My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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::cringe:: Jonathan Abrams did not invent social networks

I really wanted to like Jonathan Abrams’ talk at SXSW. I was trying to put down my frustrations and listen. But he broke me. Not with the anecdotes, but the horrible misunderstanding of social networks.

He started off the talk saying that he wanted to clarify what people meant by social networks. Midway through, he spoke about how his friend from Ryze was creating a tool for professional networking. He thought that this was great but that it would be cool to make this available for social life too. Thus, he made up the term social networking to discuss what he was doing. And he finds it really strange that everyone else is using that term to talk about their sites and even ::gasp:: offline behavior.

He disregards all predecessors (other than Ryze) because they didn’t influence him. He disregards academics, points out that his site is the only one who made it a reality, etc. Erg. I can’t even reiterate all of the things that i disagreed with.

There were a few interesting anecdotes. But more than anything, i successfully remembered why i’m a much bigger fan of the people who breathed life into Friendster than i am its creator.

[Btw: does anyone have that talk on tape? There are way too many perfect quotes for my essay on configuring the users.]

Update:
David Weinberger has a few notes on the talk and on his strange interactions.

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28 comments to ::cringe:: Jonathan Abrams did not invent social networks

  • mjc

    Abrams says “I don’t even know what the space of social networking means.” so I don’t think he’s taking credit at all for making the term up. I heard his descriptions as a way to differentiate the term for how it’s being used today….which is to say, it’s being abused by pretty much everyone involved with interacting on the internet, IMHO. Abrams at least tried to explain the frustration around everything even remotely sounding/feeling like friendster always having to end in “ster”…which is annoying.

  • That does sound pretty horrific. I’ve been trying to distinguish between “Social Network Analysis” (as used for block modeling and centrality and all that jazz) and “social networks” (as used for CSCW internet applications). Some social networks use SNA, but many don’t.

    MJC, Abrams complains about everything ELSE ending in “-ster”? Unless I’m very mistaken, Friendster started in 2002. Napster dates back to before 2000 or so. I always assumed it was meant to be “the Napster of friends”.

  • StephanJ

    I don’t see where he says that “his site is the only one who made it a reality”…nor do I see where he disregards academics, and even where he says that he “made up” the term “social networking”.

    Personally, I think that people just look for things to gripe about with Abrams. While I’m not a fan of him per se, either, I really don’t think that he deserves the fire that is usually pointed at him. I’m guessing that most people’s gripes are with friendster’s servers, plan, or service instead of the man who leads it right now.

  • Friendsters Jonathan Abrams om sociala ntverkssystem

    Ett lngt utdrag frn Jonathan Abrams (Friendster) keynote-tal p SXSW Interactive finns i What the Heck Is Social Networking?. Ls ven danah boyds ::cringe:: Jonathan Abrams did not invent social networks….

  • Dav

    Actually it sure sounded like he tried to claim that he coined the term “social networking” to me too.

    I get the feeling that he’s a guy who stumbled into something that was bigger than he envisioned. He’s managed now to more or less catch on to the real issues, but his solutions/methods are still mediocre at best. Some of his statements struck me as either delusional or merely revisionist.

    From what he said, it seems he’s using the VC money to surround himself with people smarter than he is, so that might be good news for the company. Was that harsh? Yeah, StephanJ’s right; I think his software and vision are poor, so I’m taking it out on him personally.

    p.s. Danyel, yeah I about gagged we he had the gall to complain about people using the “-ster” suffix. Shawn Fanning should send this guy a clue.

  • StephenJ – We’re talking about his talk at SXSW. Like i said, i’d love an actual (audio/visual tape) / transcript.

    Don’t get me wrong – i think that Friendster has a lot of potential, particularly in the Asian world. But i do think it’s mostly due to luck (and whoever that Burner girl friend of his with lots of friends is).

