Evolution of the Social Network

I moved through at least three visible stages of social networking in my life. It’s interesting to look at each now from a detached perspective…

1. The Family Core

When I grew up, in former Communist Romania, the family was by far the main social network. In 70-80’s we were raised to respect and obey our parents for the rest of our lives. People within a family were usually helping each other, but were also so different from one individual to another.

We clearly had, in the first place, a huge generation gap. The kind of music my parents were listening to was very different. Our taste in many other areas was different. We had access to a different level of education, and built up our own different set of values.

However, when I look back now, I kind of regret we have not been generally able to follow the same model. For me and my generation, the break-up came essentially from the massive migration in the richer Western countries.

One other aspect of my childhood and teenage years is we were able to come up with just a few select people that we later called “best friends”. We were rarely alike, but we used to complete each other and keep company to each one, when there was no Internet. In time, spread all over the world, we became distant and different, and eventually lost that link.

2. The Public Forum

The Internet became a commodity by the end of 90’s. I remember how, around 2005, I wasted my time for several years on some specialized public forums and personal blogs. It was definitely a passion. Most virtual platforms were public, and some people wanted and liked to be heard. Others, at the opposite end, developed rather a fear to expose anything from their private lives for anyone to see.

What was interesting is you had usually reactions at both ends: you were both able to discover strangers with similar affinities, but also bullies tempted to destroy whatever nice conversation and paradise you were creating in that island.

Discussions on public forums were frequently very open and quickly evolving into fights. This led to a relatively low number of participants, with a lot of silent spectators. Moderators were shy to intervene at the beginning, and publicly condemned.

Blogs were often used as a refuge from the moderated space of a public forum. Most blogs were by far public, because people wanted to be heard. It was sometimes great to vent a bit your frustrations and find eventually other people who resonate with you. With several times more trolls, but this was a small price to pay.

Connections we made from those decades were often with people you had no idea how they look, because many of us used a nickname. When the relationships survived in times and you were able to find out more details, you were often surprised that the personal life of someone was not necessarily compatible with the ideas they displayed in public.

3. The Private Blog

Finally, the modern social networks – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn etc – led to the destruction of the public blogging. Facebook required a thorough check of your identity, and made it “safe” to publish photos with your family and share them only with close “friends”.

But most of these spaces became private, and I had the chance to experience recently the sad effect of an echo chamber. There is indeed that tendency in this “safe spaces” to surround yourself only with people with similar concepts and ideas, of “yes man”. Those with a different or alternative attitude on a subject or another are usually not invited, and have no idea what people talk about in these private spaces.

Anything that contradicts the host risks to be seen as “negative” and against the flow. You’ll rarely have any open discussion in such private blogs, because of their structure: you almost always voice your opinion in someone’s private space.

The few public forums left are now populated by people interested not in open discussions, but on specialized items: some health problem, a political lobby, a software product… Public spaces are now guarded by few moderators each, with dictatorial powers and a huge set of rules.

One particular set of public spaces are the professional networks like LinkedIn. That’s where any HR person will check in the first place now your credentials, and everything you say there should be controlled. You can no longer be yourself now publicly, because any critical reactions you may have in the public space may end up being seen like a negative treat by a potential employer.

I’ll conclude by saying I do not like at all the times we live in, we went backwards. Already suffocated in politically correctness at work, clustered privately in Facebook chat rooms only with those “like us”, and exchanging short Twitter messages that made us forget how to have a real longer conversation, we ended up being in fact lonelier than ever…