The Tangled Graph We Weave
Dear techies: Life is driven by experiences, not events.
Experiences drive our development, and events are milestones along the way. Even the most insignificant interaction aids the formation of our being. These innumerable moments, in aggregate, are infinitely more valuable to life than any one event. Events are merely points along our journey, where we assign our recognition of change, growth and opportunity.
In truth, events are usually only valuable to us in two ways. The first is towards your reputation—the story left after you are gone, or the one you tell when presenting your value, as in a resume. The second is marketability, and this is where we find your social graph.
Let’s define it just to be safe: the social graph is a mapping of your social network. Long before Zuckerberg, businesses have benefited from how we know each other and create overlapping social connections. This pattern has continued into our Internet usage, and the people, places, and things we connect with online shape an understanding of our interests and preferences.
But the social graph is slowly redesigning how we approach life’s experiences. The mapping of our interactions taps into our evolving ability (and proclivity) for recording events; it becomes increasingly common to coordinate our experiences around events—instead of vice versa.
This ability to record events has given incredible value to metadata, which for a social graph is always more important than the experience itself. Every data point linked to another helps to refine the composite mapping of the digital you—which provides, in turn,more marketable selling targets for advertisers and others who would pay for the free service you enjoy in order to access your collected information.
Here is where I’d love to wax eloquently on the “old days,” when we spent time to be together rather than spending time to do a specific thing, and how that has had effect on how we define friendship and relationships in general. Instead, I’ll simply note that the social graph encourages self-mapping, and that our voluntary quantification aids our digital graphing while establishing the habit of mapping as normal to human interaction—which it is not. Imagine someone measuring the number of clapping hands in an audience the next time you note favorites and likes. And maintaining a count of friends or followers is no more useful to one’s growth than tracking one’s bedded partners with notches on a headboard.
But like those scratched marks, measurement itself oversimplifies the idios, the distinctness of each event and experience that makes it your own. Certain forms of knowledge, like measurement, actually ask us to narrow our vision. By doing so, we lose much of what makes us (and our intentions) unique; all for the sake of a graph that does little, if anything, to help us in the long run. Because two photos of the same sunset were taken in the same general location by two males with Android phones on the same mobile carrier, their creators could qualify as having similar interests—despite one being a 19 year-old tech intern while another is a 43 year-old mechanic and father (whose daughter took the picture for him).
In his book, Seeing Like a State, James C. Scott writes, “In urban planning as in forestry, it is a short stop from parsimonious assumptions to the practice of shaping the environment so that it satisfies the simplifications required by the formula.” Is it any different for the independent generation of digital profiles created for us with each online action we take?
If our potential is limited by what we consume and to what we are exposed, the social graph is a smothering net, limiting our reach. It will always show us who and where we are rather than who or where we want to be. It eliminates the disruption of uncharacteristic experiences, challenging perspectives and—most importantly—needing to discern for ourselves the path our living creates.
I work in tech, and I recognize the incredible value of the social and interest graphs created with social media. That value is completely different from the value of discovery and being. Increasingly, each suggested contact or recommended story seems to nudge me into a form that is preselected for me; each check-in seems a burden more than an opportunity.
I want very much for social applications to consider the implications of recommendation. I look forward to using the first app that turns the social graph on its head, perhaps using it to filter for only things I’m not likely to have experienced. At the minimum, I’d like the ability to use this mapping to provide me with people and content leading me where I’d like to go, not where I currently am. Such permutations would provide society with necessary diversity within this increasingly unavoidable social web we weave.