[posted to OM]
People who have relationships with each other often have shared interests, values and tastes. As collections of relationships evolve, cultures form with collective interests, values and tastes (that may not resemble any or all of the individual members’). There are shared cultural practices and activities embedded in these cultures.
There are two ways of looking at this – through the foci or through the group. There appear to be communities that follow particular interests, say a music genre. But also – and this is important – there is a higher probability that your friends share the same interests as you than a random sampling of people. In other words, if you really like David Bowie, your friends are more likely to like David Bowie that a random collection of the same number of people. Of course, this does not mean that they all like David Bowie or that any of them like him as much as you do. Likewise, this doesn’t mean that the biggest David Bowie fan is your friend (although you’re more likely to have something in common with this person than a random stranger).
Cultures often form within social network clusters because members of the group tend to share things in common. Additionally, when people like each other, they are interested in trying out each other’s passion. Try dating someone who *loves* David Bowie – you’ll find yourself listening to him too.
Now, think about all social networking tools. They have all proliferated based on social network clusters – friend groups with dense network overlap. A lot of these groups have brought their groups’ culture with them and it is these cultures that people often recognize. In the early days of Friendster, this is why people thought Friendster was all gay men, all Burners, all whatever. The indie rock kids have invaded MySpace, the Burners took over Tribe.net, Brazilian culture has dominated Orkut. Depending on the cultures that an individual participates in, one service or another feels far more appealing.
Anyone interested in creating sociable applications needs to understand that this dynamic is natural and the product of very excited individual(s) spreading a product to their friendgroup. Why a group really values a particular software should be a problem to solve, not an act to suppress. Attempts to disrupt culture often disrupts a lot more than the narrow culturally defined group – this is the problem with social networks… attitudes flow through the networks just as much as information.
Culture emerges in most social technologies that bring people together. Like it or not, the company who has created the tools is faced with the responsibility of supporting that culture, particularly with hosted tools/communities. This can be very tricky when a company fosters a culture that they did not expect or want (a.k.a. it’s not a population that can be squeezed for money). What to do becomes an ethical question.
The irony is that most social technology companies want the whole world to use their service. The world includes a vast array of different cultures and communities, not all of which are compatible with each other. So when the cultures have to interact because of the tool, it is fundamentally impossible to actually have all cultures involved if there are conflicting ones. Take the homophobes and the queers – they really don’t go well together. If you choose to support the queers by making your tool queer-friendly, you will piss off the homophobes. And no matter what, those two groups really don’t want to have to interact with each other on the site.
Therein lies an interesting problem for builders of social tools – how to support culture, what to do when you have issue with the culture that emerged and how to deal with the fact that you can’t get everyone to use a social tool if the interface will reveal the values of the other one or if members from conflicting groups will have to interact.