In 2009, social networking overtook email in reach to become the dominant format of electronic messaging. And with the proliferation of mobile devices that employ social media technologies, it appears social networks are increasingly supplanting many of the traditional, non- or old-tech activities once required to cultivate and maintain social relations. For many, membership in a social network offers advantages over traditional networks – that social media offers something real human relations do not or cannot provide.
Traditional human networks are based on relations grounded in locality, interpersonal communications, familiarity, and shared experiences. The relations are cultivated through conversations, shared activities and other interactions, They tend to involve small groups coalesced around a place through employment, family, collegial ties, language, nationality, or other connections.
Online relations, on the other hand, are grounded in intersecting interests. Their reach can be international in scope, barring any language barriers – though even these are perceived as solvable through computer assisted translation. In a social network, individuals can be reduced in analysis to nodes of information, where each node is essentially a database profile. A relation between nodes may register, and therefore represent a real relation, though it may register a false relation. Relations are therefore self-managed linked profiles.
At some point, the online relation can stand in for that which it represents: the symbolic link, which does not dissipate but is updated dynamically, can replace the relationship. Social media innovates on the static list, in that it allows for an accumulation of “friends” but is self-managed. Old technology, such as the telephone, facilitates relations, but requires an investment of time to maintain the continuity of the relation.
The profile is our online representation, a node in the network of relations. The term “avatar”, used to describe the animated characters represented in so-called immersive environments or virtual realities, had its original Hindu meaning as the incarnation of a deity the physical realm. Second-order, virtual reality has resonance in Hindu metaphysics. The first-order, non-virtual reality is the superlative of rich media. Connecting to other profiles develops the friendbase, a form of “social capital” to be leveraged for growth to increase one’s productivity and advancement.
The Internet, also a network, though made up of servers and fiber optic cables, has been turned into as a natural map of human relations. To encode and map human relations through social media then allows for all kinds of interesting applications. It allows one to process, analyze and exploit relations and profiles for any number of projects.
Text-based communications, proliferate in untold billions of emails, mobile phone text messages and social media website posts, involve continual, immediate and compact updates to a private (or public) audience. This explosion of often merely functional, logistical messages has prompted new language efficiencies and an abbreviated script suited for online chat, and perhaps to suit dwindling attention spans.
Words are abbreviated to their essential, minimal phonetics. The standard “are you,” with its cumbersome ties to vowels, and correct spelling cannot compete with the more efficient, direct “r u”. It is now common for whole sentences and complex concepts to be reduced to agreed-upon web chat acronyms. To the uninitiated, communication seems to have been truncated and blunted to something like online semaphore.
Although the achievement of widespread rich media communications, such as “video chat,” remains elusive, text communications has evolved to satisfy an incredibly strong, almost compulsive longing to share all manner of thoughts. It stands in stark contrast with classic correspondence (one-to-one letter writing), which has been in decline for decades, and now almost exclusively performed in professional, legal, or official communications. As a craft, letter writing it is collected, formal, structured, and reflective. Personal letters are careful, intimate. The electronic text communications, on the other hand, is loose, fragmentary, impulsive, organic and chaotic.
But the drive for abbreviation seems to go beyond basic communications, as we try to move towards greater online profiling – particularly as many of us are willing to draw simplistic outlines of our lives, slot their features into pre-defined categories and post them on social media sites. The online profile is a kind of reduction of the person to traits, tastes and biostatistics that fit neatly into database fields.