When Friendster, et. al. were the hottest thing on the block, hordes of people jumped online to articulate their social network for everyone to see. Analysts thought that they were buying in to the “goals” of the services – dating, job seeking, classified, etc. There’s no doubt that many people gained value from these services but is this why everyone was so keen on articulation?
Articulation is not new. Building an address book is a form of articulating relationships. The address book is considered to be a tool of memory, yet what assumptions are being made when an entry is created? I would guess that anyone who scribbles a new name in assumes that they will have some reason to contact that person again. There is an assumption of a future connection aided by the knowledge of a current or past connection. Address books are an articulation of our connections to others with pointers for locational reference. The primary purpose of an address book is to look up an individual. It is our own personal people dns.
In the technology sphere, there are plenty of tools that incorporate articulated relationships into their application. Consider LiveJournal or AIM. In both applications, one articulates the people one wants to keep in touch with and uses each application to connect with others voices either through static or synchronous text. Both are tools for presence and communication – the articulation is key to engaging with these people.
What then are the motivations behind articulating relationships in publicly articulated social networking tools? Certainly, many participated simply because it was the cool thing to do. For some, PASNTs offer a nouveau address book where people can have access to a collection of one’s relationships for future use. For others, it is a mechanism to keep in touch with others’ evolving representations of self. Yet, the public aspect of this articulation takes on an additional role, that of signaling connection (a topic that Judith Donath and i took up in Public Displays of Connection).
Because the public signaling is so deeply rooted in PASNTs, this is off-putting for some people. Not everyone wants to engage in this practice which can be seen as pretentious at best. This is not necessarily an empowering feature for everyone, particularly those who keep their relationships dear to their heart and see no value in public signaling.
While all social people maintain relationships, there is nothing consistent about how people maintain them, yet these tools require some consistency. Who does this limit and how?
For some, private articulation for a particular purpose (memory, reference to a connection, presence) can feel quite comfortable and thus the people engaged in tools that permit this may not feel nearly as comfortable in ones that require public performance of relationships.
I would be very curious to know what motivates others to articulate their relationships and in what situations. If you think about your blogrolling habits, your be-Friending on PASNTs, your address books, your IM buddies, why do you choose to put people there? What purpose does this serve in your life?