“We found as we’re looking in the space that most people seem to think that online communities are different from real-life communities, that the rules are different, that the way you engage with things is different. And that we don’t believe to be true. We believe that we could facilitate real-life connections, that we want to have the same mechanisms that you use in real-life communities to solve online issues.” —Arturo Bejar, Director of Engineering at Facebook
We are in the age of social media, no doubt about that. Social media has been integrated into our everyday lives, and yet we still calibrate our expectations depending on the medium and according to rulebooks written for worlds online and off. When playing the dating game, a call is not worth the same as a Facebook message or a text. (And which is worth more will depend on whom you ask.) Many of us don’t mind strangers following us on Twitter (in fact we often love it), but find unknowns friending us on Facebook plain creepy. Emoticons are annoying or adorable based on sender/medium/relationship context.
Human behavior is a fickle thing, on screen and off. Navigating its pathway and responding to its needs in online communities and IRL is an interesting challenge, with no hard and fast approach or solution. At Facebook, while working on how to best handle the influx of requests to remove unflattering or compromising photos, the company actually spoke to the Compassion Research Center at Stanford. The key, it seems, was to structure the removal request option so as to trigger compassion in the photo poster, which could be done if the poster recognized the emotional state of the person in the photo. Message prompts and careful wording seemed to do the trick, so that users who were embarrassed or upset about a photo could give a pretty effective nudge to posters to remove unflattering photos. (I thought this was fascinating when Noah Brier first mentioned it and then went on to read more in the full interview on NPR.) It’s a simple change that goes a long way in karmic payback.
Facebook’s integrating and encouraging the compassion reflex in social online interaction made me think of how our basic human needs for mutual understanding, empathy, and connecting with others are being met these days by changes in mobile and Internet use, and to what extent. We have a basic need for connectivity - and I’m not just talking about always being wired – and many startups have picked up on this human instinct for connecting with others. It’s the way we connect that is changing as technology does.
These days there are a number of location-based social apps all aimed at fostering connections, not simply online, but face-to-face. Catherine Cook’s article on engineering serendipity starts to get at this, too; I’m not sure serendipity is the right word here, but I see what she’s getting at. There’s something that we’re looking for, and if the rise in location-based social apps is any indication, it’s a shared human connection.
We are at a point in society where sharing information is the norm – people share what they ate for breakfast on Facebook (until I block you from my newsfeed, that is); they share industry news and insight on Twitter; they share their location on foursquare, and the list goes on. Social is the norm, but it’s starting to get a new facelift. Now that we’re comfortable sharing online, we’re seeing a proliferation of startups harnessing that instinct for connectivity and encouraging us to share offline. But it’s not just information (trivial or groundbreaking) that’s being shared; the rise of location-based apps suggests that we’re interested in sharing more than just headlines and status updates. These apps are about meeting humanity’s needs to connect with others, on screen and off. Sonar, which I wrote about back in November, lets you connect IRL with friends of friends or people with shared interests, professional or personal, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
That same instinctive yearning for connection is why startups like grubwithus, colunching in France, and under-the-radar gusta (in the social dining realm), and sidetour, vayable, and gidsy (in the community marketplace for experiences) are growing, even without leveraging your existing social networks.
The exciting part is that these new startups are building upon two instinctive human behaviors—our search to connect with others (I hesitate to say companionship, but in some sense, that’s what it is, no matter how fleeting), and increasingly, a sense of adventure. It’s not just about sharing a meal — it’s about dining with total strangers and seeing what you might have in common. (Grubwithus even incentivizes the adventuresome by raising the price of a meal the longer you wait to book it.) It’s about meeting someone you follow on twitter IRL, all because Sonar told you they were at the same bar, at the same time. (And then of course, it’s about following up online afterwards, to keep it all going.)
The fact that humans are social beings isn’t news, but the way the Internet and mobile apps are engaging with that fact is, and it’s not a passing trend. (Remember when online dating was for spinsters? Now it’s just the norm.) Nowadays most of us are addicted to our computers and our smartphones, and yes, according to the NYTimes, we may even love them. We have become used to 24/7 connectivity – from Skype, to gchat, and beyond —and most of us wouldn’t trade it for the world. We love being connected. But that hasn’t erased our need for face time; that ease in sharing and getting social online has likely only strengthened that yearning.
Obviously, the wiring is changing — but maybe not that much. The blood is still warm, the heart is still beating; we still blush when embarrassed by a photo or meeting a new date. That social media has changed the course of human interaction is undeniable; it will be interesting to see not only what startups come next in that realm, but also how sites like Facebook continue to address and adapt to our basic human behavior and psychology. The way we’ll bring it back to basics — that will be an adventure worth following.