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How Social Networks Have Changed the Way We Communicate

Social Networks the Information Highway

Whether we are talking about Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, it is indisputable that social networks have changed how people the world over communicate and share information. To some extent, these tools really just automate things that we already do. On another level, they created new ways of communicating. There are no innovations that exist solely on their own. Most improvements and most advances in communication by necessity have to be built on prior models. While these tools are quite effective and they may seem new, the underlying psychological basis is ages old. In this article, we will discuss how social networking has worked from ancient interpersonal psychological bases and how current technology works with these past interpersonal patterns to herald new ways of social communcation.

Automating Circles of Influence

If you have ever bought a car, looked for a restaurant, considered buying a book, or even looked for a new brand of soap, the people you would most likely ask first are friends and family. This is hard wired into our psychology. Why is that? We prefer familiarity. We give more weight to the communications, recommendations, and referrals of people we know. These are the people that we trust and consider credible. Another word for this is word of mouth. This is ancient and is not new. Whether people are living in caves, huts, or teepees, human interaction and dynamics work this way. Working from this preference for familiarity, we exert much influence on people closes to us.

Twitter and Facebook’s power is based on Familiarity

Twitter and Facebook, to use these two sites as premiere examples of social networking, work on this same familiarity. Take one person who has family and friends. If this person is a scientist who specializes in a particular field of science, whatever opinion he says regarding within that fixed field normally carries a higher weight among his friends, family and peers than the statement of somebody who does not have that level of expertise. Take it a notch lower, even if he does not know specifically another field, the fact that they view him as credible because of his expertise in another field or just his expertise as a human being, his word would still carry a heavier weight than somebody whom his circle of influence, his friends, family and peers do not know. An outsider would have to work harder to establish credibility and it usually takes a longer amount of time to establish that level of trust where his recommendations would be followed or his references would be viewed as credible.

We are like that scientist. While we all have different spheres of expert knowledge or proficiency, just the mere fact that we are connected to other people gives us an aura of credibility that people would follow. In the case of Facebook, when somebody posts a status or posts a link and gives an opinion regarding that link, his friends and family would stand up and notice, especially if it is about an issue that they are interested in or it is about a particular product or situation that they would like to know more about. The dynamics that take place in posting this link was an action of selection, this was not an accident and this was not random, this person is placing a little bit of his reputation, personal expertise and credibility on the line by selecting this piece of content as opposed to billions of other pieces of content out there. That fact alone, and the opinion and recommendations that go with it, carry more weight among the small group of people that follow that person, whether they are friends, family or peers.

Twitter and the Power of Following Forward

Similarly in Twitter, people follow forward. Meaning it is not normally an “I follow you and you follow me” type of situation, although many spammers do that and many people that are not into marketing tend to do that as well. Normally, there is no reciprocity in following. The vast majority of Twitter involves an arrangement where one person is being followed by a huge number of people. When somebody is following another person, when they publish something on their Twitter feed, the person that they are following normally does not get the message because that person is not following them. It is the other way around. There are techniques to break this pattern using the @ sign, but normally the person who is being followed does not get the broadcast of the people following him. This puts a lot of power in the person being followed. The followers want to know what that person is thinking and what status that person is posting. This creates a sphere of influence.

This might not seem all that different from the real world because a lot more people would listen to what Barack Obama would say than what Joe Blow on Main Street would say about a particular topic. It would be safe to say that Barack Obama’s sphere influence is larger. He has more followers than Joe Blow from Main Street. However, there is a twist.

Twitter and Facebook explode “unknown” people’s Influence

Twitter and Facebook can operate in such a way that even Joe Blow could have a disproportionate influence using ancient word-of-mouth/familiarity/sphere of influence dynamics even if he has very few follows. How? Let us take the case of one person and he only has three followers, which sound dismal. He posts an update and it goes on his three followers’ feeds. On those three followers themselves, two of them have very few followers, but one has ten. Of those ten, one person has a hundred. What actually happens quite frequently is that Joe Blow would tweet a very opinionated or an interesting tweet and it goes to an influential person who then has numerous followers, and he re-tweets it. Among that circle of friends, another influential person retweets and so on and so forth. The message has morphed from an obscure brainstorm or gem by one anonymous Joe Blow to a very popular message on Twitter.

