The term “social network” has become a meaningless association of words. Pair those two words and it becomes a tech category, the equivalent of a single term to define a group of products.
But are social networks even social anymore? If you have a feeling of tech fatigue when you open the Facebook app, you’re not alone. Watching distant cousins fight about politics in a comment thread is no longer fun.Chances are you have dozens, hundreds or maybe thousands of friends and followers across multiple platforms. But those crowded places have never felt so empty.
It doesn’t mean that you should move to the woods and talk with animals. And Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn won’t collapse overnight. They have intrinsic value with other features — social graphs, digital CVs, organizing events…
But the concept of wide networks of social ties with an element of broadcasting is dead.
From interest-based communities to your lousy neighbor
If you’ve been active on the web for long enough, you may have fond memories of internet forums. Maybe you were a fan of video games, Harry Potter or painting.
Fragmentation was key. You could be active on multiple forums and you didn’t have to mention your other passions. Over time, you’d see the same names come up again and again on your favorite forum. You’d create your own running jokes, discover things together, laugh, cry and feel something.
When I was a teenager, I was active on multiple forums. I remember posting thousands of messages a year and getting to know new people. It felt like hanging out with a welcoming group of friends because you shared the same passions.
It wasn’t just fake internet relationships. I met “IRL” with fellow internet friends quite a few times. One day, I remember browsing the list of threads and learning about someone’s passing. Their significant other posted a short message because the forum meant a lot to this person.
Most of the time, I didn’t know the identities of the persons talking with me. We were all using nicknames and put tidbits of information in bios — “Stuttgart, Germany” or “train ticket inspector.”
And then, Facebook happened. At first, it was also all about interest-based communities — attending the same college is a shared interest, after all. Then, they opened it up to everyone to scale beyond universities.
When you look at your list of friends, they are your Facebook friends not because you share a hobby, but because you’ve know them for a while.
Facebook constantly pushes you to add more friends with the infamous “People you may know” feature. Knowing someone is one thing, but having things to talk about is another.
So here we are, with your lousy neighbor sharing a sexist joke in your Facebook feed.