Saturday, December 29, 2007

Are social networks communities?

We can of course implement whatever sorts of intellectual property rules we want given the types of governance we operate under. Some will say the rules set are too tight, others too loose, and still others that they are about right. The distribution will not be a normal curve, and no one will care much--few will even understand the basics much less the nuances.

Times will change, but the rules will not change much. Imbalances will tend to occur, and the rules will twist people rather than protect them. Others will attempt "reforms." I don't think it overly cynical to expect that, over time, special interests and "expertise" tend to drive the ship...that is, if there remains a ship to drive.

Increasingly, there will be no ship, no rudder nor rudder-controller (the word origins of the word governor and gubernatorial). That's because the ship had captains with agendas not for the ship but for the captains, and the crew, well, they continued to opt for smaller boats they could sail themselves.

The trouble with the world post nation-state normative controls is that technology must be diffused to grow into world markets but local rules never will be equally diffused. For all the efforts of history, the export of culture has never succeeded very well absent the movement of live carriers to seed and spread it. Remarkably, the world didn't "Disneyphy" with increasing globalization. In fact, it did the opposite, it shattered. Some, like Apple, have been remarkably good at remaining iconic through these challenges, but that's the very rare (and perhaps temporary) exception, not the rule.

It will always be the Wild West out there beyond "one's own," and the low guy who's hungry will cut corners a little more on policing to get the advantage of cashflows from knock-offs, phonies, and counterfeits. Ironically, the people on the run are those who are trying to make brands and institutions endure unnaturally in the face of a shattered planet. They are the endangered species not the cheaters, copiers and scramblers. So more is "free," small, voluntary and close to the passions of the it was with old communities.

But in the face of all this interaction, what stood for the word community usually sells at a pretty low price. Community used to mean standing against an enemy together, hanging together or hanging separately ...with all that Franklin-esque warmth. After a time it meant sharing a place of work and schooling along with playfields and commons like the air we breathe and the waters we drink. Norman Rockwell comes to mind. And now? Are those old times returning? Is the vehicle ...Twitter?

Good actions are just that: good actions. We should hold them high, try to join them, repeat them, or at least praise them. But should we call them community? Well, why not? We all gave at the bar for a new wheelchair for Tommie--we're a community! We all have Lupus, we're a community! We drink the same brand of coffee with 1/3 of 1% of every purchase going to Ethiopian coffee coops--of course that's community. We care about similar things and spread good will! That's all for the good isn't it? It is for the good, and I for one applaud it all.

Community is just a word and I personally don't put much stock in words holding their value for long in these times. I've always loved words to read and write, but I am long since over feeling they can be inherently noble, rich or beautiful. Words are playthings and it is the players who make them noble, rich or beautiful.

The players control the intellectual property of words ultimately because they choose what is noble, beautiful, rich, significant and worthy. The wordsmiths codify the players wit into a role and the rest of us follow suit. At least that's how it was in the time of broadcast news and corporate messages. But that's not the way I think it will be with social networks.

Social networks are frail, momentary and fleeting. Ultimately they become purpose driven as they grow larger and depersonalize...and if they grow, they must depersonalize. That is, I no longer want to have an Andy-of-Mayberry talk with my pharmacist, I just want my damn pills.

As nets grow, they become unwieldy and awkward. Then they break down into sections and interests. What is new about our clever technologies (Twitter, Ning, Facebook, etc.) is that they allow for reforming in an instant, or at least extremely rapidly along lines as thin as playing the same game with thousands of others or sharing an interest in funny movies. We "connect" but in a way that is a weaker tie than Mark Granovetter could have ever imagined.

Social networks consequently morph almost totally when someone is in the presence of a great snow storm or available to help a friend in crisis. They rise with someone energized by the need to promote a book. Other times they drift languidly following personable folks who are easily recognized and gently benign. Those people become our elevator attendants, crossing guards and gas pumpers of old filling life with warmth and connectivity--often with a dram of much more learning and interest if not importance than the milk man I suppose had. That is, we enjoy being recognized by them. But is it community? And is there leadership? I suppose of sort. Virtual world influence seems a faint value on which to build a society. Or is it? Maybe we've built the new town hall meeting structure! But whose town and whose agenda?

The more important question for me is whether the community feeds the insides of people who use it in ways that are long-term supportive, inclusive and open to the constant ebb and flow of members. There's a reason why New York City wasn't Mayberry--even in 1961. Is Twitter an identity around which to gather and build a social organization worthy of being called community or is it something new? ...not community but something ephemeral and leaderless and occasionally able to do good (or bad).

I think it's the latter...a leaderless cloud of proto-organizations that can enable if they want the pleasures, learning and smiles of its barely attached patrons. They may even enable the rise of new forms from the murky froth. This is something new, even something wonderful, but I don't call it community...not even by dumping that academic favorite of an adjective in front..."new community."

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