Overcoming Physical Hurdles to Word of Mouth

Twitter explodes the impact of the old viral influence model. It truly automates word of mouth because before Twitter and Facebook, there were physical hurdles to word of mouth. People would hear shocking news and a lot of the times it would subside because people would have to rush out, print out some newsletters, or put it in the newspaper. For “news” to truly spread it would have to be “really important.” Because of social media, it is easier to push information along. All you need to do is click that re-tweet button and it just blew up somebody’s influence all over the internet. The same applies to Facebook wherein somebody posts an update and people like it or people comment on it, or people share it. It replicates the same dynamics Twitter enjoys. The traditional circle of influence has changed from a small hub with a few spokes to just really a global hub. No man is truly an island in the age of Twitter and Facebook.

The Rise of the Frenemy

Traditionally, people would normally hang out in the real world with people that like them and whom they like—in other words, friends. Traditionally, people have all sorts of transparent control mechanisms that get in the way that keeps people from back stabbing each other, fomenting social discord, and breaking out because of the threat of face to face confrontation. Even if the conflict is over the phone there is still a possibility of physically showing up and a confrontation could take place. In a very real sense, the reality of physical confrontation of face-to-face contact put brakes on social discord in the offline world. Accordingly, social lines tend to be black and white. There are some grey areas, but for the most part it falls into two camps–you are either an enemy or you are a friend. There are some borderline people, but because this again relies on physical contact, that middle ground is rather sparsely populated.

This is not the case on social networking sites. On Facebook for example, many people would friend people that they do not have the best relationship with. These are the people that would often later talk behind your back or spread lies about you, slander you, curse at you behind your back or work actively among your friends to destroy your credibility. Why is this? Because social networks do not work on a face-to-face basis, especially if you are separated by several hundred miles. The chances of a physical confrontation or physical contact are minimized. Because of this greater distance, people are more apt to friend “borderline people.” The same goes with the medium. Since it is over the internet as opposed to a phone where you can physically hear that person in a strong real world connection takes place, it is easier to be ambiguous about certain people and just add them as a friend. This dramatically changes the complexion of Facebook and Twitter when it comes to social connections. Whereas in the real world we tend to categorize people as either friend or enemy, on social networks the frenemy or ambiguous friend is just as common or in many cases more common than real friends, and definitely more common than enemies.

Frenemy lists encourage passive-aggressive behavior

Accordingly, social networks have changed the way we communicate with “friends.” There is a lot more sarcasm in communications, there are a lot more status posts that are aimed in trying to get the ear of somebody, and there are a lot more rants. In a very real sense, there is more passive-aggressive behavior. Ask any psychologist, passive-aggressive behavior can cause serious psychiatric or emotional issues down the road. The rise of the frenemy in social networks should raise a red flag in terms of social interaction, especially given the fact that people are increasingly spending more time in front of the computer than in front of another person. These people spend less time talking-having an intimate conversation and baring each other’s soul in person. The rise of ambiguous friends, ambiguous confidantes, and also the very public nature of personal disclosures on Facebook really just all add up to a heightened level of unnecessary drama and possible emotional and psychological tension that does not truly need to be there. Cementing this toxic mix is the always-present issue of gossip, intrigue, and speculation. While these issues have existed before, the unique realities of social networks have really put them front and center and the issues that they raise would have to be addressed by society sooner or later.

Shifting Trust

Due to logistical reasons, it is harder to steal somebody’s identity in the offline world unless you are dealing with hard copies of financial information or identification information, hard drives that are stolen, but outside of those situations, identity theft in the real world is harder to do. Social networking has really revolutionized identity theft so much so that people can easily pass themselves off as somebody else online. Most importantly and most worrisome, social networks have greatly increased the opportunity, opened access to, and maximized the efficiency of identity theft.

The use of Facebook and Twitter for identity theft

It is not uncommon for people to fish information from people that they barely know online to get access to their online accounts, accounts at financial websites or just to steal their identity. Trust in the digital age is undergoing a revolution. While the issues that we raised above may seem worrisome, many of it is unavoidable because, as more and more commerce and administration of people’s basic needs take place online or electronically, people find themselves more and more having to trust online communications. Take, for example, credit card usage on the internet. Only fifteen years ago, most people would have thought that somebody is crazy for putting their credit card information online. Now e-commerce is a multibillion dollar industry. Online commerce in all its forms, whether in services or in products, is worth hundreds of billions of dollars every year. That is how trust has changed online.

The rise of social networks is adding more challenges on online trust because as we rely more on social networks to gather information, to share information and to coordinate, our real world reluctance has to give way. Like with e-commerce, our initial reluctance has to give way to progress. However, how to give way and how much access to give are still being played out now, not just in the technological front but also in the legal front and in the media. Trust is being redefined especially with all the criminal activities that are using Facebook for phishing attacks and also the use of social networks to spread malware and spyware. This is all still being hashed out and whenever technology and social norms are influx, it is always a tension filled and a somewhat stressful situation.

