Rethinking thin: social relationships in social media

In a recent post titled The Social Media Bubble, Umair Haque raises some provocative questions concerning the value of the relationships we form on the internet. His post has drawn some attention, and I’d like to quickly throw in my two cents.

Haque wites:

“I’d like to advance a hypothesis: Despite all the excitement surrounding social media, the Internet isn’t connecting us as much as we think it is. It’s largely home to weak, artificial connections, what I call thin relationships.”

Now I don’t have a quarrel so much with some of his conclusions. I have an argument with how the issue is framed.

I don’t believe that we should be thinking in terms of relationships. Rather, I believe the issue should be framed in terms of communication. My reasons are fairly straightforward. If we focus on relationships, we attribute to the relationship what actually belongs to communication. We call them thick or thin, we describe them as strong or weak ties, and we measure the value of connectivity in terms of network density and connectedness. We place emphasis on the tie, rather than on the subjects (people) knitted together.

My issue with this is twofold. First, I think it’s a mistaken transposition of the logic and analytic of social network analysis to the attributes and qualities of human relationships and social organization that social network analysis doesn’t really address. In social network analysis, the tie is privileged over the node, that is, the connection over the subject (person). But all ties are not equal. And ties are not really relationships.

I cannot imagine a psychologist inquiring as to a client’s network density, Dunbar number management issues, or presentation of negative Facebook connectedness symptoms. Ties, used in social network analysis, are a means to abstract and diagram the connectedness of a number of nodes/individuals deemed to be connected. It’s got nothing to do with the experience of relationships, the depth of human commitments, feelings of isolation or involvement, not to mention the substantial domain of emotional and communicative wealth that is transacted daily in the form of civil social conduct.

If we are interested in the meaning of social networking at the human scale of experience, then ties are the wrong way to think of it. The social network analysis model of social is an abstraction. It neither lays claim to causal explanation of interpersonal communication and meaning, nor to a properly humanistic observation of the emotional and lived life of members of a society. What it can do is abstract the number, density, and connectedness of members of a bounded network. And in that, surface patterns. But to mistake the tie for an intersubjective relationship, or to subordinate the tie to the mode of its reproduction — which is communication — is a mistake.

And this is where we trip ourselves up. For when we talk about social relationships and the social web, we inevitably turn to our own experiences. We rally in defense of the thin tie, the weak tie, follower numbers, connectedness, and what have you, in arguments based on personal experience. But of course! Social networks, and social tools of talk, as I prefer to call them, are quite simply a new means of mediating communication and interaction in a manner that captures and preserves interactions on a publicly accessible medium. Ties are not the explanation, communication is.

My second issue with the misuse of ties-as-relationships has to do with relationships in general. They don’t exist. We relate to each other, and in our communication and interaction, express and “exchange” the content of communication and the meta-contents of emotional and affective interests. We are relational; society is relational. But never and in no social theory that I know of are relations reducible to this notion of a tie such that subjective human experiences can be described adequately by the tie. There is no tie — there are two or more subjects committed for a stretch of time to pay attention to one another, take interest in each others’ interests, handle the interaction in an acceptable fashion, and to some degree commit to communicate again. If, in social networking, we exchange tweets with one another for just a moment, but never again, then we have had a passing interaction. It’s that simple. Ties and relationships don’t have to be brought into the equation.

The medium facilitates asynchronous communication between people whose mutual connectedness online can make them present to one another in a fashion that transcends the limitations of physical co-presence. And which, for its capture and storage of that communication in the form of a digital textual artifact, renders this communication in a way that, within the medium only, lends it some persistence and durability. All of which leaves behind content for later use, re-use, recontextualization, and what have you. That’s what it’s good at: mediated communication and interaction.

While I suspect that our tendency to use social networking metaphors as descriptions of “the social” owes to the fact that we as much technologists as we are sociologists, the whole matter of social relationships has been a matter of some cultural concern for a while now. It’s perhaps a post post-modern thing. Or a technology and disconnection thing. We have seen it in pop culture for years. Movies like Crash, Babel, Amelie, and countless others take up social relations and society — as characters are brought together over seemingly arbitrary and random events and connections. In TV shows like The Wire and LOST the theme is explored in terms of the multi-layered interdependence of different social classes and institutions, or in the formation of communities out of nothing but a random event. And these shows are direct descendants of earlier works by Altman, Godard, Fellini, even Fritz Lang (M) and so many others.

The organization of the social is a perennial interest. We want to know what relates us and how we relate. We want to know what a commitment is, what trust means, and how loyalties and friendships are created, sustained, and preserved. Technologies of communication are a means — in this day and age of communication, they are a means of production. A means and mode of the production of communication. And for this reason, a contributing factor in the organization of the social. But they are not a metaphor for the social, are not an abstraction of society’s connected architecture, or an explanation of social byproducts and human experiences such as friendship, intimacy, groups, or communities.

Relationships are maintained by communication. Interactions frame the possibilities for communication between subjects whose attention is focused on the shared experience of a social situation. Social tools change the nature and modality of both interaction and communication, simply because they permit both to occur disembedded for time and place. It’s not the tie that is the relationship, it’s mediated social action by means of which communication is used to relate. And as we all know, and have experienced, the meaning of relating to one another online comes in all forms and shades of significance. Furthermore, relations may be unilateral and one directional, bidirectional, or triangulating and mediating. They have affect and real human interests: we like each other, admire each other, pay attention to, support, encourage, quote, refer, include, remember, and forget each other. These are our experiences and in our experiences are how we relate.

The tie has no such attributes, and in social network analysis, may not even capture directionality. Ties are not mutually affirmed or reciprocated. Communication and interaction is. What’s more, the tie may falsely sustain the appearance of a bind that exists. But as we live our friendships and communities, and use our social tools as means of communicating, we pass in and out of attention as well as through different periods of interest and engagement. Much of this is even just social observation; where is the tie and how would it be captured when the act of being involved is an informal and somewhat haphazard habit of following twitter. The experience of social observation is hardly counted in social networking, for the simple reason that our tools can only capture actions.

It is easy to undersell the value of social tools on the basis of relationships. But to conflate relationships with the processes and practices of communication and interaction is a mistake, and places the cart before the horse. Relationships form out of communication and are sustained and reproduced during stretches of interaction — stretches that include periods of passive engagement and un-involved social presence. That these aspects of subjective experience cannot be captured and represented in the form of a tie is just the misapprehension of human relationships in the form of abstract models of connectedness. Social life is transactional.

Social Media in Isolation is Useless to Government, to Business, and to You Mark Drapeau

Umair Haque Is Another New Spatialist Stowe Boyd

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