In a recent blog post, David Weinberger writes about how networks have surpassed groups in recent years, as ways of defining social connections online. “In the past decade, we’ve gone from talking about social circles to social network. A circle draws lines around us. Networks draw lines among us.” Social network messaging, where communication centers around the individual user (such Facebook and Twitter), have rocketed to prominence, far ahead of group-based tools (such as found in Yahoo Groups and Google Groups, other age-old forums, and special-purpose tools such as MeetUp).
Weinberger implies that groups are obsolescent: “(Yet more evidence — as if we needed it — that networks are the new paradigm. Bye bye, Information Age!)” Networks are more visible and addressible now, but I don’t see groups becoming obsolete. As networks grow, groups are poised for a major comeback, as a way of expressing context within networks.
Scale and context
One of the reasons that social messaging networks have surpassed group forums is that networks scale around the individual. When you join a group, the level of noise depends mostly on other people – when the place gets too popular, the experience degrades for individuals. In a network, each person controls who they friend and follow, and this puts the limit under the control of the individual.
But networks eventually scale out too. The number of people to friend and follow is under your control, but subject to social pressure and information greed – like chocolate you can get too much of a good thing. Keep adding friends, followers, and eventually there is too much information and not enough context.
The solution to too much information is more context. As Clay Shirky says, there is no such thing as information overload, only filter failure. One of the most important ways of filtering is adding context. Context helps people focus on who and what they care about it, when they care about.
Lists are a way of putting followers and friends into context that is centered around the individual. With the list features in Twitter and Facebook, each person can organize others into sets, using their own personal taxonomy. Lists help individuals manage attention in personal context. Twitter lists have a tiny bit of sharing – it is possible for one person to subscribe to another’s list. A list that is very popular could conceivably provide a shared view of a set of people. But there is no collaborative ability to curate lists or nominate oneself for a list.
Because lists are personal, they don’t create shared identity or enable shared action, which are powerful drivers of context. This is where groups come back.
Groups and identity
As Stowe Boyd and Adrian Chan remind us, identity is socially constructed in social context. Now, the assembly of a social context doesn’t require a formally defined group. Social context is shaped by people’s interactions and mutually recognized signs of affiliation, not by defined membership. In an open network (Twitter), social ties can be inferred from patterns of tag use and replies, more strongly than than mere follow lists, and despite the fact that there is no official group. Networks of replies and posters to a common tag become familiar faces. For example, on Twitter I’ve recently stumbled upon an informal network of Icelandic musicians and their fans.
But people often want persistent affiliation, recognition, and communication in groups. This is deeply human; basic traits that anthropologists catalogued when they decided that the behaviors of people were interesting to study. Within networks there is a basic need for a groups to express a greater level of affiliation, recognition, communication, focus.
Groups and action
Groups are handy for affiliation and shared identity; they are necessary for sustained action. Networks can be very effective for ad hoc action. Think about the way that the call for donations to help with Haiti emergency response spread rapidly on Facebook and Twitter. But to coordinate action over time, you need ongoing communication and longer sequences of actions.
In open source software development, the classic model of self-organized coordinated action in the internet age, a new project sets up a code repository, mailing list/forum, a wiki, and an IRC channel for ad hoc synchronous communication. The basic toolset for coordination includes group collaboration. The best practices in internet self-organization allow for increasing levels of organization, starting at a very lightweight level, where participants can read information, start to ask questions, and make small contributions, on to very high levels of dedicated contributions.
By enabling groups to form within larger networks, people get the benefits of a larger network, with more manageable, lightweight communication, while also being able to communicate and collaborate more deeply with a set of people with shared interests and goals.
Focus, not privacy
Often people consider the topic of social sharing in terms of “privacy”. The information overload symptom of “oversharing” is seen as a privacy problem. As Stowe Boyd and others observe, the issue of oversharing not primarily about information should be kept hidden, and much more about who to share with in what context. Even if you don’t care who knows who else knows your workout routine, fellow fans of rowing or weight-lifting might care more than other friends and colleagues.
Groups frequently aren’t private – in fact, they are more useful for many purposes if potential participants can easily find them, look around to see what’s going on, and join if they are interested. FriendFeed groups were quite popular among scientists and journalists online. Most of these groups were publically listed. Users could choose to join them. Another convenient setup is groups where a member can request to join, and a moderator needs to approve applications.
In most cases, the goal of a group isn’t to keep information secret – it’s to allow people to affiliate, to collaborate. And to focus their attention and communication within these defined social contexts.
Groups and networks – summary
In summary, I don’t think it’s true that the rise of networks is going to wash away groups. Groups and networks are complementary. Networks help people get to know other individuals, and to manage attention by constraining the number of people to follow. Groups help people focus attention, share identity, and collaborate more deeply within networks.
As ReadWriteWeb describes, a big part of the solution to information overload is increased context. And groups are key to re-establishing context in the network era.