Marramgrass

All the world's a page, part 1.

(Please forgive the poor pun — sometimes I can't help it.)

It seems like over the last year or two everyone paying attention to the web has been talking about social networking sites. The chat in the press started with the Arctic Monkeys, and then somewhere down the line Microsoft paid a fortune for a tiny bit of Facebook.

There is something inherently social about the internet. It's a medium all about the transmission of information, and that information has to come from somewhere (and go to somewhere).

All over the world there are people writing, publishing, singing, dancing, talking, and there are plenty of people reading, watching and listening to them. I've been writing this blog for a bit over five years now, pretty much just for the hell of it; there are even a surprising number of people who drop by here regularly, don't ask me why. The power of the internet: although I haven't seen the complete works of Shakespeare materialize just yet.

I've been thinking a lot about the implications of all this and I thought it would be interesting, for me at least, to chart my own engagement with the social aspects of internet use.

When I was a teenager my parents stuck a PC in the living room with a 56k modem that introduced me to email. That was pretty much all I used it for. The same people I saw every day, talked to on the phone regularly, we emailed each other too.

Once I moved to Scotland, email became a more important way of keeping in touch with people. I also began to discover how much information there was out there on the web — and its great potential as an aid to procrastination.

Since then, this is the journey I have taken through various online interactions:

  • Fora and newsgroups. Discussions, theoretically based around a particular subject area.
  • Instant Messengers (MSN et al.). Like a phone call, only slower :-)
  • Friends Reunited. Feeds the gossip in us, or it did the last time I went near it.
  • Flickr. A mix of photos and fora.
  • MySpace. Maybe a year or two ago I followed a bunch of friends to MySpace. You can probably count on two hands the total number of times I've logged into my account there.
  • Bebo. I have an account, and I've literally never done anything with it beyond signing up.
  • Facebook. More recent, a similar story as MySpace except you can probably do the counting on one hand.
  • Twitter. Tough to describe. I was initially very skeptical, but there's something compelling about it.

Alongside this there are all the blogs out there (like this one). It's not a formal network built around one specific site. Instead readers and authors link to each other, communicate through comments, emails and other posts. Some of those I follow are linked in the sidebar over there; I still haven't got round to making it a more complete list.

After all that, though, I'm left with some questions:

  • What's the point of it all?
  • What's the use of it all?
  • What constitutes quality, genuine interaction and communication?
  • Does it matter 'in real life'?
  • Where can we take it?

In the car this morning I was listening to an interview with Tony Jones (of Emergent Village) where he said:

I just don't think we can overstate how important the internet is in reshaping the social structure of our society. It's an egalitarian force...

Is this true?

I may have a few thoughts and ideas, but I've formed no conclusions yet. This short series of posts is by way of me thinking out loud, so please do chip in.