On the nature of “social” and the reality of anti-social networks

It occurs to me that much of the mess plaguing “social networks” at the moment arises from a failure to genuinely reflect and remind ourselves about what it means to be “social” and what it means to “socially network”; to revisit what “social networks” may legitimately be defined as and, more importantly, to establish what they are not and why such a judgment may be levied. To this end, I decided to traipse back to the dictionary and good old etymology and hash this out for myself. I believe and think that there are many who may find what I discover holds relevancy and thus, is worthy of contemplation.

I begin by tracing the words and their meanings; the primary assertion here is simply that, as all discourse holds interest in being understood, and understanding is based upon agreement of what things mean, there is benefit to be had in establishing the matter before proceeding.

This in mind, I consider the word “social”. This word comes to us from Latin, originally “socialis” which means “united, living with others” and has as its root, “socius”, also Latin, means “companion” but may also be translated to mean “follower”. The context and meaning, therefore, come to “living or liking to live with others; disposed to friendly intercourse” as first mentioned in 1729, and in its earliest form found in 1695, via Locke, “…pertaining to society as a natural condition of human life.” (Paraphrased and courtesy of the Online Etymology Dictionary, located at: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php.)

Common definitions, connotations, and contexts of “social” are listed below, courtesy of Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (http://www.merriam-webster.com/):

  • involving allies or confederates <the Social War between the Athenians and their allies>
  • marked by or passed in pleasant companionship with friends or associates <an active social life>
  • sociable
  • of, relating to, or designed for sociability <a social club>
  • of or relating to human society, the interaction of the individual and the group, or the welfare of human beings as members of society <social institutions>
  • tending to form cooperative and interdependent relationships with others
  • living and breeding in more or less organized communities <social insects>
  • of a plant : tending to grow in groups or masses so as to form a pure stand
  • of, relating to, or based on rank or status in a particular society <a member of our social set>
  • of, relating to, or characteristic of the upper classes
  • formal
  • being such in social situations <a social drinker>

When reviewing the above, I find it easy enough to place every definition (even the one about plants) into a connotation or context of what we know as “social networks”. But I also find something that fails to fit the above contexts and connotations; in fact, it exists so far outside any of them as to effectively pinpoint how and why almost all current iterations of “social networks” are, in fact, not social networks at all, but predatory networks; quite literally, networks engendered and designed to feed and prey upon the activity of being social in decidedly detrimental and anti-social ways. I use these words with full understanding of their meaning and assert that “detriment” is legitimate in so far as what I speak of is active impediment of natural sociability, and that “anti-social” is legitimate in so far as what I speak of is actively supportive of means and ends that undermine, weaken, and consume sociability.

As we see in the above etymology and definitions, the very foundation of “social” is connoted and operates in a context that aligns participants as allies and confederates; more plainly, an environment in which all participants are of mutual consideration, common/shared respect, and actively collaborative and cooperative intent.

As also clearly outlined, the context of environment and the nature of engagement within the natural social environment is one that holds primary the welfare, cooperativeness, interdependency, and companionship of all its members; it is also worth noting that inherent to this context is open welcome and embrace of visitors, hallmarked by genuine interest in new participants so long as they too, commit to the common interest of building and sustaining sociability.

Foundational to sociability (and social networks) therefore, is the notion that there is consistent support of charitable engagement and interaction; that all participants operate in united commitment and manner toward sustaining sociability for all members.

If the above are taken to be accurate depiction of the definition, nature, and purpose of “social networks”, then it must also be taken as accurate that those things that impair, impede, or otherwise conflict with or contradict these ends are fundamentally anti-social; also that any effort or motivation that runs counter to these ends is anti-social, and finally, that any appearance of synergy or parallelism between anti-social ends and legitimate social purposes is, at best, manipulatively driven and, at worst, predatory by design.

The above in mind, I now consider what I know of the various “social networks” in operation today, and I find that, but for rare exception, each is established, operated, and maintained under guise of promoting “social networks”, but in actuality, exist and operate with the exclusive purpose of capturing, segmenting, and segregating people within the walls of a particular, preferred space and engaging within that space in such fashion as to inure, dis-incent, or actively prohibit activity outside it, allow such external activity only to the extent that it serves to draw new captives to it, and to degrade any other external activity or create circumstances by which disapproved external activity results in reduced capability to participate or engage at all (e.g., Facebook’s termination of the Google+ invitation application, Google+ stated intent to downrank those who are not members or who do not use their real name, to name but two recent examples).

In other words, these companies build the appearance of a “social network” to serve as the means by which all contexts and competencies of a social network may be controlled for profit and, whenever there is conflict between sociability and profit, sociability loses.

Ordinarily, this would not constitute a threat to sociability itself; after all, traditionally, this scheme of effort has been known by many names: country club, member-only society, etc; the places that striated a culture or society, mandate and maintain concepts such as “class” while working in opposition to concepts like “class mobility”. (This, mind, is a classic dynamic within humanity.)

However, for the first time in our history, we have companies whose technological presence and degree of proprietary involvement in our primary vehicle of global sociability combined with their fundamentally anti-social motivations result in “social networks” that appear to promote decimation of traditional modes and models of exclusion and the anti-social, and appear to support promotion of “social networks” as the means to do so but, in actuality, are promoting an entirely new era of classism by reshaping the criteria not only for admission to the social arena, but for consideration as being worthy of involvement in the social discourse at large.

For those who are happily enjoying the honeyed-trap, there seems to be no problem; how could there be, right? But for those who are paying attention, the issues and threats are quite, quite clear and, frankly, they are growing every day. One may find these anti-social efforts with even the most casual glance, operating under various guises, but each are easily recognized by comparing their stated goals with the above contexts and purposes of sociability and what it is to be social, then highlighting for oneself the various conflicts in motivation and intent that evidence anti-social imperatives.

Closed communities where companies build profit upon the back of the human need to be social are not “social networks”; they are, in fact, their antithesis. In considering these things and looking forward to where such anti-social efforts lead, I find I need only look behind, to history, and the many lessons are writ large, despite technology. Our world is wobbling on new legs toward greater collaboration than it has ever before known or had capacity to know. Will we sacrifice such possibility to profiteers and ancient greeds; once again tear down future glories and chance of progress for convenience and appearances that easily scratch away to reveal the same, tiresome impediments that have stymied us throughout human history? Is a new dark age of control and repression any brighter because it has pretty pixilated logos, jazzy theme songs, or charismatic speakers?

It seems such a small thing to many, I know; what matter that Company A makes money off of me? But look to how decisions today affect what decisions remain for tomorrow; consider that walled gardens never communities have made; remember feudal ways and how we have struggled and struggle still against petty tyrannies that care more for who gets to hold the scepter than how well we progress… and then, understand – this is about so very much more than “who gets to be social network #1” – this is about how able and freely you may be social regardless of, independently of, any garden.