Think of a niche and you can potentially have a global community in minutes. <br /> the social music site puts you in touch with people who have similar musical tastes as you. You can arrange to meet at gigs or just keep it virtual but we’re certainly seeing along more real world gatherings from online groups as the line blurs between traditional and cyber contacts. is a great example of this, as is in facilitating these get-togethers around a community. Of course meeting people will be seen as quite old-fashioned in a while but for many people you can’t beat getting together for a beer as the most productive way of developing relationships. <br /> <br />We’ve also seen a huge growth in the number of mobile platform networks emerging (Brightkite, Socialight etc). This will ultimately be the main touch point for social interactions. Facebook on my phone which shows me the GPS position of all my friends and when people with similar friends/interests are close by isn’t far off. Location specific interactions evolving from the web into the real world. <br /> <br />Where some sites get more complex (Facebook and Flickr) others have gone for simple and limited functionality (Twitter, Jaiku, 9rules etc). Twitter is a micro social network where you communicate with others around you but the limitation is you have to keep your messages to 140 characters. It’s been a huge success, being a popular way to stay in touch with busy friends. The use has started to now morph as people start using Twitter to find out specific information. Of course Google or Wikipedia is usually where we go for answers but by asking our friends and followers (who know us) we get results which are far more relevant to us. I don’t want 3 millions results on Google. I just want 5 results which are relevant to me. Because Twitter works so well on mobiles it gives me a super fast response to questions: <br />“I’m in San Francisco, does anyone know any good pizza places?” <br />Human powered search sites like are a further development on this theme. <br />Many of the gaps are generational. Older people tend to treasure real world contacts far more seriously than those of their online contacts. Younger people are far more likely to place trust in their internet connections.<br />For every online contact there are ubiquitous places where you’ll see most people: <br />Twitter, Facebook,,, Flickr and YouTube;<br />These are the places I would expect to find and develop contacts into trusted sources. <br /> in particular shows the way our behaviours have developed. We’ve moved from closed to open. Of course we still email but we’re just as likely to write on someone’s wall. On delicious I now store and broadcast my favourite links which traditionally I’d have kept private and hidden. By tagging the sites as I save them I give myself control of thousands of different sites I’ve bookmarked. The happy effect of me tagging sites properly means that my micro-organisation benefits the entire community as well. <br />In South Korea, possibly one of the most hard-wired communities in the world we’re seeing people redefine gaming. Games are no longer a solitary activity for pimply teenagers; they’re now far more collaborative. Levels are designed to force people to work together to complete complex tasks. World of Warcraft and other "massively multi-player online role-playing games" (or MMORPGs) are creating very close-knit groups of friends in a new and unlikely place.<br />The Internet lets us form groups and connections effortlessly. We can have intense relationships with people we’ve never met. We can work in groups on projects that we wouldn't even have known about previously. We can find other people for fun in the real (non-Internet) world. We can find people with remarkably obscure interests matching our own. Previously these would have taken far too much time and effort. What the Internet has given us is a set of tools that allow us to create and find these groups and develop these relationships. What recent technology has given us is the ability to display this information in novel and playful ways:<br /><br /><br />