  • mjc

    Transcript is here: http://blog.fastcompany.com/archives/2004/03/16/what_the_heck_is_social_networking.html
    Again…I just can’t see from this where he even implied that he coined any terms. It sounds like he is quite surprised about how popular Friendster has become, and that he is annoyed about what seems to pass for “social networking” in the press these days, and I completely agree with that. I don’t like how it is the ‘buzzphrase’ of the month, probably just as much as academics who have been studying SN and related fields probably get frustrated with how people always bring up Friendster when trying to speak about a topic that has been studied in the non-online world for many years before the Internet.

    Just like the poster above, I think that most people who are rubbed the wrong way by Abrams are holding him personally responsible for many things that just have nothing to do with him, and I would say…even the speed of their service. Privacy and security seems to be a priority with Friendster, and I am happy to see that, seeing how the others (myspace, tribe, orkut, etc.) don’t seem to be making it a priority right now.
    A point that Abrams makes is that Friendster might be the target of academic critics, tech critics, and many others, but the site is intended for an audience that will use it. Stewart Butterfield puts this point quite nicely here:
    http://www.corante.com/many/archives/2004/03/09/yasnses_get_detailed_two_pictures.php#3128

  • Dav

    MJC, That’s a “partial transcript”, a mixture of some paraphrasing and some verbatim sentences with a lot of omissions. An actual recording of his talk would better support (actually, I think outright prove unless I just misheard) that he claimed to have coined the term, and these other things we’re responding to here. That linked transcript covers the gist but smooths over a lot of the details, and you know where the devil is.

  • kt

    and before napster there was Webster, the obvious web pun. But then I’m old skool.

  • Scott Moore

    If there is a verbatim transcript at some point, let me know. Since I wasn’t there I can’t comment (and it’s killing me, let me tell you). *g*

  • While I type really fast, obviously I can’t catch anything, and while I claim that my type recordings are partial transcripts, I actually paraphrase very little. It’s as close to verbatim as I can get without an actual recording.

    Having been there myself, I can say with some certainty that he never claimed to have invented social networking. Instead, he distances himself slightly from the use of the phrase. What might rub people the wrong way is his awareness of Six Degrees, lack of knowledge about Six Degrees what Six Degrees, and failure to draw a strong tie between the two because of that lack of knowledge. I think that’s fine. I have no problem with it. Friendster is different enough than Six Degrees that I don’t see this as claiming invention or neglecting credit.

  • Hey Danah,

    I recorded the whole thing minus Pud’s introduction. I haven’t leveled and cut the MP3, but I can do so tonight if you want to sample some of what was said.

    Anyway, wanted to say that I enjoyed your panel discussion on the future of blogging, and drop me an email if you want the recorded version of Abrams talk.

  • Ah. Exactly. After reading your post and Weinberger’s posts, I’m convinced. Friendster and other social networking tools are successful in part because they augment humans skills of interaction among those who are most challenged.

    But then I’m not certain that the entirety of the Internet doesn’t actually do that, provide a source of external wiring to supplement insufficient or inadequate internal wiring.

    It could explain why Abrams seems a bit off-putting; his on-board social software or internal wiring is not at the same level as that of humans who aren’t challenged in the same way.

    There is, after all, a strong correlation between being technically-gifted and having Asperger’s Syndrome.

  • Experts are always peeved by the lame ignorate uncultured things that happen when moore’s law and his friends (including the entrepeurs) sweep over their ivory tower. I rant about that with regards to social networking sites here.

    http://enthusiasm.cozy.org/archives/000375.html

    ps. Sorry about the wallet.

