Getting to the heart of “social”

This week I read a really thought-provoking blog post written by the founder of Pinboard, Maciej Ceglowski. The post is called The Social Graph Is Neither, and it takes a good hard look at why social networks like Facebook fail to deliver anything bordering on a true social experience. A few main points to consider:

  • Connections on the so-called social graph, as represented by a line with a label, are woefully inadequate for describing the nuance and complexity of real-life relationships. In fact, the harder we try to represent how we relate to one another using dots and lines, the more we end up with “a social version of the Uncanny Valley,” 
  • Relationships require maintenance. Without it, they degrade over time. Social graphs do not reflect this—if you do not prune your friends list fastidiously, they will quickly grow inaccurate.
  • Unfortunately, creators of social networks failed to understand that the act of pruning one’s account is a social act. “Unfriending” your ex is not really about you dispassionately updating your profile to reflect real-life changes. It sends a him message that you might be bitter, or hung up on him, or whatnot.
  • Having all your social activities tracked and remembered is not just unnerving, it’s something that historically only sociopaths would do. There is something about social experiences that seems to require impermanence; otherwise they take on a sinister tone, as if there were some ulterior motive at play.

I’m going back to the start

All this got me thinking about what it means to be “social” nowadays. I’ve been describing my project as “social cooking” from the very beginning, but do I really know what that means? Lots of sites claim to facilitate such a thing, from GroupRecipes, a community recipe site, to RecipeRelay, a cooking blog. But am I doing the same thing as them, or something different? It’s time to find out.

To me, “social” can be boiled down (sorry, I couldn’t help it) to just an interaction between two or more people. However, not all interactions feel equally social. Handing my credit card to a cashier or a sales rep feels somehow “less” social than dinner with my friends on my birthday. Likewise, viewing a friend’s Facebook profile (without leaving any comments) feels less social than engaging in a heated discussion on an online forum. What separates these different forms of “socializing”?

It seems that there are at least 3 things:

  1. receptiveness: both parties must be open to the fact that the other is trying to communicate something
  2. acknowledgement: both parties must signal to the other that they are listening
  3. meaningful content: the exchange must carry a payload of meaningful content. This is probably the most subjective point. What constitutes meaningfulness—is the cashier’s signal that I should sign a receipt not meaningful? Maybe not, compared to my best friend confiding in me.

If we go by these criteria, I can see why so many “social” interactions on the web these days leave us feeling empty. The ubiquitous “Like” button, for instance, often exists devoid of any sign of receptiveness or acknowledgement. (Is anyone listening at the other end? When they find out I Liked this, will they care? How will I know?) Furthermore, the meaning it conveys is indistinct at best, nonexistent at worst. (What does it mean to click the “Like” button? Does it mean it made me crack a smile for a split-second? Or that it profoundly changed my day?)

But one could argue, surely, that the only reason a “Like” button press feels un-received and unacknowledged is that there is a significant delay between the pressing of the button and the recipient of the “Like” checking their Facebook Notifications. So there’s definitely a fourth element at play here…

My working hypothesis: “social” appears to exist on a spectrum from “less social” to “more social,” and the controlling factor is time.

A scribbly little continuum diagram is born

To get my thoughts in order, I drew this (click to view large version):

Different forms of communication plotted along an axis. Not too sure about the labels at the ends right now, but also didn't want to spend 20 minutes in front a thesaurus to get this blog entry done with.

It seems that the more synchronous the interaction (the less of a time gap between responses), the more “social” it feels. This makes sense, because that kind of continuous, immediate feedback is what allows us to build up our relationships with others. Conversely, the gaps of silence in between responses can gradually degrade relationships over time.

True social experiences allow us to strengthen our relationships; superficially social ones merely keep our relationships from dissolving away completely.

In working on my thesis these past few weeks, I realized that the project is not really about changing the US food system anymore. That may be what I spent so many hours trying to say in my proposal, but that’s so far not factored hugely into my prototypes. Instead there is this new idea of creating a truly social, relationship-enforcing experience using cooking as the pretext and the Internet as the conduit. Maybe that’s where I’m headed?

If so, I think I am okay with it.

Some capital letters

Two nights ago, right when I was falling asleep thinking about thesis stuff, a very important thought occurred to me, but I didn’t write it down, and I couldn’t remember in the morning. Then I was folding laundry today, and it came back (can anyone explain how my brain works?). This time, I’m writing it down:

The Internet is a powerful platform, and in the past few years it has brought us a plethora of new tools for social engagement. These tools were all designed to enhance our natural faculties for developing relationships with one another—our mouths, eyes, faces, bodies, minds. With the Internet, we can now traverse time and space to interact with our friends! With Facebook, we can “remember” the contact info of hundreds of people! With Twitter, we can always “know” what our friends are up to at any given time!

But it also seems that lately, more and more of these tools are replacing the activities we’d normally engage in to keep in touch. A 1-sentence wall post replaces an hour-long phone call, a glance at someone’s profile replaces an email asking “What’s up? I haven’t heard from you in a long time.”

In taking advantage of the power of the Internet, I believe we should do our best to make tools that enhance our abilities to build strong and lasting relationships, instead of replacing them with a bevy of more superficial social interactions. Perhaps cooking online with your friends is just one of the ways we can do this. Either way, there is certainly a lot to be explored. And I’m excited to keep going, even if I’m not really going to save the world from factory farming. At least not this year.

  1. Hello Tinabeans! As we just discussed IN PERSON (yes, I do prefer the real-time interactions when the opportunity is a few feet away): Let your child (thesis) carve out its’ path and live the life s/he needs to live, and support that. If it makes more sense to nurture the social aspect than the food, so be it. The side effect of getting people more interested in food, is not a bad one either :) Depending on how you design it, the side effect could make quite an impact on our relationship to food as well!

    I also see some similarities between our bike project and your cooking. Just like I believe that people can bike much further than they think they can, you can make people like Clint discover their cooking skills — they can make things they never thought they could with ingredients and tools they didn’t know what was for!

    - Kristin Breivik (Nov 22 at 10:58 pm)
  2. Let’s start sharing recipes right away! That easy lemon kale pasta looks quite delicious but, oddly, I mistrust the amazing photos. Have you tried it? (surely you have)

    In return I offer you a raw, rubbed kale salad? You tear up the kale and rub it in olive oil until the bruised leaves turn dark. Then add some balsamic vinegar, a little coarse salt, finely chopped apples or pears, dried cranberries and toasted nuts.

    See, your website refreshed our relationship already.

    - Kate Wheeler (Feb 14 at 2:42 am)
  3. Hi Kate! So glad you could drop by for a visit. Yes, I have tried that recipe, and it actually turned out amazing! The raw lemon slices add a very bright refreshing punch, something you wouldn’t expect to be good but it really really is. I will be sure to try that kale salad too. In the winter here, kale is a constant theme at the Greenmarket. Did you know that Google searches for “kale” have increased 6-fold in the last 10 years?

    - tinabeans (Feb 17 at 6:02 pm)