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Social networking

Updated Tuesday, 26th January 2010
The Long Now's Stewart Brand and The Open University's Magnus Ramage explore how social networking is changing all communications.

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Videos of kittens in sinks are a small price to pay for the communication benefits of social networks, says Stewart Brand

The WELL was not utopian. Sort of utopia is usually, there’s utopia and there’s libertarianism and utopians know it’s good for you and libertarians don’t, and so in that sense we really were libertarian.

But there was a sense that this is good for people and I think each one of these comes along, Medoc comes along and there’s this sense of this is really good for people.


And so there’s a high moral purpose that gets associated with these things, and I think that’s fine and it often helps keep them honest and keep them from going into an excessively commercial frame of reference or something like that.

There’s nothing wrong with a commercial frame of reference but it’s nice to have that as not the only the way you go with your mind.

So yeah, I think, you know, time after time people figure out if the stuff is going to be good and, you know, if people can shoot their cell phone video of bad things that are happening, you know, the 'witness programme' kind-of thing, then there will be fewer bad things happening, that’s right. That is actually the case.


In the meantime you’re going to put up with a lot of kittens in sinks and that’s okay.

I think social networks have changed how we relate to one another mainly in terms of speed.


You give up bandwidth to communicate through email or Twitter or whatever it may be, but you gain an immediacy and a breadth of people that can reach each other either simultaneously or pretty close to simultaneously, and distance becomes less of a consequence.

And it used to be, for example, when kids went to college they went away and the parents would see them at Christmas, maybe, and then when they got married but that was pretty much it.

Now kids go to college and nothing’s changed, they’re still, you know, engaging each other with Twitter and email, Facebook, God knows what else, and they’re hearing about who they’re dating and what their grades are.

None of that used to happen so what just happened? What just happened is a phenomenon that distance used to change, now it doesn’t change because of the introduction of distance.

And so troops go off to war in Iraq or Afghanistan and they are in touch. And it is good for them as troops and it’s good for their family as families for that to be the case, so there is an engagement that has broadened by giving up the face to face communication but it hasn’t, I don’t think, hurt the face to face bit, or as near as I can tell, and all it’s done is add another couple of layers of communications which has meant both more and faster.

Why don’t you use things like Twitter?

I don’t use Twitter for the same reason that I did not use an instant messaging system on the WELL back in the early 80s. There was, I think we called it Sendmail, and people just loved – some people just loved to interrupt each other. That’s not my mode. I don’t want to be interrupted generally, and I don’t want to interrupt other people and I’m really not interested in what they’re thinking right now, and I don’t want them interested in what I’m thinking right now. So for me the cost:benefit ratio goes the wrong way.


How important was the face to face element in the success of the WELL? Did it matter that most of you were in or around San Francisco creating a blend between the online and the face to face interaction?

I think face to face - face to face is well served by online connectivity. And one of the things we found, for a while I was organising a set of conferences for large corporations called the Learning Conferences, and we met twice a year, every six months, but then the people that were in these conferences were communicating with each other by email and by the WELL in between those times and so, as a result, when we would meet everybody was already in the middle of conversation.

[Sorry, just cut there, we’ve got a reversing truck. Again just keep going ...]

Okay. I think face to face communications and online communications help each other, and the combination is terrific. So if kids go away to school and then you see them at Christmas, because you’ve been in contact by email you’ve already got stuff that they’re sharing and so you don’t have to go through that weird awkwardness of, you know, “What courses are you taking?” and, “Who are you seeing dear?” and all this. So the idea that online communication would replace face to face I think has been proven wrong.

There’s clearly lots of stuff that goes on online that the people are then, you know, they become basically friends online and then they encounter their first date or whatever it is, and they’re woah, who is this person?

But because of all that existing communication they can sort of get past the weirdness of, you know, the physical instantiation of somebody. And that’s pretty good actually, so there’s many a shut-in that has a social life now that would not be the case without the ability to be social online

Magnus Ramage is encouraged by the acknowledgement that web communications don't supplant face-to-face meetings.

I think the thing to me that was so interesting about seeing Stewart Brand talk was the depth of his experience.

So for many people this experience of online communication, of things like Facebook and Twitter, they’re something very new, they’re very fresh, it’s very innovative, but for Brand that’s going back, it’s more than twenty years ago, the things he’s talking about, about the WELL, and so just how, partly just knowing that that’s not an incredibly new thing and partly the depth of knowledge and the wisdom that comes from the things that he says.

And arising from that, he talks very strongly for me about the way in which face to face communication and online communication aren’t separate things, they’re not things where one replaces another, but that the online communication is reinforcing the face to face interactions, that they’re able to sit alongside each other and to quite an extent he suggests, I think, that by having a greater level of online communication you’re actually increasing the richness of face to face communication.

So he gives the examples of the way in which college students going away are still in touch with their parents on a much more immediate day to day basis than has ever been the case in the past, and he talks about the way that people can meet at conferences and they’ve never met physically before but they know a great deal about each other, they’ve had a lot of experience of each other already and they can just kind of carry on where they left off in their online conversations.

The other thing that’s so interesting about what he says is this talk, he talks about a trade-off between bandwidth and immediacy. And something which to me is very potent, and it really reminded me of something that’s in one of the programmes for the series about when you see pictures of the WELL suddenly, and we’ve heard all these stories about the way in which people support each other on the WELL, and this very strong sense of community they’ve built up, largely as a result of online communication, and then suddenly you see these pictures, and it’s an 80 x 25 text screen, it’s nothing but text, there’s no graphics, it’s green words on a black background, and incredibly slow bandwidth, you have to dial up with a modem, and nowadays it’s much worse than anything that any of us would tolerate and yet they have these incredibly rich sense of community and of interaction.

And for me that was a really powerful thing coming up from Brand’s experience, the sense that the underlying technology is not the thing that matters, and the power of the technology is nothing nearly so important as what you do with it and how you build up interaction and community through this technology.


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