Why some social network services work and others don’t
May 7th, 2005

I met Jyri Engestrom in Helsinki at Aula, run into him from time to time here and there around the world, and have taken him and his partner Ulla-Maaria walking on Mt. Tamalpais. He thinks ahead and thinks deeply, which is why I his notion of “object-centered sociality” interests me. In Flickr, the object that affords social connection is a photo; for del.icio.us, the object is a URL.

I want to use Russell’s question about the ‘real use’ of LinkedIn as a window into what I think is a profound confusion about the nature of sociality, which was partly brought about by recent use of the term ‘social network’ by Albert Laszlo-Barabasi and Mark Buchananin the popular science world, and Clay Shirky and others in the social software world. These authors build on the definition of the social network as ‘a map of the relationships between individuals’ Basically I’m defending an alternative approach to social networks here, which I call ‘object centered sociality’ following the sociologist Karin Knorr Cetina. I’ll try to articulate the conceptual difference between the two approaches and briefly demonstrate that object-centered sociality helps us to understand better why some social networking services succeed while others don’t.

Russell’s disappointment in LinkedIn implies that the term ‘social networking’ makes little sense if we leave out the objects that mediate the ties between people. Think about the object as the reason why people affiliate with each specific other and not just anyone. For instance, if the object is a job, it will connect me to one set of people whereas a date will link me to a radically different group. This is common sense but unfortunately it’s not included in the image of the network diagram that most people imagine when they hear the term ‘social network.’ The fallacy is to think that social networks are just made up of people. They’re not; social networks consist of people who are connected by a shared object. That’s why many sociologists, especially activity theorists, actor-network theorists and post-ANT people prefer to talk about ‘socio-material networks’, or just ‘activities’ or ‘practices’ (as I do) instead of social networks.

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