There are several opinions around and preferences for how ‘digitally connected’ people want or need to be. I have mixed feelings myself, but can attest to the benefits of a digital social network on a personal level. My mother had spent 40 years of her adult life in Kuwait, until recently retiring in a new country (to live closer to her children). She shuttles between the US and Australia, the two countries where her children and grandchildren live with a yearly visit to her native country, India. Her lifeline to a lifetime worth of friends, family, former colleagues and hundreds of former students (she was a school teacher for 38 years) is her Facebook account. Given the nature of the small but well-knit community in Kuwait which has had a diaspora of its own spreading across countries and continents, this is a big deal. She may no longer enjoy the regular face-to-face interactions that she used to have, but thanks to the digital network that both she and her friends are a part of, she feels connected (some days even hyperconnected).
People have opted for varying degrees of digital connectivity. Measures of someone’s digital connectivity like the number of connections and followers or their Klout score or PeerIndex are indicative, but at the rate at which social apps pop up these days, how does one know if they are sufficiently connected. Are you digitally connected if you are active on 3-5 social apps (most popular ones like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter) or does that only indicate that you are a newbie to this space? Or is it not at all about counting how many social apps you are active on but the level of engagement you have on any of them? Similar to the concept of the Dunbar’s Number which claims that one can’t have close meaningful relationships beyond 150 people, is there an optimal number of social apps that one should participate in for the participation to have meaning? How does this bode for any new social network apps that come on the scene - what would compel me to switch from say, Facebook to Path? (perhaps the answer includes something beyond social networking and touches on a company’s changing business model, but that’s for another post). At the rate at which social apps pop up, unless they have an amazing edge, I would imagine ‘consolidate or perish’ would become the norm.
A hyperconnected world is something that has interested many in the past decade, among them, Douglas Rushkoff, a media theorist and the mastermind behind Digital Nation (the acclaimed Frontline documentary on PBS), who has tried to highlight how this hyperconnectivity is affecting different aspects of our lives. A quick introduction to his ideas and style would be his 2012 keynote at Rhizome’s Seven on Seven where he entertainingly explains why math artists turned to computer engineering in order to fully express themselves (and why tech companies in the Silicon Valley wanted to hire them!).
In a more academic tone, Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman focus on hyperconnectivity in their book Networked – the New Social Operating System, which makes the point that people of all ages, backgrounds and environments are connecting with their associates and friends in new ways – redefining social support structures that help with forming their own decisions and providing emotional and social nourishment (some very real examples like the Caring Bridges). Similar to a computer operating system, social networks have certain attributes – personal (the individual is at the autonomous center), multiuser (people interacting with many others), multitasking (doing several things) and multi-threaded (nature of the conversations). This network capability is spreading to many parts of the world, developed and developing, due to the all-pervasive nature of mobile technology which has dramatically changed the landscape of social communications. One of the more vocal critics of this burgeoning new social order Sherry Turkle (author of Alone Together) counters that people are in fact becoming more socially isolated giving up richer face-to-face interactions. She emphasizes that though technology is changing some of our habits permanently, it doesn’t necessarily have to be as pervasive and advises that we mark some areas of our life and our homes as device-free. Which side do you sit on?