  • danah boyd Cringes

    danah boyd (no relation, although I wouldn’t mind) cringes from Jonathan Abrams’ talk at SXSW on social networks:”I really wanted to like Jonathan Abrams’ talk at SXSW. I was trying to put down my frustrations and listen. But he broke…

  • Restating the definitions

    We need to get a few things straight here. I’m getting driven nuts by the way people define social networks. Social software ≠social network. That is: while social software may represent a social network, or provide a platform for a…

  • Let me clarify something. I’m guessing that this venting post makes much more sense if you know me than if you’ve stumbled on to here. I believe that Friendster is an amazing tool and so many users have repurposed it to meet their needs in extraordinary ways. I don’t believe that it is a social network that can compare to what sociologists study and i don’t think that it has to; it is different and different is fascinating. Friendster makes a lot of decisions that i don’t agree with, but they are company decisions that i can respect.

    I am pretty regularly irritated by _Abrams_ on a personal level. He is disrespectful to me (“you’re pretty smart for a chick” for example) and i have no respect for him. I do not believe that he deserves all of the credit for Friendster; i do not believe that it was his design that made the meme spread. I believe that he did a few smart things, stumbled onto a few more and was conveniently connected to some people who did make it spread. I believe that Friendster reveals so much about subculture life and the power that they have to make something big. I believe that Abrams is a dreadful representative for Friendster because he personally makes the whole company look bad by saying idiotic things.

    This is not about the ivory tower. I’m fine with him dissing me and the academics from his stage. I think that what we do is different. And i think it’s a bit hysterical because what we do makes people realize that there’s something useful about social networks. Abrams may never have heard of socnets before, but Ryze is not oblivious to Granovetter’s thesis about weak ties and jobs. I think it’s great that people want to take socnets out of the ivory tower. But if they think that they can alter the structure and expect the same results to come out, they’re wrong. But i appreciate what they do because they give me more material to study.

  • Let me throw something at you, Danah, putting the weird Aspergerger-type behavior of Abrams for now.

    Earlier forms of interaction (and their enabling tools) between humans on-line were social networks, but narrow and fairly reactive in nature. More contemporary tools have been repurposed, but in something more than a reactive fashion; they are repurposed, gamed, to test the capabilities. Like toddlers testing the boundaries now that they can walk.

    Is it possible, then, that the aggregate of on-line social networks are now experiencing the emergence of a form of meta-consciousness? Something more than infantile/reactive consciousness, more like toddler/naive consciousness? Can we make a prediction that on-line social networks may emerge in parallel with human consciousness? Food for thought.

  • Dav

    Tom Chi, sent a note to your yahoo email I found, but in case that was not the right address for you currently: I’d like a copy of your audio file (dav -> AkuAku org)

  • Destroying Dunbar

    It seems that these days, as the SNS stew continues to simmer, more and more of the top executives are being brought in front of a growing number of attentive audiences. During these panels and interactions, most are probed and prodded to provide info…

  • Destroying Dunbar

    It seems that these days, as the SNS stew continues to simmer, more and more of the top executives are being brought in front of a growing number of attentive audiences. During these panels and interactions, most are probed and prodded to provide info…

  • Rayne – there’s some interesting work on distributed cognition, but honestly, this is so far beyond my knowledge space that i’d only be offfering speculations.

  • jonathan abrams is a really big mother-fuckin jerk!!!!!stupid fool!!!!go fuck your whole family!!!!don’t think you’re so smart wiv fews of your mother-fuckin graduate papers!!!!!….you still sucks…sucks big time!!!!!soon, your fuckin ceo will be replaced by someone in great honors…someone who has power to control the net….you’ll c,mother-fcker jonathan abrams!!!!!

  • Endster

    “This is the end, beautiful friend,” sang Jim Morrison in “The End” long ago. “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end,” sang Semisonic in “Closing Time” a few years ago. These were the lyrics running through my head

  • Endster

    “This is the end, beautiful friend,” sang Jim Morrison in “The End” long ago. “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end,” sang Semisonic in “Closing Time” a few years ago. These were the lyrics running through my head

  • Endster

    “This is the end, beautiful friend,” sang Jim Morrison in “The End” long ago. “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end,” sang Semisonic in “Closing Time” a few years ago. These were the lyrics running through my head