Eric Karjaluoto

The Rise of the Small Networks

In spite of my many barbs and general cynicism regarding social media, I admit that its advent has significantly improved my life. It has given me a channel to distribute my thoughts, a way to keep up with—and better know—those I meet infrequently, and an opportunity for playful banter.

Still, I contemplate whether the key social media venues we rely on today are adequate for our many needs. Although these communities are useful, they sometimes aren’t appropriate for what we want to do. For example, I often hesitate when posting links on Facebook to my own blog articles. Although, my colleagues might find these posts interesting, my family members are probably less interested in them—and the inverse is likely the case with photos of my kids. Meanwhile, I rarely ever post new drawings, for fear of just boring everyone I’m connected to. So, yes, popular social media tools are wonderful, but they can’t afford all the fidelity we might like. Put another way: the hammer is immeasurably important, but probably not the only tool you’d want your dentist to be equipped with.

Several years in, though, and there’s no substantial alternative to even Facebook—and I argue that therein lies the key as to why. Although many have sought to replace Facebook, Facebook needn’t be replaced—it works quite nicely as it is. Therefore, the opportunity for new networks has principally been in narrower wells.

Instagram could be (mistakenly) seen as just a function that already exists in Facebook, but such thinking would belie the unique characteristics of that community. SnapChat is similarly inconsequential seeming at the outset, nevertheless, the temporal nature of posts on it holds utility for (pseudo) privacy-conscious young people. And Tumblr, which first seems like a deficient blog platform has gained an army of users due to its ease and unique culture. One very notable characteristic of these communities it that they do not attempt to replace Facebook (or Twitter), but rather coexist with it.

When I contemplate the underlying structure of online networks, I often find myself drawn to the analogy of high school. On the first day, new students are all directed into a single room. This large unsorted group, is free to interact, but unlikely to engage in deep discussion given all the varying interests—which results in more superficial dialogue. This is Facebook: a flat network that handles all connections, regardless of depth, making it a good catch-all for anyone from Aunt Edna to your coworkers, or buddies from grade school.

These sorts of mass networks tend to be general, in spite of the mechanisms made available to create narrower subdivisions. This is why the Circles feature in Google+ doesn’t work: taxonomy is a drag for users to sort out because few people unilaterally fit within one single category. So, organic groupings and relationships form, but the discussions tend to be less involved—just like I talk about design differently with my colleagues than when my other friends are present.

Continuing with the high school analogy: Some students join clubs, or funnel into elective classes or special interest groups. They still remain a part of the student body, but by self-sorting into like groups they are able to access deeper discussion, knowledge, and camaraderie. This change in fidelity has a great deal to do with shared language/shorthand, and a higher tolerance for subject-specific dialogue. While you may tire of your nephew’s incessant posts on Star Wars memorabilia acquisitions, those in a dedicated club will share this passion and not mind his enthusiasm. And within these smaller networks, the narrowing of interests helps accelerate friendships and opportunities for advancement/growth.

What I’m getting at is my hunch that we’re reaching a new stage in our needs and expectations surrounding online community—and that this presents a huge opportunity for all of us. I like Facebook and the utility it lends but I yearn for a richer and more colorful web. In fact, the web of the past in many ways excited me more than the one we have today: sprawling with communities large, small, professional, amateurish, and everything in between. But now, instead of being limited (by technology) to forums, IRC, and BBS, these communities can take on whatever form is necessary.

I’ve been wrong about the web so many times before that I really should avoid such prognostication. However, I can’t shake the sense that we’re approaching a great rebirth of the web that takes the tools popularized by mainstream social media, and twists them to best support a broader and more engaged population of webizens.

For the record, Artivus is our response to this same opportunity—for one small part of the population. Most people won’t care about it in the slightest; for creative people, though, it could be a game changer.

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