Saturday, March 10, 2012

Social Networks - Part 1

The social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter have lot more meaning and usability than merely being a medium to post funny cat pictures or changing the status line every few minutes. We all seem to acknowledge the fact that these networks can do a lot more but somehow the utilization of these networks is mostly dominated by businesses upselling to their customers or generating leads.

Although, it so much fun to see all the status updates from 100s of your real friends, family members and some “claimed to be friends”, but for the most part parents and grown-ups see these as a waste of time for kids and younger generation. I have friends who are proud to be “Facebook-free” and they, all the time, preach how beautiful life is without Facebook and LinkedIn. I am sure moderation is the safest bet and excess of anything could cause problems.

Change brings challenges as well as opportunities. Internet-based social networks brings about enormous amount of change in how we interact with each other and thus new opportunities are created that have never before been imagined.  Smart are those who can see this change and ride the wave of opportunity to do good things.

One area where social networks have brought about an enormous change is the way to organize people on a common platform both in terms of volume and speed. Luis von Ahn, professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, talked about the limitations in organizing human efforts beyond 100,000 people. In a TED talk last year, he presented the opportunity of translating the web for free while teaching people new languages. He asked the question; what can we do with hundred million people?

In this series of blogs, I will share my thoughts and observations on how people are taking advantage of new social networks and what are the potential new ways in which we can benefit from this change.

Before we start thinking about collaboration ideas involving 100 million people, we must look at how the virtual world social interactions are different from social interactions in the physical world. The topic of this blog post is the difference between this new way of socializing in the virtual world and our aeons-old social practices taking place in a physical world.

Here are three key areas that I think are the most critical:

1.  Non-verbal communications

Social interactions in human life invoke feelings and emotions that are caused by the instinctive learning over millions of years. Hugging, kissing, shaking hands, smiling, frowning, making sad faces, smirking, blushing, and other expressions, are all physical manifestations of our mental states. Our brains are trained to recognize these emotions through small changes in our behaviours. We can mostly distinguish between a real smile and a fake one. We can feel the warmth of emotions in a hug or recognize the difference between a smile and a smirk.

In the virtual world, we are dependent on the emoticons or expression of emotions in words. This is a handicap because everyone’s smile appears to be the same and it is hard to tell the difference. I think that the Generation Z has already adapted to react to words and pictures upon a screen just as they would in real life but we- the Generation X and older, cannot comprehend it. I think they have already developed neural connections to feel the smile through an emoticon in a similar manner as they would feel if someone was with them in-person. One of my colleagues pointed out that re-tweeting or re-posting could be a way of mirroring for Generation-Net. It will be interesting to study the evolution of this new form of communication in 10-15 years’ time.

2.  Number of active interactions

In the physical world, we are able to keep track of and be engaged in only one conversation at a time.  More than that is unwieldy or seen as being inattentive.  As a result, when thinking about conversations, most individuals think in very small groups.

The virtual world offers a different landscape and a different set of parameters. In this environment, large number of people can get involved in multiple conversations at the same time. Just because the response from other party is not expected to be instantaneous, people can engage in multiple conversations easily and simultaneously.

If you belong to an older generation (X or older), you can feel this difference in form of frustration when chatting online, with a member of Generation-Net (both Y and Z), and receiving slower responses. You expect them to send a quicker response because you think that this is the only conversation they are having, while they are chatting with three other people at the same time. I am using this Generation-Net term for the people who grew-up with the Internet and it is synonymous to Net Generation.

3.  Establishing a connection

It is very common to meet a new person from some place and immediately ask them if they knew your other friend from the same place. We look for the common factors and links between us and a new person right away. These introductions establish a baseline knowledge about each other which forms the basis of how far your conversation or relationship is going to last.

In the virtual world, most of these connections are already established and we are well informed on what common grounds we have with anyone in our social network.

When working with sites like LinkedIn, you can see the generational difference very easily. Generation X normally initiates a connection request when they have physically met the other party, while Generation-Net (Y and Z) is actively looking for links and establishing them without any need for in-person meeting or introduction.

Due to the differences in these three key areas, there are lots of behavioural differences between the generations that grew-up with the Net and older generations. These behavioural differences are acknowledged widely. Here are two interesting reads for you:

Please share your thoughts on how you think virtual social networks are different from the physical world.

In my next blog, I will talk about how collaboration in this new environment is different from traditional collaboration.

Read the next blog...!/hassansyed66


  1. Nice post! 
    It's much fair to treat online social networking as another dimension to the in-person interaction, many times one would use Facebook or Twitter not only to introduce themselves but also offer more information on state of their current affairs. I guess it sounds more convenient to post it once and communicate to hundreds and thousands. Same goes for the marketers who look at it as ideal means of targeting their respective segments with one blow.

  2. Through virtual social networks, you can know which people in the world share the same passion or interest (personal or professional) as yours, have discussions on or simply learn more about it; something you cannot possibly imagine in the physical world. This is because the virtual world knows no boundaries (and I don’t just mean ‘geographical’). In real life, can we imagine having a conversation on a common topic of interest with strangers from different parts of the world? A virtual network makes this possible. Besides, you can also passively participate in a discussion because virtual networks allow you to have control over your level of participation. Whether you want to contribute to the discussion or just learn from it, the choice is really yours. This may not be the case when having a group discussion in the real world.
    Virtual networks may not be everyone’s first choice (the downside being that the virtual life might take a toll on the real life) but for those leading fast-paced, internet-soaked lives, these networks have a very important role to play. For many, these networks are a luxury for they allow you to cut down on your investment, both in terms of cost and time. Take a business meeting, for instance. Having your employee fly down to the other side of the world for an in-person meeting or holding the meeting online. What would a company prefer?
    By drawing together millions and millions across all sorts of boundaries, virtual networks have made the world a much smaller place and continue to do that with every passing day! And in line with your suggestion, this is something we could capitalize on. We are already a part of something ‘big’ and could actually think of doing something ‘big’ with it now!

  3. These are really insightful points, especially the first one. I never considered whether I've been conditioned to socialize through the internet whereas the older generation hasn't due to development. If say, in early adolescent and before when we're absorbing what different emotions mean, one wasn't on the internet, does a smiley face hold less meaning?

    Thank you for sharing this!

    1. I beleive that you are right Michael. There was a time, not too long ago, a smiley was considered bad in an email. It certainly has less meaning for people grew up in 80s or before. :-)