Relations and Relatedness

Thanks to the Wayback machine I found an old post I wrote on kinship and social networks from Ideas Bazaar (2004 vintage).

I’m in the midst of writing something about big data, and I’m struck by what, at the time of writing this piece, I thought of as a quantity vs a quality theory of phenomena.

Social network thinking then, and perhaps still, seems to privilege size over quality –  the sense is that social graph’s power lies in its size rather than in the complexity of the relationships, and the relationships between relationships within it. I think the same is true of big data right now – the qualifier ‘big’ is really what people focus on. But size, as they say, really isn’t everything.

Here’s the post from 18th March 2004:

I’ve long been trying to get kinship on the table in discussions about social software and social networking tools. This recent post on Many to Manyabout RELATIONSHIP has got me both excited and annoyed. 

First, RELATIONSHIP is a vocabulary for describing relationships between people.

friendOf, acquaintanceOf, parentOf, siblingOf, childOf, grandchildOf, spouseOf, enemyOf, antagonistOf, ambivalentOf, lostContactWith, knowsOf, wouldLikeToKnow, knowsInPassing, knowsByReputation, closeFriendOf, hasMet, worksWith, colleagueOf, collaboratesWith, employerOf, employedBy, mentorOf, apprenticeTo, livesWith, neighborOf, grandparentOf, lifePartnerOf, engagedTo, ancestorOf, descendantOf

Sounds like kinship terminology to me. The authors have generated this vocabulary to described relationships on the sematic web and FOAF something I’m not entirely sure I’m up to speed on, but it relates to social networking software. Most of the commentators on the post follow the great sage Clay Shirky in debunking the whole exercise. My take on this is slightly different.

Most of these social software devices like Friendster could do with a kinship terminology that help people understand the real nature of the relationships which they are encouraged to build up. Most of these appear to be about creating a quantity of relations (this helps their case in second round funding?) but show precious little concern with generating quality ones. More specifically, they appear to do little in the way of helping people qualify their relationships beyond simplistic, 2nd degree, 3rd degree etc.

Anthropologists understand that kinship operates at three levels: terminology, rules and practice, and the inter-relationship between the three of these. This means at the categorical, jural and practical level: how are people related, what terminology is used to describe their relatedness, what behaviour is ‘meant’ to obtain between them (joking / avoidance?), and what behaviour does obtain in practice. Shirky seems to confuse the existence of a terminology with static relationships and fixed behaviours obtaining between people in this relationship. Anthropologists understand that a dynamic interplay exists across these 3 levels.

A detailed kinship terminology of the social universe that are social networking sites would be helpful in moving people beyond the ‘number’ of links, to the quality of these links and behaviours and relationships that exist between them. I’ve probably totally misinterpreted the ‘point’ of RELATIONSHIP but it seems to me to be one possibly useful in the future way of helping people understand relationships in a highly inter-connected world.

UPDATE: Clay posts a long comment on his critics. Too short of time to enter the fray right now.