Smartphones have transported us from an offline third place

My new job has turned me back into a bus commuter for the first time in 7 years. My last experience as a daily bus rider was when I worked at Vision Critical for the first half of 2005, just after finishing my Ph.D.

Back then, I was fresh off grad school and the heady conversations about social capital that were all the rage in a certain corner of political science. That was especially true in my department, where the research for Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone employed half a generation of graduation students, including me. Putnam’s take on the Internet’s impact on social capital was ultimately more skeptical than my own, but the opportunity to research all the early investigations into that question fed my own practice for the next decade.

While Putnam addressed the emergence of online public spaces, he gave more attention to our offline civic culture — including the idea of the “third place” described by Ray Oldenburg. Oldenburg inspired his own torrent of research and experimentation, hinging on the argument that a healthy democratic culture requires “third places”, neither work nor home, in which conversation and community can unfold. Starbucks aspired to be be our contemporary version of the third space; others, like Howard Rheingold, have seen something of the third place in the emergent communities of the Internet.

In retrospect, the buses of 2005 were, if not a third place, then a two-and-a-halfed place. Two passengers might engage in a spontaneous conversation; one rider might help another lift a stroller onto a bus. If nothing else, random eye contact was a reminder that we are all in this together — quite literally, at least for the next twenty minutes.

What’s changed since 2005? The iPhone, the Blackberry, the advent of Android and the general onslaught of smartphone fixation — a fixation I share myself. Instead of looking up, out, or at each other, bus riders are engaged in their online lives. I hope they are spending that online time in meaningful third places, because we’ve just lost one offline.

Trust, disclosure and social media

Two of the most frequent criticisms of social media hinge on the quality and quantity of information people disclosure through blogs, Twitter, Facebook and other social tools:

  1. Why does s/he think anyone cares? Asked about people who blog their latest meal, tweet their random observations, check in on FourSquare, or share other pieces of information that would certainly fail to meet the New York Times standard of newsworthiness.
  2. Why would s/he share that? Asked about people who blog about their mental health challenges, tweet about their sex lives, Facebook pictures of themselves half-naked, or share other pieces of information online that many people would choose to keep secret or private offline.

Underlying both of these questions is a seldom examined but widely held understanding about the relationship between disclosure and trust.

In offline culture, disclosure is both a creator and a signifier of trust. If I tell you about a difficult childhood experience, a sexual predilection, or a professional insecurity, my decision to share that secret with you implies (usually accurately) that I trust you. It’s a statement of faith in you personally: I’m showing that I regard you as a person who is capable of discretion, and as someone with something to offer that makes the risk of disclosure worthwhile — for example, sage advice about a work dilemma, or kindness and empathy for a personal trauma. It’s also a statement of faith in our relationship: I believe our friendship (or collegial relationship) is strong enough, and valued enough by you, that in constitutes at least as semi-private space in which information or emotion can be shared with an expectation that it will not travel further.

If disclosure is thus an expression of trust, it is also a creator of trust. When I trust you with a secret or a confidence, you may be more likely to trust me — if only because we are now in a situation of shared vulnerability. When I tell you something I wouldn’t tell someone else, I put you in an inner circle and create a sense of intimacy that allow further trust and intimacy to develop. It is the very fact that others are excluded — that my act of disclosure is particular to you — that makes the disclosure meaningful, expressive of trust, and trust-building.

Offline, anyhow. Online, it becomes much more murky. If I place you in a Facebook lists that gives you privileged access to stories or images I share with only a dozen other people, you may not know it — in fact, you’re likely to think that I shared that picture of my kid or that complaint about my period with the entire world. Even Google+, which distinguishes itself by making it easy to share different kinds of content with different “circles”, doesn’t make it obvious which circle a given update has been shared with, let alone how big that circle might be. If I’ve read a post because my friend has shared it with her “Extended Circles”, I don’t know which circles that includes, or who was in them (and interestingly, most people I follow on Google+ seem to post most things publicly).

