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Self-serving Social Networks

David Weinberger posted about “Selfless Social Networks,” and his thoughts didn’t ring true for me. While I agree that the users of these tools aren’t predominantly selfish, I don’t agree that there’s a significantly strong thread of selflessness. I wrote a comment to that post saying that, if anything, these tools tap into our self-serving nature. Self-serving is importantly different from selfish — selfish implies a total disregard for others, whereas self-serving employs our interactions with others for some personal gain.

I refuse to believe that any but an exceedingly small minority upload photos to Flickr in order “to contribute to a worldwide shoebox of photos that is, by itself, a good thing for all of us to have.”

This made me think, Why do I use the social software tools that I use? I mean, *honestly*? I suspect most people, even the social software theorists, have seriously engaged in this introspection. Since I use iPhoto as my main photo storage tool, there’s got a be a socially-driven reason for using Flickr. There are two: is simply the easiest tool for sharing my photos with lots of people, and without forcing large email-attachment downloads on them. That is probably my primary reason. An event happens, post it to Flickr, and everyone who went to that event, or was interested, can grab the photos. The second is a much more self-serving motive — “Look at me!” I post from my travels. I post from my activities. Ostensibly to share with my friends, but I have to admit — it’s more about getting a little attention. “Oh, you went to Minnesota?” “Oh, you made fudge?” This tool I use very differently than Flickr. Where as Flickr for me is essentially social (and typically with a known group of friends), is primarily personal. This is in part because bookmark management within web browsers is such a disaster — is simply a better interface to bookmarks than what the browsers have offered us. (Before, I didn’t keep web bookmarks). After the act of bookmarking web pages, my next-most-common use is of going back through my bookmarks and reading pages I hadn’t gotten around to actually reading. My third most-common use of is tag-surfing. Starting with tags I applied to my bookmarks, I see what other people have tagged with those terms. Now, I don’t tag selflessly — I tag for my own retrieval needs. And I suspect that’s true of the vast majority of users. What’s so great about the tool is that these self-serving, self-centered tags aggregate into a compelling hive mind. But no selflessness here. Perhaps my least-common use of is as a publishing tool — putting something in there so that others will find it, something that I don’t plan to read again. A very few of my posts fall into this “selfless” category.

Movable Type: What you’re reading right now. I’ve been blogging, in some form or another, since 1998. Blogging is probably among the least… intentful (is that a word?) of the social software tools. You type some words, you post it to a server, people read it (or don’t). There’s little enforced “community” aspect. And, for me, blogging is probably the single most self-serving activity I engage in. I blog to get attention. I blog so that people know what I’m thinking, and, I hope, appreciate what I’m thinking, and, so, consider me as worth paying attention to. And before, I blogged as a kind of annotated bookmarking tool. So, while I hope that what I blog proves helpful to others, I don’t blog *to* help others.

Not that I haven’t tried to blog to help others. The Beast Blog, which I started as a community blog, was a much more selfless act on my part. And after about a year, I realized I just didn’t care enough any more. I’ve pretty much stopped posting there. And I think it’s because my work there wasn’t self-serving enough. I was trying too hard to be a community hub, and that, in and of itself, didn’t motivate me.

[now I go on a bit of an unplanned mental wander]

I think that this notion of self-serving social networks might possible play into Dan Hill’s thoughts on self-centered design. (Though, you have to Google “self-centred design” to find that link… Google hasn’t learned to lump together American and English spellings.) In all things, *I* am at the heart of the system, my needs, wants, desires, capabilities, interests, concepts, understandings, etc.

The social software tools that maximize self-serving behavior with positive community impacts will best succeed. Flickr’s inherent nature does that pretty well… But there’s a problem when one of your contacts is a bit of a photo junky — you get overwhelmed with their self-serving use (posting pictures of, say, what they’ve eaten (I’m looking at you, Jones)), and it interferes with the commons — particularly active people monopolize screen real estate, much the same was as overactive posters can dominate email lists.

  1. interestingly Flickr does have a “show only one photo per contact” option in the overview of your contacts’ latest posts. The option doesn’t work anywhere else, though. Still, I find that this issue of monopolized attention is controlled a bit this way, and it’s a great way for me to see what everyone has been up to. Now, when I see something interesting, I click on it for more, instead of having to click through 3 pages of one person’s thumbnails that don’t interest me.

  2. i’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on the flickr groups.

    do people start groups to draw attention to themselves? to fill a need felt by the community as a whole? to articulate a personal interest?

    images get significantly more traffic if they are in group pools, and i’m sure some people put images in group pools for the attention… but i find that most of the time i add an image to a group pool it is to satisfy some abstact sense of order.

    talking to my images:

    “ah .. that looks like a rainbow .. into the rainbow group with you. ooh .. you’re black and white .. there’s a group for you too. say, that window would make a terrific squared circle.”

    i think tags work the same way to a certain extent.

    i guess it isn’t selfish or self-interested or selfless as much as generating order for order’s sake.

  3. I think this is exactly what Dan’s talking about with “Self-centered design.” Most of the shared social value of these products is really an emergent thing; you’re certainly right that no one contributes photos to Flickr for the good of all. And, striatic, I’m not sure there’s many people who really care about “order for order’s sake” outside of us designers.

    I think the word you want is not “intentful” but “intentional”?

    Did you see Coates’ ideas for incorporating delicious-style tagging into the browser?

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