«NETWORKING IN EVERYDAY LIFE by Bernard J. Hogan A thesis submitted in conformity with the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy ...»
My father comes from a large Irish Catholic family. He has six siblings, and a widowed mother. The mother as well as four of the siblings still live in my hometown. On many nights of the week, Dad will leave after supper and drop-in to most of his kin in town. The door is usually open, and he’ll simply call out to ﬁnd out if anyone is home.
If not, he’ll move on to the next house, usually ending at my Grandmother’s place. I had my father’s networking in mind when I included “dropping in” in the social activity questions that were used in chapter 5. It is spatiotemporal—he’ll drop-in during the evenings to ﬁxed places from a reasonably well deﬁned set of relations. My father does little planning, calling ahead or checking. And from what I understand of other visitors in rural Newfoundland, this is the norm rather than the exception. However, in this survey, those people who did the most dropping in were, by contrast, the most heavy planners. They would use a diversity of media to continually renegotiate their dropping in, or hanging out. Networking in Toronto does not permit such easy access across alters. No doubt, part of this is because of the geographic size. However, that is only part of the explanation. Here dropping in appears to take on a different character. People plan ad hoc, rather than assume permeable social boundaries and just drop-in unannounced. It is a shift from maintaining ties based on rhythmic patterns (and accessibility using spatial boundaries and temporal norms) towards maintaining ties based on who one can get ahold of through various media.
Within this shift in networking towards access, one can see the relevance of social affordances. Access is understood through affordances. Whether it is the list of people
people one can easily ﬁnd at a regular meeting or the list of alters on a social media site like Facebook, affordances guide access. An affordance of asynchronous interaction permits access at any time whereas the affordance of a buddy list is a cue to who is available for conversation at any given time, regardless of place. Yet, these social affordances are often based on the intuitions of media designers, or even planners, coupled with the contingencies of history rather than the cognitive biases of individuals. An unlocked back door in a rural town affords “come on in, our door is [literally] open”. But there are subtle norms at play about when people will show up, when they leave and how frequently they visit. Simply because the door is unlocked does not mean anyone can stroll in without good reason, nor can people do it at any time (Zerubavel, 1985; Melbin, 1987). The unlocked door does not give the same sort of cues about when is a good time to access others—that is managed through larger cultural norms of dropping in. By contrast, new media clearly articulate the affordances of access—by responding to messages promptly, or reading a person’s status message one is given contingent and often personalized perceptual cues of availability. For example, it is not important that I am home, or that it is in the evening: if I am on instant messenger and I say I am available, then I am available. This shift implies a change from culturally understood norms of public and private time and space, as per Zerubavel’s original conception of social accessibility (1979) to dyadically negotiated per-media combinations leveraging speciﬁc social affordances from software and individual styles.
It is not an entirely welcome shift, as individual negotiations are often mediated by power. For example, bosses can now individually negotiate work hours with subordinates, encouraging email use on off hours or cell phone access regardless of place (Middleton and Cukier, 2006; Hogan and Fisher, 2006; Salaff, 2002; Perlow, 1998).
Users of the Blackberry (a mobile email, web, and cellular device) appear perpetually
uals can also hold non-regular hours, believing that the people who need get ahold of them will know how to do so, regardless of the time (when in fact that is not always the case). In their study of mobile phone adoption, Sarker and Wells eloquently pointed to this issue. “Interestingly, users of mobile devices experienced a simultaneous sense of freedom from being bound to their desks with a tethered device, yet, at the same time, a sense of captivity” (2003, 36). This quote captures the inherent contradiction of a shift to networking based on access. What the users felt was not liberation nor oppression—it was a yet unnamed shift in thinking about how to regulate personal boundaries and manage ties. I would name this shift as a transition from spatiotemporal networking to networking based on access. And the resulting anomie (considered as captivity in the quote above) is based on a shift from maintaining ties with one’s closest ties in speciﬁc spatiotemporally bounded behaviour settings to networking with one’s most accessible alters regardless of spatiotemporal boundaries.
Yet, one may argue that these drawbacks are themselves a technological, rather than a social, failing. It is possible that with better affordances such as “contextualawareness” (Bolchini et al., 2007; Schilit, Adams, and Want, 1994), the media themselves will provide additional cues. Such cues should enable people to have the beneﬁt of individually negotiated interactions (bridging the gap between the more strongly tied individuals and the more accessible ones) without reverting to broad cultural norms of spatiotemporal regularity.
If one believes that networking should be about facilitating interaction with those with whom we share the strongest bonds, then this can be taken as a design challenge for new media entrepreneurs. For example, SNARF, a project from Microsoft Research, sought to reorganize mail according to social network metrics (Fisher, Brush, Hogan, Smith, and Jacobs, 2007). Facebook is presently experimenting with how it can ﬁne-tune social networking with gradated forms of access by closeness, and Google’s mail client intelligently lists addresses to help with auto-complete features.
CHAPTER 8. CONCLUSION: NETWORKING AS ACCESSIBILITY 226In all cases, these products are creating a “next-generation” style of online interaction that seeks to bridge the gap between who is accessible (by virtue of being at the top of a list, or included in a series of messages) and who an individual wants to access (by virtue of being a strong or signiﬁcant tie). However, these products still have a long ways to go, if this analysis is any measure. Most importantly, they are still at the social network-on-one-medium level, whereas one can observe from this work that networks are pan media. Most people use multiple media with their network, or at the very least one medium in addition to in person contact. Groups that may exist in one medium may not exist in another, or may only be partially formed by looking at the connections in a given media. Also, individuals who are more spatially proximate seem to beneﬁt differentially from multiple media access and those who are embedded in the overall network also seem to be given multiple media access.
That this may be a technological failing is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it suggests that research on how individuals conceive of their networks, act upon them and regulate access in myriad sociohistorical contexts can be leveraged in the design of smarter technologies. This is a practical and hasty role for sociologists in the creation of new media devices and interoperability between existing ones. While sociologists are not the designers of these systems, we need not exclusively look on as detached critics. In between these two poles of engaged designer and disengaged critic is a place for a sociologically informed analysis of networking that can identify differential access and pressure points. By using a language of affordances and access it is possible that we can translate these pressure points and the gap between closeness and accessibility into an operational language for next generation systems. At the very least, we can diagnose the anomie, articulate the contradictions and hope that the others will take up where we leave off with ever more parsimonious ways to network in everyday life.
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