Networks and net worth

Jen Jones’s post on Social Networking for Humans talks about how “the balance of our attention shifts back and forth between people and tools.” She mentions that she’s tried various tools that show the connections between people in her networks, but that she’s not satisfied with the results — in part because for her it’s the communication that’s important, not the hardware (and software) that facilitates it.

She reminded me of an undergrad course in modern sociological thought (hey, I’m slow getting started this morning). I enjoyed the course, though I realized even at the time that I spent about 80% swimming over my head. I had a lot of difficulty with the work of Talcott Parsons, who wrote in a language that resembles English, except that all the nouns are abstract and all the adjectives, polysyllabic.

One of his many concepts is pattern variables, “‘the principle tools of structural analysis outlining the derivation of these categories from the intrinsic logic of social action.” (See what I mean about this English-like language?) Among the five sets of such variables is the notion of specificity versus diffuseness.

Specific or diffuse?Dr. Bauder explained that in a specific relationship, you have to justify including some new action or behavior, while in a diffuse relationship, you have to justify leaving something out.

She gave the example of the grocery store. In general, your relationship with the cashier is: you put the groceries on the belt, the cashier rings them up. Conversation fits into the buying-groceries relationship. You’d have to have a reason for saying to the other person, “You know, that outfit makes you look kind of heavy.”

Then Dr. Bauder asked what type of relationship exists between a teacher and a student. Thinking of the free exchanges that characterized her classes, I said, “Diffuse.”

“Okay,” she said. “What are you doing Saturday night?”

Here’s how I see this fitting with Jen’s comments about social network tools: having someone as a friend on Facebook, following someone’s tweets, commenting often on someone’s blog — these things in themselves don’t make my relationship with that person diffuse. That requires time — as in the proverb that to know someone, you have to eat a bag of salt together.

Of course the more specific relationships have value (ideally for both parties). But the transformation of any one relationship is subtle and easily overlooked. As Jen says, “You may have thousands of virtual friends, readers and followers, but if you don’t have two-way communication with them, the connections are truly virtual and will not withstand the potential failure of the social networking tool.”

I’m not too concerned about having thousands of virtual friends. Jen’s post and my own musings remind me to focus more on what I communicate, to whom, and why; the how, to me, is far less important.

Advice photo by QwirkSilver / Kristine.

2 thoughts on “Networks and net worth

  1. Jen, this specific/diffuse perspective was quite striking to me at the time. Ever since, I’ve wondered about the small transformations that turn an acquaintance into a colleague or a stranger into a friend.

    Maybe because we’re pre-wired to find patterns, we tend to put things into categories, and that categorization is often discrete. City/country, liberal/conservative, and (possibly the most distorting), work/life.

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