Interest-Centric Social Interaction

I have stopped using WordPress.com to host my blog. Read more by me at Atomic Trevor.

This is an article I wrote for the application process, to be accepted into the MyCube Summer Internship.

The internet is many different things to many different people. To some, it is primarily a tool of communication. To others, it is a tool that ushers to produce meaningful content for the world at large. Even to others still, the internet is used as a means of social interaction. Each of these uses is valid in it’s own right, but the internet is far greater than each of these. The internet isn’t one object that has a specific purpose, but rather, the internet is a reflection of societal reality.

To understand this notion, one must look at the history of the internet. The internet is often split into two eras, Web 1.0 and Web 2.0. These are not distinct eras, where one stopped and the next one started. Rather, the difference between Web 1.0 and 2.0 is the ease at which social networking can happen, and how easily user-to-user connections can be made.

During the Web 1.0 era, an individuals interaction with the internet consisted of connecting to the internet, loading a web page, intaking and processing the webpage, and then ending their session. There was no interaction with other users of those pages, and there was no continued interaction between the webpage and the user. The internet was essentially read-only, as far as the user was concerned. This phase of the internet had almost no inherent social interaction, and no notion of what a social network was.

At the turn of the 21st century, the internet pivoted. It changed from a read-only resource of information, to a two-way street in which the interaction between users became central. This era is best characterized by social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare. Each of these services achieved something which the services from Web 1.0 failed to do. These services managed to not only have users visit their sites, but they persuaded the users to form connections to other users, and form a bond over the internet.

This form of interaction is much closer to making the internet into a reflection of society. However, it doesn’t quite reach the point of full reflection, but is more analogous to an opaque mirror. To illustrate this, let’s take a case study example from reality and see how it holds up against the current structure that social networks such as Facebook and Twitter utilize.

A person goes to their favorite pizza place. They walk in, and they order two slices of cheese pizza. They receive their pizza, sit down, and begin to eat. Then, they tell the two friends that they are with, what they think of the pizza. They finish eating and they leave. This example is something that can happen to anyone in the world.

If we were to take this example and apply it to Facebook or Twitter, the result would be very different. A person walks into the pizza place, orders the pizza and begins to eat. Instead of vocally sharing what they think, they decide to update their status on Facebook or Tweet their thoughts. These thoughts are then shared with the 300-plus connections that the average Facebook user has. These 300-or-so users then receive information about a topic, from a source that they did not expect. These users include coworkers, old family friends, family members, college friends, high school friends, and – yes – the few people who have been to that pizza place before. With the exception of the last group of people, no one else in that group cares about what the individual thinks about the cheese pizza at their favorite pizza place.

This example may seem trivial, but it is just one example. If this is applied to activities like political rallies, church meetings, anonymous groups, or parties, the situation is slightly more serious. Instead of sharing what you think with the two or three people you are targeting, you are essentially going into a conference room and shouting at 375 people, only 5 of whom actually care about what you are saying. This is hardly ideal, and can actually harm some connections that users have with each other.

This problem points to the next step in the evolution of the internet, and how social networks will play a core role in the continued development of the internet.

If the internet is to transform from the shouting-in-a-large-hall scenario to the friends-going-out-together scenario, Web services need to start focusing on what two individuals have in common (their common interests) instead of the fact that they have a vague something in common. When this happens, the two individuals will then be able to connect in a far deeper way than a one-to-300 group interaction would be able to connect. These new connections will spur on the next level of social networking, and will be key to the perfection of social networking theory.

To base a relationship around interests, as opposed to user-defined connections, the service must have a wealth of knowledge available to it. This presents the problem that many new web startups have. Namely, that they need many users to be useful, but to obtain that many users, they need to be useful. With a social network that is based off of interests, the network must know everything about a user, and everything about all of the other users as well. Then – and only then – will a social network be able to pair up users based off of common interests. It is a problem without an apparent solution, but once this issue is solved, the next phase of social networking can begin.

In the end, social networking online and social networking in person should be indistinguishable. A person should be able to switch seamlessly from the internet and the totally connected world to the real world, without a break. We are not there yet, but it will happen eventually.

These are my preliminary thoughts on the issues surrounding interest centric interactions. The issue is very nuanced, and each part of it must be studied in-depth to begin to grasp a full understanding of the problem. I hope that I will be able to look at this problem with more depth at the MyCube Summer Internship this year.

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