The opacity of online disclosure, in which it is frequently hard or impossible to see how widely a given piece of content is shared, seems to lead us to the assumption that anything we see online has been shared publicly, unless we specifically know otherwise.  As a result, the disclosures we see online have very limited capacity to reflect or create trust: if you’re showing this picture to everyone in the world, or sharing this comment with everyone in our school or office, your disclosure in no way expresses faith in me or in our relationship. At best, it expresses faith in your network’s privacy settings, or its capacity to offer you a permanent “delete” option.

There are a handful of networks and tools that do create a greater sense of selectiveness among and between users. Path is based around the idea of limiting your network to 50 people — what an expression of trust, to know that someone has put you in that 50. Private Twitter accounts, in which you have to be personally approved before someone lets you read their updates, again impose a clear trust test: do I trust you enough to let you read my updates? But in most networks, it’s easier to communicate a lack of trust than an extension of trust: if I fail to accept your Facebook friend request, TripIt connection request or LinkedIn connection request, you may infer it’s a lack of trust.

How can we share in a way that communicates a sense of trust? Well, one tech option comes from  Google+ points an interesting way forward: if you share a post with only one circle, people in that circle see it as “limited”, and can tell who else made the cut to see this particularly detail. Ooh! Aah! you can think, as you read the details of your BFF’s latest date. Aren’t I lucky she shared that with me?
Google Limited shows who can see a post
Or maybe not. After all, even a post shared with a limited circle of contacts is still shared with that all-seeing, all-knowing Eyes of Google. (Even more crucially, with the all-archiving database of Google.) How much could it mean for your friend to share a secret with you if she’s prepared to trust it to the Internets?

No wonder that we’re so deeply suspicious of online disclosure, then. All that rampant posting deprives us of a valued mechanisms for creating and expressing trust. In a world where people apparently share secrets freely, secrets lose their value as social glue.

If we didn’t have computers…

LOVE Social Media but If we didn’t have computers-wouldn’t need #SocialMediab/c we wouldn’t have stopped being social in the 1st place.

When I first shared this interesting tweet from online pal Brenda Johima, it was with some reservations. After mulling it over for a few weeks, I want to explain them.

Massive counter-factuals always make me a bit nervous: “if we didn’t have computers…” is the gateway to another universe in which so many things are different from the world we live in that it’s hard to evaluate the hypothetical alternative. “If we didn’t have computers…” we wouldn’t have the same kind of global economy (no complex online trading systems), we wouldn’t have a foreclosure crisis (without computer-modeled derivatives and default swaps the bad loans would never have been made), and your local newspaper would still be beholden to the typesetters’ union. “If we didn’t have computers…” is a world in which the historical path unleashed by the industrial revolution reached a dead end, or branched in some direction that is, from here, unimaginable. Whether that path would have led to a world in which we’re leaning across our picket fences to swap potato salad with the neighbours, or one in which we holed up in our individual compounds and waited for the apocalypse…well, I don’t know if I’m prepared to weigh in on that one.

What we can discuss are the roots of our current crisis is de-socialization….a crisis that has been pretty convincingly attributed not to computers, but to another screen: TV. In Robert Putnam’s research on declining social capital (the community involvement and social ties that hold societies together), TV emerged as the chief culprit. Both Putnam (with a little help from me) and others have investigated whether computers contribute to that decline, or mitigate it. The most compelling evidence I’ve seen suggests that the use of the Internet supplements rather than displaces people’s offline social interactions, and correlated with people participating more actively in offline activities.

Brenda’s tweet reminded me of the disconnect between people’s subjective experience of the Internet, and what research tells us about its social impact. Social media may feel like the answer to the role the Internet plays in accelerating and distracting us from our community lives, but that acceleration and that distraction long predate the advent of the personal computer and the Internet. If anything, social media and online interaction offer the most promising antidote to the social disconnection that has characterized our modern lives.

