Six Degrees of Separation – the idea that you are connected to everyone else in the world by no more than six links – has been championed throughout the world of social media since the latter’s conception. The further in we go, and the more friends we add on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and the like, the more we see that this is true.
Rather than a few strong connections, today we are used to having a multitude of weaker links with those around us. On Twitter, we may not have met many of the people whose ‘tweets’ we follow, but these contacts often prove useful. Want to know how to make a soufflé? Run a marathon? Find out about volunteering opportunities? A quick note on one or more of your social networking sites will bring adequate results.
Learning about people’s lives as we go along can be entertaining. As Yahoo! scientist Marc Davis puts it, ‘Merely looking at a stranger’s Twitter or Facebook feed isn’t interesting, because it seems like blather. Follow it for a day, though, and it begins to feel like a short story; follow it for a month, and it’s a novel.’ And it is true that we take others into consideration on social networks; we want our updates to be interesting as well as reflective of our selves.
The result is a strange one: a pseudo-world in which everyone reads an almost-true but highly edited ‘running novella’ of everyone else. As we have seen in previous posts, people seem very comfortable with sharing highly personal observations on social networking sites; yet these are almost always phrased intriguingly, making you want to know more. Similar to the snippets found on adverts for books, films and magazines, people’s short updates are there to intrigue, to draw others in to a self-centered yet ultimately social conversation.
So we have these weak bonds – these ‘six-degree-separated friends’ – with whom we share the most intimate parts of our lives: ‘Hetty is bathing the children’, ‘Johannes is depressed’, ‘Charlie is out on the pull’. And in the midst of this curious accumulation of connections, we find that our network of people we genuinely care about; whose daily activities mean something to us, who we lie awake at night worrying about; grows to previously unprecedented proportions. People I have never met pop into my mind when I see something I know they would like in a shop window. How do I know this? Because I’ve been friends with them on Facebook for a year, I’ve been following their Tweets for six months; we’ve conversed on Skype so many times that it feels like they are frequent visitors to my living room.
With friendship comes intimacy; with intimacy come practically unbreakable bonds; and with advances in social media come more opportunities for friendship. The likelihood of not finding someone who has had a similar experience to your own; who shares your likes, your hobbies, your interests; is shrinking. Everyone has input, everyone has an outlet. And, by extension, everyone has an audience. This latter has arguably been the case since the conception of the Internet; but only now is everyone’s audience moving so close to the stage as to be allowed into the backstage bowels of the theatre, to the intricately woven intimacies of life.
Of course, in business it is useful to have contacts; an audience is something a business needs in order to thrive, and an active audience is better than a passive one. But what is social networking doing to our personal lives? Are online relationships really able to capture the intimacy of offline ones, in business or otherwise? Do you have close friends you’ve never met in person? I’d love to hear your thoughts.