Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Social Networking and Proprioception?

Social Networking (Source: Simon Whatley)

A friend recently sent me an interesting article on social networking, specifically twittering, that compared the phenomenon to proprioception. As you all know, proprioception is our sense of relative position within space. It's what lets us know that our foot is pointing upwards or that our thumb is pointing down. How does proprioception apply to social networking though?

When I see that my friend Misha is "waiting at Genius Bar to send my MacBook to the shop," that's not much information. But when I get such granular updates every day for a month, I know a lot more about her. And when my four closest friends and worldmates send me dozens of updates a week for five months, I begin to develop an almost telepathic awareness of the people most important to me.

It's like proprioception, your body's ability to know where your limbs are. That subliminal sense of orientation is crucial for coordination: It keeps you from accidentally bumping into objects, and it makes possible amazing feats of balance and dexterity.

Twitter and other constant-contact media create social proprioception. They give a group of people a sense of itself, making possible weird, fascinating feats of coordination.

For example, when I meet Misha for lunch after not having seen her for a month, I already know the wireframe outline of her life: She was nervous about last week's big presentation, got stuck in a rare spring snowstorm, and became addicted to salt bagels. With Dodgeball, I never actually race out to meet a friend when they report their nearby location; I just note it as something to talk about the next time we meet.

The author Clive Thompson does pose an interesting idea, and I can see why he used the term proprioception. However, I think the term is misleading. When used in terms of physiology, the term implies one's own relative sense of position. But, in the social world, the term is being applied to your friends' mental and physical states relative to your own (or, one could argue, relative to your prior knowledge about them). Although I'm not particularly a fan of the awkward physiological analogy, if one must be made, I think the social networking phenomenon is more akin to the way in which our brains integrate various sensory inputs to form a coherent image of the outside world. Online social networks help us with social integration as we process what our numerous contacts are doing in the real world in real time.

Somehow though, I don't think social integration will catch on quite like proprioception...

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