Rethinking Social Media

Today’s web is social, we all know that. But it may be more social than we think. Some platforms, like Facebook, are obviously social: we see the group of peers who are creating our experience through content creation or recommendations. Other platforms, like Google search, are “phantom social” – you don’t see the group of peers that have created your experience, but they are there nonetheless.

Let’s start with the obviously social: Facebook, Flickr, Tumblr, blogs, Twitter, Yelp, Reddit, Meetup, 4chan, YouTube…. Whether you are looking at a restaurant review, a photo, a video, or a post, you know who has written or created it. The creator has an identity, even if it is just an online identity. You are constantly aware that your experience is being created by your peers.

Phantom social applications like Google Search or Cleverbot are more tricky. It may seem that you are interacting with a computer, but the responses you receive are still created by your peers, you just don’t see them. In the case of Google Search, the ranking of a search result is determined by the number of incoming links. Who creates those all those links? Other people. Notice how Google can predict possible queries as you type? Again, those suggestions are gleaned from other people’s common searches. And instant search? You get the idea. Each Google Search is made possible by millions of user actions collected and crunched by Google algorithms, yet few of us think of a search as a social activity.

Cleverbot is an application that allows you to carry out a text chat with a computerized personality. It seems the archetypal anti-social online experience: talking to a computer. Yet Cleverbot is also phantom social. According to Wikipedia:

Cleverbot differs from traditional chatterbots in that the user is not holding a conversation with a bot that directly responds to entered text. Instead, when the user enters text, the algorithm selects previously entered phrases from its database of 20 million conversations. It has been claimed that, “talking to Cleverbot is a little like talking with the collective community of the internet.”

Then there are the hybrids, platforms that have some features where peers are visible and some features where peer input is hidden and you seem to be interacting with a machine. The classic example here is online shopping sites like Amazon and, which incorporate user reviews (visible peers) along with product recommendations and star ratings (phantom peers). All three are based on the input, buying, and browsing patterns of other users. All three are social.

What does this mean? It means the web is a lot more social than we think. We know that interacting with hundreds of friends on Facebook or thousands of followers on Twitter is social , but when we are interacting with millions through an algorithm we forget the social aspect. Whether through a email from Mom or a recommendation gleaned from millions of strangers, the web is becoming an ever more elegant medium for meaningful human interaction.

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