Strengthening weak ties online: A first response to Gladwell’s take on social media activism

Malcolm Gladwell has a new piece on Twitter, Facebook and social activism that is a must-read for people working at the intersection of politics and technology, and which feels especially timely after spending the past five days at Web of Change. He argues that the success of the civil rights movement — or any major movement for social change — depended on strong social ties among participants. In particular, he notes Doug McAdam’s excellent social movement research, which found that participants in the Freedom Summer of 1964 were most likely to stay engaged if they had other close friends who were also participating.

And then he compares the strong ties of civil rights organizing to the world of social media:

The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with…But it is simply a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger. It shifts our energies from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability. It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo. If you are of the opinion that all the world needs is a little buffing around the edges, this should not trouble you. But if you think that there are still lunch counters out there that need integrating it ought to give you pause.

I’m still chewing on Gladwell’s argument, particularly since the literature he uses to debunk social media is the same literature that has driven much of my research into social media. But there’s no doubt that Gladwell’s argument points towards a key question in online engagement: how do we use online tools to not only activate participants but to deepen their relationship to one another? The fact that social media is able to make effective use of weak ties shouldn’t preclude its application to “strong tie” activism, too. The challenge is to develop the methodologies, tools and culture that will nourish strong ties online as well as off.

Defining the impact of social media on social capital

What are your online friendships worth to the community you live in? That’s the practical question that is implicitly raised by Jon Hickman’s interesting and slightly perplexing post on Social capital & social media.

Hickman writes:

…as academics start to examine social media they are likely to think about social capital, and they are likely to read Putnam’s (2000) Bowling Alone. But Bowling Alone doesn’t talk about social capital in quite the same way that “the Internet” talks about it…if you’re looking to write about online culture, this framework is limited. You need Bourdieu.

Bourdieu defined social capital as the:

“aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to the possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition” (Bourdieu, 1986, p.248)

…For me this is social capital…a potential resource existed within a pre-existing community, and it was activated by a set of social media practices, delivering benefit to its collective owners. Without the social capital, the clever social media tools would be useless.

Full disclosure: I did the initial research for Putnam’s chapter on the Internet and social capital, and that research informed much of my subsquent work with social media But I think there’s more at stake here than academic wrangling over how social capital is best defined, or best understood in the context of social media.

My read of Jon’s argument is that social media can help to squeeze the latent social capital out of a given community, making it socially useful. It’s an argument that maps onto much of what I’ve seen online, from a spontaneous effort to collect clothes for homeless people to a self-organizing league of Green Lanterns protecting virtual refugees. These stories of organizing through social media often look a lot like a community in which social capital exists, but only becomes mobilized through the facility of the web.

Where the Hickman-Bourdrieu view hits its limits, in my view, is in identifying the potential for social media to create as well as activate social capital. If social media is just the ultimate juice machine for extracting existing social capital, then the scenario to beat is the one in which we extract or activate that capital offline. After all, it’s still much easier to see and understand the impact of community involvement when it happens offline, in the form of a community garden, soup kitchen or street demonstration.

But what if social media can actually generate social capital? If you look at social capital through the lens of Putnam’s definition (though not through his own analysis of the Internet’s impact on social capital, which was pretty skeptical) then you start to see social capital not as something that belongs to a person or even a collection of people but as something that lies in between those people: the network of relationships binding them together.

And if there’s one thing social media does well, it’s to make those networks wider and denser: more people are more connected than every before. Whether all those network connections translate into the creation of actual social capital — into the development of bonds of trust and community engagement — is still very much up for debate. But to the extent that we’re starting to see evidence that social media can actually create social capital, that’s a much stronger argument for the value of online interaction than simply seeing it as a way of extracting existing capital.

For policy-makers, organizational managers and community leaders, it’s an argument that we should encourage people to spend time using social media and social networks, in the belief that the connections forged online will create social capital that can benefit offline employers and communities.

And for POFEUs (Plain Old-Fashioned End Users, a.k.a. you) it provides yet another reason to stop apologizing for your life online. You’re not wasting time on Facebook: you’re creating social capital!

