Social Media

The sidewalk the walkers built

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

I’ve always been interested in architecture. At one point I seriously considered studying architecture in school, but my interest is and remains more that of a hobbyist than of a practitioner. But I still keep up with stories about innovative design practices.

One of my favorites I read about long ago, was actually used as an example in a book about designing software. It was the story of an architect who built a building without sidewalks. People would have to walk through the grass to get to whatever door they wanted to enter, and though the weather was fine and walking through the grass is pleasant, it did generate complaints–especially from the women wearing high heels.

A few weeks after the building was opened, sidewalks were added during the weekend and people were pleasantly surprised to find them that Monday morning. But they weren’t your usual sidewalks, with straight lines and right angle connections to the building. They tended to meander a bit, as if the sidewalks followed the trails created by people entering and leaving the building.

In fact, that’s exactly what happened: the architect left the sidewalks off until trails had been beaten into the grass by people, and then just followed the trails wherever feasible, literally letting the people define where the sidewalks are going to be.

I was strongly reminded of this story these last few weeks when it comes to this new social network, Orkut. In particular, I was rather surprised to see such vehement pushback against what is nothing more than a mildly interesting exercise in connectivity via software.

First was the invitation thing, which does seem elitist. However, getting invited was pretty easy – just look for any number of weblog posts that say, “If you want to get invited, drop me a note in my comments”. By using this approach, I imagine that the Orkut designers were able to gauge the genuine interest and curiosity of people in being part of this experiment, rather than opening it to the world and having people sign on just to check it out and leaving all sorts of accounts that are not used again. This changes the demographics of the site.

(Considering that Google’s strengths are based on measurement, interpreting patterns, and developing algorithms for them, it’s not surprising that a social network they would develop would start by invitation. )

Recently, there’s been discussion of some sort of ‘jail’ if you abuse the Orkut system. From what I can see, this jail is nothing more than denied privilege to do certain things such as post emails to 12,000 people at once, or to invite another 250 of your closest friends to join.

Then there’s this interesting post by a person named Christopher. He talks about being jailed, but he also talks about his insecurity with Orkut.

Later I find out by looking at other people’s information that this is all completely public. It isn’t limited to just friends, or friends of friends, but instead is prominent. In fact, other then your name and how many “friends” you have, your relationship style is the most prominent thing listed. Do I really want to know that my business acquaintance that I see only at technical conferences 2 or 3 times a year is in an open marriage? Or divorced? Or gay?

Oh good lord. Aside from a few pieces of information, from what I can see from the Orkut sign in screens you don’t have to put down anything about yourself. Tell me, are all of you the type of people that when you walk past a faucet, you have to turn it on?

You don’t list anything you don’t want the world to see. Social networks are just that: social and network, which means that there are a lot of people out there looking at information you put in about yourself and if you don’t like it – don’t put the information in. If you really don’t like it, don’t join.

Danah Boyd seems to have a real thing against Orkut. I’m not surprised folks don’t like Orkut, but I am surprised at the level of animosity that Danah, and others, seem to experience in regards to the service:

1) What the hell is up with the elitist approach to invitation? That’s just outright insulting and an attempt to pre-configure the masses through what the technorati are doing. Social networks are not just a product of technologists. Everyone has a social network and what they do with it is quite diverse. To demand that they behave by the norms of technologists is horrifying.

2) Are trustworthy, cool, and sexy the only ways that i might classify my friends? (Even Orkut lists a lot more in his definition of self.) And since when can i rate the people that i know based on this kind of metric?

And goddamnit CONTEXT CONTEXT CONTEXT. Cool as a techy? Cool as a party kid? Trustworthy along what fucking axes?

I know that David Weinberger considers Danah’s rant to be ‘rational’, but I found it to be extremely subjective and well, frankly, angry – both of which were confusing because all Orkut is, is a mildly interesting experiment in connecting using software.

