Communities. Connections. Contacts. Families. Fans. Favorites. Followers. Friends. Groups. Neighbors.
As you jump from one online "social" group to another, these are the categories you need to juggle. Depending on the system you are using, association with such categories can influence the type or level of visibility your own information has to others. It can also affect the type of interactions you can have with other people in the network.
Managing such categories is one of the ways that social networks have of differentiating themselves from one another. "Membership" in different categories can also influence the costs you incur for network participation.
Hopping from one network to another requires a constant re-centering of personal focus. Networks can differ significantly in terms of how easy -- or hard -- it is to contact someone else in the network. Commercially sponsored networks may also place barriers in the way of entering and leaving the network in order to maximize the time spent within the network, time which can be translated directly into maximized exposure to the sponsor's commercial messages.
I have mixed feelings about all this. On the one hand, I see nothing wrong with communication networks mimicking the different relationship categories that exist in everyday life. All personal and business relationships are not created equal, after all, and these differences are one of the things that makes life interesting.
I do have some qualms, though, about the "balkanization" and proliferation of communication networks:
- Emergency response. When a crisis or disaster happens and a large number of people need to be informed rapidly about something, will the proliferation of systems make it more difficult to reach people in time to make a difference? (This is not a theoretical concern. I have a daughter who is a student at Virginia Tech.)
- Barriers to linking. One of the things that built the web was the ability to navigate links. Formation of artificial communication barriers to link traversal may help security but also causes a breakdown in communication. Depending on where you sit this is a "glass half empty glass half full" type of situation. I'm reluctant, for example, to post original content in a location where I suspect that barriers may exist to indexing or RSS feed access.
- Maintenance headaches. Relationships change over time. Friendships develop and cool. People move from one job to another. The more places you have to maintain a description of yourself and your relationships, the more likely you'll be to lose control over your online persona.
- Relationship complexity. Real friendships and relationships are complex and difficult to describe quantitatively or in words. If a new contact asks me to be a "friend" in one social network, and I think "no, I think we're more like acquaintances than friends," do I risk offending him/her by saying that? And can I keep track of what "friend" means across different networks?
- Manipulation potential. Sadly, some marketers see social media and social networking as just another way to influence purchasing behavior. Others believe sincerely in the value of open communication and customer-centric communications. Healthy skepticism seems to be in order in such situations, especially when high-visibility abuses attract attention of government regulators.
- Privacy control. Those of us who are parents are well aware of the problems that can arise if personal data about our children falls into the wrong hands. How do we balance the need to protect them while at the same time teaching them about the importance of values such as the right to privacy? And how can we protect them if we don't even know about the social networks they belong to?
Don't get me wrong, I'm not anti-social-network. They are a part of life, and I'm a devoted user and participant in multiple networks.
We do need to learn how to manage multiple electronic networks just as we manage multiple social relationships. This will become increasingly important as the distinction between "personal" and "professional" networks becomes increasingly tenuous and as immersive three-dimensional networks proliferate.
We must constantly monitor the reality that the same things that make social networks more personalized and friendly for like-minded individuals can simultaneously make them more incompatible and behave as barriers to communication. The irony is that, if we are not careful, that which can bring us together can also keep us apart.