Social Mobilization Revolution

As witnessed by the events of the Arab Spring and the social mobilization in Israel currently, social networks truly have changed the complexity of how people mobilize around social causes. What makes it any different from previous mobilizations? Previous mobilization methods normally involve one small group of people who are very organized and disciplined, having the resources to then influence larger groups of people through newpaper opinion columns, newsletters, flyers, brochures, posters, phone calls and similar types of communications. However, the limit has been the physical barrier of having to physically produce these materials and having to be physically somewhere at some time. You cannot clone a body. A person can only be at one place at one time.

Overcoming social barriers to advocacy

The other and larger limitation involves the circle of influence. If somebody is worked up about the high gas prices and he is yelling off the top of his lungs in a street corner somewhere, people will probably think he is a crank and just laugh it off. If that person has friends and family on Twitter of Facebook and he is venting and they agree with him and they vent as well and other people agree with them. Through Facebook they all together coordinate a day of rage against gas prices, and you would see that there would be more people on the same page because social issues that are normally looked on as very impersonal, academic, theoretical, or something that does not impact daily concerns all of a sudden become very personal when somebody that is trusted in that circle of influence voices his concern about that particular issue. That is why it is no accident that a particularly conservative society, Arab society in the Middle East, blew up in a social revolution because it was based on family and friends. If somebody has a Facebook account and all his family members look at that Facebook feed and that person is venting his anger at the government and, because they are all getting through the same economic hardship, other people obviously would be feeling that same frustration and disclose it there on that Facebook feed. This emotional connection is quite infectious because now it is out in the open and expressed by people you trust and respect. The snowball effect or viral effect can be tremendous.

The old Bolshevik days a few fringe specially trained cadres infiltrating the city to foment revolution are gone. Now it is more dramatic and also it is more personal because people are not going to go out in the streets and possibly take a bullet for some crazy radical from some college who never worked a day in his life, but they would if they heard their father, uncle, or mother in very emotional and real terms describe the hardships that the government has imposed on their daily lives. At that point, it has become real. At that point, the theoretical, whimsical, “what can I do?” and fatalistic attitudes go out the window and it becomes a time for action. That is the power of social networking regarding social mobilization and we have seen nothing yet. This is just the beginning. The chances are extremely high that we are going to see even more dramatic examples in the future.

Branding Revolution

Branding is not an easy game to be in. It can easily be a very expensive proposition. The billboards that you see hawking all sorts of brands and products when you are driving by are engaging in really hard labor because of the sheer repetition involved. You are slowly being branded. However, there are physical barriers to that. There are psychological barriers to you being branded–your experience. If you are seeing Coke ads but in your experience you drink Pepsi, good luck to Coke. Most people would place more trust in their personal experience. Another barrier is presenting the outsider talking to you. When you see a billboard for a new backpack and you would like to have a new backpack, but you do not know if you could trust this. The advertisement looks good and the billboard looks sleek, but how does one know if it will bust at the seams or it will wear out after a while or is it made of cheap material or do they back their work? There is that reluctance against the stranger. In another words, it is fear of the new. These two hurdles are quite fatal hurdles to most branding exercises and like what we said earlier, billboard advertising really is hard labor. The same goes with magazine advertising.

Social Media overcomes traditional advertising hurdles

What these advertisers are looking for, what they really desire or what they fantasize about is how they can get into your sphere of influence and how they could get into your sphere of trust. It is that level of confidence where they are no longer the stranger and what they say would encounter less resistance from you. You would be skeptical and it is natural to be skeptical, but it would be at a lower level. You would hear them out and it would be easier to give them the benefit of the doubt. Also they would love to get into that circle of influence because the messaging could be deep coated in the conversation. It could be continuous. It does not have to be like a physical one-time branding when you are driving down the highway or riding the bus and you see the billboard. The branding now is geared towards information that you would like. In another words, they are fantasizing about social networking.

