Something that’s bugged me for a while is the empty quality of the early rash of social network apps, like LinkedIn or Friendster – they seemed to be all about the popularity contest, about seeing how many contacts you could collect rather than what you all like to do together, about mistaking “add to friends?” for a conversation with a new person you share an interest with. And when I discovered flickr and del.icio.us, they made sense for me because they were whole: they were about something, around which relationships formed, whether it was URLs or photos.
Thanks to Clay Shirky’s del.icio.us, I just found an old post from Jyri EngestrÃ¶m which, unsurprisingly, articulates this distinction with much greater clarity. In short, he’s contrasting the then-dominant idea of social networks as a map of connections between individuals with what he calls “object-centred sociality”: it’s a great discussion of various social apps and their shortcomings, centred around the idea that “social networks consist of people who are connected by a shared object”.
It reminded me of a project I tried to explain to a friend of mine a while ago: torrentchat. I was surprised that I couldn’t find a torrent client with an inbuilt chat application. There’s a community of people who all have at least one thing in common (the file they’re exchanging pieces of) and a real need to communicate: not in as much depth as flickr users, perhaps, but certainly it would be useful to ask a seed to hold on for five more minutes, or to ask your peers if they mind you leaving now, or perhaps just to gripe about how long the file’s taking and how small your bandwith is. I was thinking that it would be closer to IRC, with each file being downloaded equivalent to a channel. Conversation would likely be terse and to the point so as not to clog up user’s connections: a kind of discourse appropriate to the medium would emerge, as it has done for SMS and IM and IRC itself, with accompanying notions of identity and permanence (for example, I’d expect users to prefer to keep conversations on torrent separate from any identities they might have on other networks, and it would be rare to see the same person twice, unless you were both following a particular show).
EngestrÃ¶m suggests that “when it becomes easy to create digital instances of the object, the online services for networking on, through, and around that object will emerge too”. Torrents are a peculiarly digital kind of object, one that’s fundamentally bound up with ideas of connectivity and social action, so you might expect these kinds of services to emerge. I guess “emerge” on the web always means “wait for someone else to build it or stop complaining”. Or perhaps I’ve mised something fundamental? Why might torrent users not want to talk?