Lost in the flurry of passion for “Social Networks” and more broadly in our cultures can be the fact that people interact with each other very differently. We have many different ways of being social (or not).
Most broadly psychologists divide people into introverts and extroverts or more accurately into falling somewhere along the continuum between the two traits. However culturally here in the US there is a massive bias towards extroverism – being the “life of the party”, being socially active, partying on the weekends (and while in college) and in short getting outside of your home, hanging out with groups of people and being able to make new friends. That behavior is reinforced and rewarded significantly.
Even online, where you might think introverts would be more comfortable a lot of social networks focus on extroverted behaviors and rewards. Call this the “friend gap” as many have recently – but nearly all social networks and socially enabled software show a massive change when you have a lot of frieds versus when you have few or no friends on the system. Being very social, therefore, is rewarded with lots of built-in rewards.
When you post something and have a lot of followers – whether on your own blog, to a microbloging tool like Twitter, or as an update inside of a social network like Facebook, if you have a lot of friends you have a much higher chance of getting a response and thus feedback – and with more feedback you generally get more feedback (i.e. people start to Digg it, other people who follow your friends notice their activity on your posts etc).
If you are extroverted and crave social attention then these tools can be quite wonderful – leveraging yourself to potentially larger social circles than you could keep up with without the tools (Robert Scoble for example probably couldn’t talk to 20,000 people every day but can follow that many on twitter).
Introverts, however, gain energy from focusing inward, they can engage outward but it can be overwheling and energy draining. The effort to gather up enough social contacts on a given service to get over the “friend gap” can be insurmountable. And since every outward effort can be somewhat draining keeping up the volume of activity in the face of the frequent lack of any response can be even more draining though for some the personal rewards (from writing a blog post and getting your own thoughts down) may be sufficient.
And then there are people like myself. I fall fairly squarely in the middle of the continuum – nothing is well suited for people like me – and we confound the expectations of society and others. In some contexts I am very extroverted – I talk to everyone, am the center of attention and gain energy from the presense of others. But this is not in all cases – and I also gain energy from time by myself, afternoons such as today when I spent most of the day on a 6+ mile walk by myself through San Francisco, listening to my iPod and thinking inwardly.
Society – and the current batches of “social” networks – are at times difficult places for people like me. I may have 100’s of twitter followers, thousands of contacts and hundreds of connections on many social networks. But at the same time how I enage with both people in person and within the context of these services is at times variable (contextual) and is not how extroverts approach the world – nor is it entirely how introverts do either.
I’ll follow up this post with further thoughts and discussion but I’m hoping it may spark others to think about this.