10 expert predictions on how the Internet will affect social relations

The latest Pew survey on the Future of the Internet looks at the effect of technology on social relations, and the expectations of 895 Internet experts are overwhelmingly optimistic. It shouldn’t come as a major surprise that a sample of people who are selected for their expertise in technology take a positive view; 85% of them agreed that:

In 2020, when I look at the big picture and consider my personal friendships, marriage and other relationships, I see that the internet has mostly been a positive force on my social world. And this will only grow more true in the future.

What makes the report worth reading are the fascinating predictions behind the optimism, and the questions that are raised by some of the respondents. From the report’s comments from respondents, here are 10 predictions about how the Internet will affect social relations by the year 2020:

  1. Social needs will dominate: “Humans are hardwired to connect and relate on a personal level. They need social validation and group membership. Technology and internet use will support people’s interpersonal and social goals because social needs dominate all others.” — Pamela Rutledge
  2. You’ll have to face your friends’ secrets: “It will be particularly interesting to see how we reconcile things about the people we know that we had not known in the past, or could not have known. How many of our friends will in some sense ‘come out of the closet’ on some issue or other by joining a group on Facebook, for instance, that might make us upset or angry, and what we will we do with that knowledge?” — Steve Jones
  3. Shy people will catch a break: “The internet breaks the shyness barrier in the beginning stage of every relationship.” — Jorge Alberto Castañoso
  4. We’ll start to recover from suburban isolation: “The internet is best seen as a reconfiguration of space. The internet modifies traditional space so that existing places are extended in ways that allow us to stay aware, share and intersect with people with whom we are not in the same traditional space. The internet is the opposite of suburbanization: suburbs took us away from other people and locked us into houses; the internet opens a door from the house into a potentially shared place…The internet replaced lack of physical presence with social presence.” — Zeynep Tufekci
  5. The further apart you are, the better the Internet will work for you: “The internet’s effect on relationships is paradoxical. It strengthens our relationships with distant friends and relations through social networks and email, but may damage the relationships of those nearer to us as always-on technologies and applications eat into family and social time.” — Mary Joyce
  6. You’ll spend more time with the people you care about most….: “By the year 2020 we will have figured out the best use of social networks: liberating people from offices. We can better use it to facilitate work relationships so that people might spend more time in the physical presence of the people they love, or, at very least, in the company of clients rather than in the company of superiors…There’s no reason why social networks can’t replace offices, but a Twitter feed will never replace family, a neighbor, a real community. ” — Patrick Tucker
  7. …but you’ll struggle to be present with them: “By 2020, the idea of turning off technology is going to be the equivalent of trying to stay dry when you are underwater. And I think relationships require uninterrupted time. They require being present. They require attention. And the more immersive our world will be by 2020, the negative result of this constant interruption with people we truly care about will be only harder as we are pulled in even more directions.” — Tiffany Shlain
  8. We’ll stop looking at the Internet’s impacts as before-and-after: “Personal predilections will be enhanced once one goes online. Those who are social will become more so, that is, and those who are loners will deepen their solitude. I expect research on this question to show something different over time. The early question had to do with the question of whether there were changes in the behavior of individuals when they went online. Now that digital natives begin and continue online, this is no longer a meaningful variable.” – Sandra Braman
  9. We’ll stop thinking about the social impact of the Internet per se:“The tension between the net and social engagement will vaporize in much the same way that thoughts about the telephone network vaporized and it came to be taken-for-granted. People do not ask if the telephone is an alienating social force. The phone is a utility supporting social life. Likewise, the net will come to be assumed as a utility for social life. How else would I know when church starts, when the game begins, where we are meeting for drinks, or what the weather for our trip might be?”— Robert Cannon
  10. We’ll see online friendship as legitimate: “My guess is that people who only make friends in person will be seen as socially handicapped.” — Charlie Martin

Read more predictions on the full report web site.

How to use your RSS reader to enhance community

Does the Internet make our conversations richer or poorer? This is the question that has driven my research and consulting for the past fourteen years — for most of that time, focusing on how to make the Internet’s impact as constructive as possible, whatever its underlying tendencies.