That’s the point – this is an experiment, this is beta software, this is an attempt to put out raw functionality and let the users define it by useful criticism and suggestions. What’s happened, though, is second guessing from people that runs the gamut from “Google needs Orkut for user information” to “Orkut is developed by the evil Technorati”.

(New bumper sticker: I am the Evil Technorati. I hope David doesn’t mind.)

Bottom line, if people don’t like Orkut, don’t join. Comments were made to this effect in Danah’s posting, and her response was:

I’m glad y’all want to take the time to read my rants, and even better that you post (even if anonymously). But you should probably realize that i’m an academic. I STUDY things. Right now, i’ve been studying online social network services. No one put a gun to my head to join any given service. I do this as a researcher. I write rants for the random folks who want to listen to them (and to vent my inner demons in an unconstrained form since academic papers require a lot more framing of the discussion).

So stop telling me to shut up and stop using the thing. If you don’t want to hear my rants, don’t read em.

Personally, I wouldn’t have responded to Danah’s rant, except that there’s a lot of people who seem to think that she’s got the answer when it comes to Social Networking with that rant of hers, and I can’t see it. I think that AKMA’s got the right answer when he says:

The problem with LinkedIn and that other one I don’t remember is that their systems already knew what I wanted to do with my social network; and they were wrong. The reason I like Orkut so far is that I get the feeling that Google and Orkut are leaving the system unfinished to watch what happens and what people want to do with it. Rather offering us an elaborate, polished network that doesn’t do what we want, they’re offering us a raw beta (it does say ‘beta’ in those white letters on the upper right of the window) so that they can build out what participants demand. That would be Google-like; that would be clued. And although no one inside is talking to me about this, I have a hunch that Orkut has a clue.

I don’t particularly care for social networks because they favor the people already connected. Orkut is no different from the others in this regard.

The Fan thing doesn’t make sense so I haven’t used it (though appreciate those people who say they are Fans of mine, more photographs for you); neither have I used that ‘cool’ ‘hot’ rating thing. I’m not sure how to use that hot/cool rating thing. I’m also turned off by the graphics,associated with the rating – reminds me too much of smileys, and I hate smileys – those little yellow faced things with their little smirks bouncing all over. Makes me want to hurt them.

Orkut also encourages the popularity ‘meme’. When you look at people’s friends list, those friends who themselves have the most friends show up higher in the list than those with the least. In addition, in the graphical representation, “low” friends people drop off the page entirely – that isn’t much more than a Technorati Top 100 using bodies instead of links.

In fact, I have no idea why people who are heavily connected are a part of this, unless it’s to reaffirm their own connectivity – they don’t need it. Something like a social network works best for people who aren’t as connected, to find others of like interests when they don’t know many people. To start building up their own community. And I suppose to connect with ‘more popular’ people, but I don’t think it works that way. Sucking up to the popular didn’t work in high school, unlikely to work online.

No, Orkut isn’t perfect, but I do like how easy it is to find people with similar interests, and I like how easy it is to start new topics or communities. This is particularly important to people who don’t have servers to host this type of software, and who don’t want to hassle with Yahoo and all the ads. More so, this is a nice way for people new to this environment to meet others of same interest. So right out of the box, Orkut does some things good.

In addition, as Gary noted it’s pretty amazing to take a look at the visual diagrams associated with the friends networks, and to see all the white males that make up the friends lists of some of the more prominent members. You should see Tim O’Reilly’s friends network to get an eyeful.

(Not to mention seeing all the photos of the folks I know. There was one of a person who has been on my case for almost two years – I was blown away by his sweet, smiling face. Really generated a lot of conflicting signals. Now next time I tell him to buzz off, I’ll see that sweet, smiling face. How uncomfortable.)

As for the bad things, well, Orkut will learn or it won’t and people will join or they won’t and in the great scheme of things, it really doesn’t matter. So I guess I’m not sure why people are angry or disappointed. But then, I don’t think webloggers are going to help elect the next President either, so what do I know?


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