Adam Greenfield is anti Social Networking

I only recently came across this post from Adam Greenfield in which he explains why he believes that computer-mediated social networking is inherently bad: “Antisocial networking.”

It’s an important and powerful critique, though one with which I ultimately disagree. Greenfield essentially argues that:

  1. Social networking applications must, necessarily, oversimplify human relationships: they couldn’t possibly represent the complex and dynamic nature of any graph connecting a pair of individuals, let alone the mesh of a whole community.
  2. As a result, they inevitably create emotional distress, anguish, and pain for users (and sometimes even for non-users)
  3. Therefore, we should not use them.

The problem, as Greenfield sees it, is that we’re allowing technical architectures to intrude upon the pre-technical, social space of human relationships. We’re allowing the web of human relationships as-modeled-by-software-systems to reduce, pollute, and corrupt the web of human relationship as modeled in the human psyche and history of culture.

Here’s one of the critical paragraphs of the piece, though you should read it (and the comments to it) in full:

What these commentators do not or cannot admit, though, is that the whole milieu in which these concerns of openness and portability are contained is broken – and not just a little broken, but badly so. All social-networking systems, as currently designed, demonstrably create social awkwardnesses that did not, and could not, exist before. All social-networking systems constrain, by design and intention, any expression of the full band of human relationship types to a very few crude options – and those static! A wiser response to them would be to recognize that, in the words of the old movie, “the only way to win is not to play.”

Greenfield takes apart the XFN standard, noting that it prohibits, by design, “negative relationships,” and goes on to assert that negative relations are critical to the social fabric. However, it is important to be able to keep some of those feelings (and their dynamic nature) to yourself:

social comfort and coherence require that by far the majority of actual feelings regarding the people in our lives not be made explicit. In my experience, any degree of smooth and compassionate human concourse absolutely requires plausible deniability, and a certain degree of dissembling regarding your actual, operative feelings for the people you’re engaged with, however much you love them.

Finally, Greenfield concludes:

I believe that technically-mediated social networking at any level beyond very simple, local applications is fundamentally, and probably persistently, a bad idea. From where I stand, the only sane response is to keep our conceptions of friendship and affinity from being polluted by technical metaphors and constraints to begin with.

It’s almost enough to make me shutter my Facebook account, but then it’s my move in Scrabulous.

My issue with Greenfield’s account, however, is that he assumes that simply not playing is a viable answer. Like Bartleby‘s “I would prefer not to,” Greenfield’s renunciation of all software-modeled relationships risks a slippery slope which ends in renouncing all online participation.

After all, doesn’t blogging software also create social discomfort and awkwardness which didn’t exist before? (Didn’t you read my blog post on X? I can’t believe the comment Y left on Z’s blog!)

It is vitally important to remember that there is (and will always be) a reduction inherent in transforming the complex and dynamic mesh that is human relationships down to a “social network” as understood by Facebook, LinkedIn, and the like – but I have to disagree that the only appropriate response to that reduction is to take my ball and go home.

Where social networking applications cause emotional pain we need greater education and contextualization. I don’t know about your teen years, but I was certainly familiar with artifical indicators of popularity and mechanisms of exclusion in mine.

This is not to say the mechanism of bullying, exclusion, and oneupmanship aren’t different in an online social networking world, but that we need to learn to understand, explain, and mediate those differences, not ignore the social networks and hope they go away.