Social networking

By James Harkin (THE GUARDIAN, 15/04/06):

The real money to be made out of the world wide web, it turns out, was never in sex or shopping but in the simple act of putting people together. The internet’s second coming, it is now universally agreed, is taking its inspiration from the rise of so-called «social networking sites», such as, in which people chat with and open up their lives to perfect strangers.MySpace now boasts 70 million members. If it were a television programme, it would be the most popular and valuable in American history – which is why Rupert Murdoch has just shelled out nearly $600m to buy it. The boom in social networking sites, however, is not confined to America. The British, according to a survey published last month by Google, now spend more time on the internet than watching television. They would prefer to check each other out, than stare mutely at a box in the corner.

All this is said to be a testament to the dazzling power of new social networks. Network theory is a bristling addition to the social sciences, drawn from mathematics and computing and beginning to assume almost cosmological significance. Sociologists at the Pew Institute in America, for example, have recently drawn attention to a phenomenon called «networked individualism», a new kind of community in which people find their social ties less within local groups than in geographically scattered networks. Americans might go bowling alone, to paraphrase Robert Putnam’s famous argument about the atomised nature of modern American life, but when they go home they surf together.

If the 20th century was shaped by people power, the 21st is already being moulded around the power of the network. The radical Italian intellectual Antonio Negri, for example, argues that networks in the form of nomadic new social movements operating on a global scale will shortly become the gravediggers of 21st-century capitalism. Even terrorists are not immune from changes in intellectual fashion. In a recent essay, the German thinker Hans Magnus Enzensberger characterised al-Qaida as «a flexible network: a highly original innovation that is entirely of its time».

The National Security Agency, the New York Times recently reported, is also using network theory to try to understand the modus operandi of Islamist terrorists. As networks are diffuse and lack a centre, however, they are often said to be impressively resilient and almost impossible to destroy.

But are networks really so resilient? Some of what we call networks are as fragile as leaves in an autumn wind. MySpace could lose its cachet and its patrons overnight, just as its predecessor, Friendster, lost out to MySpace several years ago. As a political organising tool, too, networks are deeply unreliable. When Howard Dean, a candidate for the US Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, tried to build a mass movement around a website, it quickly lost momentum and his campaign fell flat on his face.

Turning up its nose at both geography and the nation state, social networks are the perfect accompaniment to that opaque soup of ideas known as globalisation. They are poor solace for more sustained kinds of democracy. Maybe we would be better off if we stopped stealing metaphors from science and computing to explain social phenomena. Nodes on the network we may be, but we remain strangers all the same.