November 18, 2011

Sociology, social networking and AI

My friend Leo Lincourt linked to a very insightful (and perhaps a bit inciteful) article about social media sites like Facebook and Google+ and their attempts to codify (in the literal sense, of XML coding, as well as more figuratively) how social networks work, and can be modeled.

Leo notes that Maciej Ceglowski's bottom-line point is that any attempts to codify the social graph are 1) inherently incomplete and 2) political in nature.

I'm not sure that codification attempts are "political" in nature in the narrow sense of party politics. Now, if it's being used in the mistranslated version of Aristotle's "political," better translated as man is a social (or sociological) animal, I'd definitely agree.

Ceglowski notes that coding for social networks doesn't distinguish between degrees of relationships, like the difference between "friend" and "acquaintance" or between "acquaintance" and "contact," let alone between, say "boss" and "employee." It also doesn't distinguish between degrees of reciprocity. (I'm interested to see how this develops further at Google+, since "circling" there, unlike "Friending" on Facebook, is not a mutual activity.

Second, social media network coding only allows for "positive" relationships. There's a reason FB doesn't have an "unlike" or G+ a "-1" buttom.

Beyond all that, here's the real problem:
Social networks exist to sell you crap. The icky feeling you get when your friend starts to talk to you about Amway, or when you spot someone passing out business cards at a birthday party, is the entire driving force behind a site like Facebook. 

Because their collection methods are kind of primitive, these sites have to coax you into doing as much of your social interaction as possible while logged in, so they can see it. It's as if an ad agency built a nationwide chain of pubs and night clubs in the hopes that people would spend all their time there, rigging the place with microphones and cameras to keep abreast of the latest trends (and staffing it, of course, with that Mormon bartender). 

We're used to talking about how disturbing this in the context of privacy, but it's worth pointing out how weirdly unsocial it is, too. How are you supposed to feel at home when you know a place is full of one-way mirrors? 

We have a name for the kind of person who collects a detailed, permanent dossier on everyone they interact with, with the intent of using it to manipulate others for personal advantage - we call that person a sociopath. And both Google and Facebook have gone deep into stalker territory with their attempts to track our every action. Even if you have faith in their good intentions, you feel misgivings about stepping into the elaborate shrine they've built to document your entire online life.

All of this is why I continue to hope Firefox browser creator Mozilla, as a nonprofit, develops its own social network someday. I'll be there in a New York minute.

Whether that explicitly, Ceglowski knows something different is needed:

Right now the social networking sites occupy a similar position to CompuServe, Prodigy, or AOL in the mid 90's. At that time each company was trying to figure out how to become a mass-market gateway to the Internet. Looking back now, their early attempts look ridiculous and doomed to failure. ...

But at the time no one knew what it would feel like to have a big global network. We were all waiting for the Information Superhighway to arrive in our TV set, and meanwhile these big sites were trying to design an online experience from the ground up. Thank God we left ourselves the freedom to blunder into the series of fortuitous decisions that gave us the Web. 

My hope is that whatever replaces Facebook and Google+ will look equally inevitable, and that our kids will think we were complete rubes for ever having thrown a sheep or clicked a +1 button. It's just a matter of waiting things out, and leaving ourselves enough freedom to find some interesting, organic, and human ways to bring our social lives online. 
I somewhat, but not totally, agree. I think the freedom to wait things out really needs a nudge to move the Net in general and social media networking in particular into a more non/post-capitalist direction. Hence, my hopes for Mozilla. Homo sapiens doesn't always develop intuitive, organic solutions for issues.

That said, I know the article wasn't addressing AI at all, but it just provoked me into the thought that this is going to be another portion of a real Turing test: the ability to distinguish kinds of relationships, degrees of intensity of relationships and more. And, beyond differences between serial vs. parallel operations, this is another thing that computers (even Jeopardy-winner Watson) just can't do yet. And probably won't be able to do for some time.

1 comment:

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