If anyone wants to think deeply about the structure of social networks they should gaze deeply at this image created by Isaac Hepworth of Twitter. It’s a universe of mentions, but it, like all things in social network land, is more organic than shallow thoughts on something digital would belie.
The trouble is that lots of people who don’t spend their life involved in digital things believe that the online world is either like their experience of it, like what they see in films or is their preconception of it. It’s digital. It’s ones and zeroes. It’s on and off. It’s like The Matrix.
Non digital people think the world conforms to their preconceptions and it just doesn’t. Isaach’s beautiful universe of mentions illustrates this. It’s an organic view, like a network of neurons, like a field of swaying plants from a hedgerow that have gone to seed. It’s not the predictable shape of a collection of nodes that a non-digital person will believe is the shape of a social network. It moves. It flows. It has life and it reflects that people will create close circles of conversation for a while and they’ll die away, either because you don’t talk to those people anymore, or at one extreme you or they die, or more likely that some day you or they leave the service. And that’s where some interesting stuff lies. Relationships are springy. Our relationships with people are springy, they flex in and out, and our relationships with services are too.
Where it comes to social spaces non digital native’s preconceptions are all about their experience or their friend’s experiences: “people use their real identities like I do on Facebook”. It’s a continuum: “I’d never do anything to harm my online identity or reputation”. In my time at MySpace I remember one specific moment when I started to have a revelation about how people younger than me used the site. How they shed their identities, how it was about trying things on for size to see how they fitted. You could see it happen in the stats and in the analysis of the useage of the site and in surveys of users.
We need to look back into our own youthfullness to see this in context. We liked the bands people we wanted to in order to be liked by peers. We wore uniforms, clothes to fit in. We read specific books or magazines. We wanted to be part of something, and then sometimes another thing came along or we didn’t fit into that group any more and we left and became something else. We shed a persona, shed a skin and grew a new one. David used to be a member of the Bullingdon Club, then he wasn’t. He was probably other even more embarrassing things as a teenager, but he shed those identities too, there were just no digital traces.
And so it is here and this is why the idea of banning someone from a social network is crazy. The people they’re thinking about banning are probably very adept at having multiple identities and personas and shedding the ones they no longer want, or need, or that may be dangerous to them. Anyone who thinks along the lines that people build up and protect identities need to look outside of their own life and life stage and also to think if there is anything about these young people’s lives and futures that is so important to them that they want to protect their online persona, rather than just create a new one.
To create a new persona all you need is a new email address. Gmail or Hotmail or others will provide one of those. You may need a new mobile phone number. A new PAYG SIM is free or cheap. A BBM account is created in seconds. A new phone or a second phone or a third phone can be bought cheaply legitimately or even cheaper on the black market. Another identity, another untraceable you can be created in seconds. You can add your friends that matter in seconds (ask any Google+ user how quickly they set up a new social graph and you’ll see instantly how foolish the concept of the difficulty of migrating to a new service is).
We, as older professionals, care about our reputation and our online identity. The people they wish to ban won’t. They’ll see an account, an identity as a disposable thing, something you use and then discard. In the same way that some neurological damage is tolerable and the nervous system can route around it, so it is with people excising social profile from their life, letting it lay behind them like a discarded husk, telling their social circle about their new one, reforming the network it as they go.
At some point those in power have to start realising this, or they sound foolish and irrelevant. They’ll damage the good things about freedom of speech online while failing to stop the very things they wish to. It’s time for them to stop being relics of the broadcast age, making statements that are merely spin and PR and to go and engage. To ask and to listen and then to go away and really think and learn about what motivates people.
Once they’ve done that, these out of touch politicians can, if they choose, then cast a new digital version of themselves. A new identity to replace the out of touch one they’ve shed, and they’ll make some new friends and join a new gang who will respect them all the more.