That is the power of social networking because, by being able to get in through your friends, through your family and into your circle of confidence, they have battered down several thousand dollars’ worth of hurdles. When it comes to branding, social networking is truly amazing. The challenge is how to get into those circles of confidence and trust without looking like you are spamming. When you look like a spammer, you go back to the status of the outsider. The level of distrust zooms right back up and you are staring at a wall. Branding in the age of social networking is like walking on a tight rope. On the one hand you want to fully maximize the strength the social networks bring to the table, which is repeated media branding and lower level of distrust, and on the other, you do not want to tip over and overdo it and the level of skepticism zooms right back up. How this is done in the age of social networking boils down to two words: quality content. Whether it is sharing information that your target market would like to hear, giving freebies and incentives that your target market are definitely interested in, or taste test of your content or service, whatever direction you take it must be focused on not eroding the trust of the recipient. There have been cases where out of sheer eagerness a brand has just really been spammed to death. It can be that due to several missteps, instead of spreading the good news about a particular brand, the missteps become a virus and it just blew up on somebody’s face. Branding in the age of social networking is a huge gold mine. We have not seen anything yet whereas the early adaptations right now, while some are good, many are ham-fisted and really do not fully leverage the power of social networking.

Crowd-Based Information

One of the biggest problems that search engines face is determining trust in a piece of content. The internet is in reality composed of billions of separate web pages and all of them have content. How do you sort through all this mess? How do you know which is important, reliable, and accurate and which is garbage? The bottom line is which material can you trust and which material can you ignore?

Old methods of determine website trust

For the longest time, search engines use a voting system. This voting system involves web sites voting for each other. How? By linking to each other. When a website links to another website and mentioned the word “pizza” to link to a pizza website and that website is a pizza review site, then what it has to say and the vote counts a lot more than if an auto dealer shop votes for the pizza website but the word that they used is “dishwashing liquid.” For the longest time, this is how search engines rank websites. Of course, because there truly is no verification model-at the end of the day you have to trust one website to vouch for another website.

The problem is since there is no verification model, there is a lot of collusion. It is not unheard of for websites to sell backlinks on their sites. It is not uncommon for websites to farm the importance of their site or page rank by artificially inflating their website’s page rank. The higher their page rank, the more money they charge other websites for linking to them. Google is not dumb. It is aware of this situation and it has cracked down in the past for blatant link selling, but link selling continues unabated. It is the open secret of the internet.

Social networks provide a viable source of website trust

The rise of social networks has given large search engines like Google, Yahoo! and Bing renewed hope in finding a web content ranking system that they can trust. This is how it works: If I have a Facebook feed and I shared a link about cats, for example, and I recommended a great site about cats, I do not have an agenda. I am just a friend sharing my enthusiasm for this interesting website I ran across with my other friends. In a very real sense, it is based on an intimacy. It is based on laying down a little bit of credibility and sharing the link. Because friends and family members know to some extent that there is some credibility there of not losing face by sharing garbage with them, these people would put their trust with the link. While this works for social networks because it gives them legitimacy, search engines have been paying attention to this because when you have people that do not have vested interest in the links that they are sharing, it is easier to trust that link. There is a higher chance that that link is what it claims to be. Compare that situation to websites just linking to each other and then having secret forums or even blatant market places where people just buy and sell back links.

Social media-based linkbuilding is harder to fake

Starting with the Caffeine update, Google has started to slowly introduce social metrics or social feedback into its search results and the other search engines are probably not far behind. This solves many longstanding trust issues. The first issue that would come to mind is why can’t the website owner do the same thing and fake the referral that way or fake influence that way? Yes, but it would become more expensive for them. Not only do they have to have thousands upon thousands of people voting a certain way and as time goes by the quantity keeps increasing, but they have to maintain it. It is hard to coordinate this elaborate fraud through Facebook because Facebook has cellphone verification and it might get tighter in the future. There is some sort of physical barrier albeit it is a little low right now, but it is still a barrier than just a blind shot in the dark that search engines are doing now with website back links. If you are a search engine engineer or a purist for quality search results, this is definitely a step in the right direction. It is not impossible to fake, but it is more expensive and harder to fake. Considering how fast technology evolves, the fakers would have to think quickly on their feet because a few changes into the social algorithm of the search engines mean that they have to start from scratch. It has become more hard to game search results with the rise of social networks and that leaves a very dramatic impact on how we communicate and find information online.

The Bottom Line

Social network has created many changes in our daily lives and its influence is tremendous. By knowing the key areas of this influence, we can then fully map out what we need to be aware of so that our trust is not eroded, our relationships with our friends are preserved, and the information that we share online maintains its quality. In the end, the impact of social networking on our lives does not just reflect the power of the technology itself, but it also reflects our own personal attitudes and habits. If you would like to see wide changes in the social network landscape, that change would have to start with our own values and with ourselves.

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