Every new year, analysts, bloggers, and sundry pundits often recount what has happened over the last year or hazard extrapolations for the next year–both typically exercises in intellectual laziness. In keeping with that tradition of holiday laxity, I thought I would indulge myself in a similar exercise, but with a slight twist.
Social networks are now commonplace and have become a fundamental part of the fabric of our social, economic, and political life. They have altered world events and power structures and are raising critical new questions about our identities, about our privacy, and about who owns the rights to our own “personal big data.”
But 10 years ago, in 2004, things were quite a bit different. Social networks were entirely new, and most people either didn’t have the term “social network” in their vocabularies or they were trying to wrap their minds around what they were and what they might be capable of.
Back in the summer of 2004, I was in this second category: aware of social networks, sensing their importance, but unsure of what to make of them. My response was to organize an evening symposium and moderate an expert panel on the subject at the newly-opened Carnegie Mellon West facility in Mountain View. A colleague of mine recently reminded me of this, and I was able to dig out the invitation blurb for the event:
Networks of social relationships have always been present as fundamental conduits and organizers of human life (largely as “background mechanisms”). In recent years, new information technology and scientific understanding have begun to enable, enhance, and proliferate “social networks” in new forms and in different areas of private and public life. Both “for-profit” and “non-profit” entities are now leveraging new social network technology and theory to create and deploy innovative “social networks” in the domains of social interaction, commercial activity, and political/civic engagement. We are only beginning to understand the changes that may be in store for us in how we relate and interact socially as private individuals, how we pursue our commercial and professional interests as business people, and how we exercise our rights and prerogatives as citizens. Join our panel of experts for a discussion of this exciting new phenomenon and its potential implications as a disruptive and/or integrative force in the social, commercial, and political/civic spheres. Panel: Ben Smith, Founder/CEO, Spoke Software, Inc. MBA, 1993, Tepper School Danah Boyd, PhD Candidate, SIMS/Social Networks, UC Berkeley Mark Pincus, CEO/Founder, Tribe.net Reid Hoffman, CEO/Founder, Linked-in, Inc. Steven Herzberg, Chairman/Founder, Votewatch Moderator: Andrew Karpie, MS, 1984, Heinz School Date/Time: Thursday – July 22, 2004 – 6:30-8:30PM Location: Carnegie-Mellon West Campus – NASA Ames, Mountain View Free to CMU alumni, faculty and students; $5.00 contribution required for non-CMU guests.
In 2004, Mark Zuckerberg had just launched the Harvard version of Facebook out of his dorm room, but was not on anyone’s radar. Reid Hoffman had launched professional network LinkedIn in competition with Spoke launched by Ben Smith. The most popular social networks were those like Myspace or like Tribe launched by Marc Pincus. At this time, the commercial application of social networks was unclear and surrounded by skepticism (LinkedIn had not yet launched any talent management offerings), and the application of social networks in the domain of politics was truly difficult to imagine.
In 2004, social networks were–to most who even knew about them–not much more than novelties, social hang-outs for hipsters, maybe ways of keeping connected with colleagues (vCard–created by big businesses in 1996–was also popular then, but never caught on). Naturally, the conclusions drawn by the panel in the symposium were much more optimistic about the future role of social networking in society.
Now, just 10 years later, it’s hard to even think about our world and lives without including some key aspects that have been touched, changed, transformed by so-called “social.” The impact of social networks has turned out to be both “integrative” and “disruptive” to an extent and scale that would have exceeded even perhaps all but the most visionary views of that time.
And now in 2014, the “social revolution,” no longer in its infancy, is probably no further along than adolescence–a long way from maturity. Interestingly, even now ten years later, “social” (like an adolescent) is still in what anthropologists would call a “liminal” phase. It is still hard to grasp and define what it really is, what its boundaries are, how it fits into to everything else or how it might in the future. Mobile and online marketplaces, for example, are technology-based phenomenon that are much easier to delineate. But “social”–perhaps because of what it is–the nexus of the complexity of dynamic human relationships–remains elusive in this respect.
From my standpoint, I feel like I can suggest neither definitions not prognostications. To me, “social” is as elusive as ever. In 2004, the idea of “social networks” was emerging (distinct online platforms in which social graph theory was being applied to join people); but now in 2014 we have the unbounded concept of “social” which seems to permeate potentially anything (social commerce, social recruiting, etc.). “Social” has shifted from being a “technological thing” to becoming an established dimension of how the world works. Accordingly I find I have as little an idea now as I did in 2004 about the future evolution and impacts of “social.” And I find this strange, uncanny.
It makes me wonder, with all of the current discussion about the emergence of AI and (according to Stephen Hawkings) its dangers, about the coming superiority of computer-based cognition, about Ray Kurzweil’s questionable “remix” of the term “singularity,” etc., what kind of world we have entered into in the first part of the 21st Century.
As a school boy in the latter half of the 20th Century, I remember watching Walter Cronkite narrate the weekly show entitled “The 21st Century,” which portrayed the coming 21st Century as a period when “Man” would wield his powerful tools of science and technology to conquer new frontiers and solve many of the world’s problems (which indeed has been happening in significant ways). But technology in the 21st century has turned out to be much different: it has much more to do with information that we expected, and it turns out that it has rapidly entered into an unexpected “intimacy” with humans (which can arouse feelings of comfort and empowerment, ambivalence, or discomfort and concern OR all three together).
“Social” is perhaps the first application of technology that has crossed the line from technology being a “tool” that we grasp and command to technology being something more like an “intimate companion.” So perhaps the reason the technological phenomenon of “social” is so difficult to grasp, “get a handle on,” define, predict, etc. is precisely because of the “intimate” nature of our relationship to it (the distance between the once “objective” tool and ourselves has disappeared–ironically, we have no “social distance” with “social” technology). And in the greater scheme of things, perhaps this experience with “social” technology was the first sign of a more fundamental shift in the relationship between humans and technology in the 21st century.