Cass Sunstein’s has has a major impact on that work. The book was published in 2002, before the widespread use of RSS, but it anticipated RSS in its concern that online media consumption was pushing us towards a world in which people knew more and more about less and less (to steal that longstanding description of academia!) and eliminating the common areas of knowledge that drive water cooler conversation. Instead of people talking about the headlines we all see in the morning’s paper, we’ll each get such customized news that we’ll have little to discuss in common.

For a long time I felt sympathetic to that argument, particularly as the dawn of RSS saw me fill up a newsreader with the feeds of niche blogs — displacing my interest in mainstream news, albeit briefly.  It didn’t take long before the volume of unread news items in my reader became daunting, and I re-embraced the morning paper simply because it seemed like a manageable volume of information. And I felt the return to paper was justifiable on Sunstein’s terms: wasn’t it better for me to know the news that other people were going to talk about?

But I’ve recently returned to the RSS fold, and this time I’m not so sure that Sunstein got it right. Much depends on what you think matters: people, or information.

If you think that a wide range of information is key to civic discourse, than the RSS-fed world is troubling. We choose which topics to aggregate and consume, and we may end up knowing a lot more about iPad hacking or knitting or credit card fraud than we know about the major stories of the day — the stories that we can talk about at the water cooler.

But what if the variety of information isn’t what matters to civic life? What if that common conversational pool matters more for who it connects us to, than what we are talking about?

There’s good reason to think the connections among diverse people are what’s crucial to civic life.  Social capital researchers like Robert Putnam distinguish between two kinds of social capital — the personal ties that build trust and hold communities together: it’s “the distinction between ‘bonding’ social capital (ties to people who are like you in some important way) and ‘bridging’ social capital (ties to people who are unlike you in some important way).”  Both kinds of social capital play a role in community and personal health, economic performance, and other outcomes, but bridging social capital can be harder to come by.

So what does that mean for your RSS reader? The bottom line is that it can be a conduit for building either kind of social capital.

  • If you use your RSS to subscribe to individual blogs and sites… risk falling into the trap described by Sunstein. Unless you’ve conscious to select from a diverse range of sources and perspectives, you’re likely to end up listening to people who have the same interests and perspectives as you do. If these are the people you engage in your own comments and blog posts, you’re “bonding” with people a lot like you.
  • If you use your RSS to subscribe to searches….you are likely to hear from a much more diverse range of voices, particularly if you choose search terms that aren’t ideologically loaded. A Google blog search on a term like health policy is going to yield posts from people all over the spectrum. So yes, your news consumption may be narrow in terms of its topical focus, but eclectic in terms of the people you engage with. That could turn out to be great news for bridging capital.

This is ultimately an empirical question that might be addressed by large-scale studies that correlate social trust with what’s in a person’s newsreader. But that’s a bit wonky, even for me.

Online activities reinforce offline social connections

How did I miss this one? In 2008, StatsCan published a very useful paper on How Canadians’ Use of the Internet Affects Social Life and Civic Participation. It speaks directly to the questions about the Internet’s impact on social capital that have been a big part of both my academic research and social media consulting.

The article uses data from the 2005 General Social Survey (the best dataset for this kind of study) to examine the social and political participation of on- and offline Canadians. The study was designed to speak to the debate about whether the Internet is like TV in contributing to the erosion of social capital, or whether it can actually help build social capital by supporting social interaction.

The authors find that the Internet is in fact helping to increase social connectedness:

The findings reveal a two-sided tale of how social cohesion is being transformed through technology. It is a story which has heavy Internet users spending less time in in-person contact with family and friends, and knowing their neighbours less well than others. However, much of what these users do online qualifies as social capital-building activities. Emailing and chatting, for instance, are social activities mostly carried out with friends and family. Further examination of different socio-demographic groups reveals that they have embraced technology not to escape social contact or other traditional activities but to enhance them.

Of course, 2005 is ancient history in Internet terms: long before Facebook and barely into dawn of blogging. It will be interesting to see if the Internet becomes even more constructive now that the web has become a place where people engage in conversation and expression; my view of social media is that its value lies in encouraging more active engagement.