The Third Place: We're designing it now.

23 Sep 2007 - 8:00am
1715 reads

Christina wrote:

It brings up the question "Are Social Networks, Media and Software the
new third place?"

Where does one go to assuage loneliness or boredom? Do you open Twitter?
Swing by Facebook? Is email a third place? Is IM?


Christina, when I was working on the information architecture which would
feed into the grand interaction design of<>a few years ago – some questions
around the third place arose in the back of
my head-specifically once was launched, what kind of issues of
identity might I face, as well as some other questions that I jot down here:
1. How will the social network at Gather impact my individual construction
of my identity (feed into and influence the construction of Freud's ego/id
2. How is my either real or constructed behavior made explicit through my
online interactions;
3. Will some smart person at Gather data-mine my interactions, posts,
comments, views, invites within the context of my projected persona and be
able to tell me who the F**K I really am? Aside from merely the algorithms
in the background doing that same thing to present me with ever more
detailed advertising. This might be especially funny after I wrote a
satirical lit-crit article lambasting postmodernism. (for a good, if
esoteric farce – read my Introduction (2) Poststructural Pre-emptive
Self-Nihilism On

Maybe therein lies the answer. These ideas I thought were worthy of
exploring included structural holes & bridges in managing my personal
information flow; and to riff on ideas taken from Krackhardt: the various
dyadic relationships including asymmetric ties, sole-symmetric ties,
and Simmelian
ties <> which may provide more
information into how I construct and constrain my notion of self in this
"Third Space". This has become even more interesting over the past two years
since we successfully built and launched Gather <> –
and I have been somewhat consistent in making posts, connections, comments
on that (and other) social networking site. Add to this my membership on
Facebook <>, IxDA <>, and
LinkedIn <>, and some choices about managing
multiple or a singular identity became important – at least I had to address
it. I am thinking that the roles that we play and the social networks that
develop around them help us define our individual identity – and here there
is no difference between social networks formed in meatspace – and social
networks formed on email lists like this one. By reacting to the events and
people in our lives, we see ourselves in relation to others and we use our
reactions to shape our own sense of self. In contemporary American society,
many people play a wide variety of social roles – i.e. employee, son,
brother, IxDA <>contributor, networker, and
organization member. Based on the context of these roles, we interact with a
diverse set people in a wide variety of different physical environments.
Because of this diversity, our social networks are rarely fully integrated,
either intentionally or not. For example, in my personal life, most of my
work colleagues do not know my family members, and my girlfriend has no idea
who I interact with on the IxDA <> list (nor has she
any interest in it – being a lawyer). The fragmentation of social circles
offers us a variety of social advantages, particularly by giving an
individual negotiation powers (and arbitrage powers). The theories developed
in social networks, particularly those surrounding the argument of
structural holes, offer a valuable perspective for reflecting on individual
maintenance of a faceted identity. In modern society (defined personally as
the society I interact with from Cambridge, MA – 2007 - September), my
personal self-awareness allows me to have a sense of self in relation to
society and culture. Such a self can be referred to as individual identity,
a constructed and evolving reflection of the self, reflexively developed by
social interaction. y (Will's) individual identity is comprised of two
facets where one is internalized and the other is projected. Although there
are numerous variations on these components (i.e. Smith's object self/acting
self, Mead's me/I, Freud's ego/id), for simplicity, I will refer to these
attributes as one's internal identity and one's social. Internal identity,
or self-identity, refers to the self-perception of the individual in
relation to the world. As it is reflective in nature, self-perception cannot
be purely manifested internally. Without society as a basis for reflexivity,
there can be no internalized evaluation. As such, social experience and
interaction provides the model by which individuals can give meaning to the
physical, psychological, philosophical, and moral aspects of their identity.

Through constant interplay similar to an Escher drawing, my social identity
feeds my internal identity, which in turn manifests itself as an evolving
social identity. Because a variety of contexts affect people differently, an
individual's social identity appears to constantly change according to the
social situation. Some Post-structuralist theory suggests that an
individual's contemporary identity is fragmented like a broken mirror,
thereby producing an identity crisis for the modern individual.
Alternatively, we believe that an individual's identity is simply
multi-faceted. While one's social identity is fragmented and constructed
according to context, my internal identity is cohesive and completely
controlled (at least I would hope :-). By (un)consciously understanding a
social scenario, individuals perform a facet of their identity that is
appropriate to the context and for the impression intended; likewise, the
social forces that I integrate into my identity are also impacted by the
perceived value of the social context in comparison to the personal
information. (insert math).

In the physical world, managing structural holes can be done with relative
ease. At the highest level, I can prevent awareness by simply not mentioning
other ties within my network, for instance never discussing my conversations
on IxDA <>with people in my *Shul*. This is
particularly common when maintaining weak ties, since awareness of a
person's entire social network is not regularly expected. Additionally, by
simply controlling which people can share the same physical space, I can
easily manage my social network so that structural holes have minimal
interaction with one another. The more explicitly an individual fragments
network, the more disconcerting unexpected convergences are. Online, it is
relatively simple to switch contexts; one can easily be engaged in two
different chatroom conversations with individuals from distinctly different
social circles. While multiple windows give the impression of multiple
contexts, the ease with which people can rapidly switch between multiple
contexts results in numerous accidents. It is not uncommon for individuals
to mistakenly send an email or instant message to the wrong person (I just
did that yesterday – mistakenly sending an email intended for Christina W.
to the entire IxDA <> list). Although mistakes are
often harmless, I can imagine numerous horror stories of sending a message
talking about 'Christina' to 'Christina' instead of the intended close
friend. Because most of these stories involved gossip, love interests, or
feuding friends, they resulted in humiliation or intensified fighting.
Although the conversation is specifically private, most digital interfaces
make it simple to unintentionally broadcast a message improperly, resulting
in inappropriate public behavior with significant consequences.

Combined with digital archives, search engines magnify the possibilities for
contextual convergence, exemplified by Google's 20-year archive of Usenet.
In one digital anecdote, an individual who commonly posted to Perl
newsgroups on company time and bondage newsgroups on personal time lost his
programming job because his employer determined that his behavior made the
company look bad. When archived data became searchable, anyone could simply
input someone's name and see all of their historical LiveJournal or IxDA
posts (as well as any other archived web, listserv data). In this way,
everyone's digital Saturday night public bar behavior became transparent on
Monday to those at work. Although both the bar and all of blogging are
public domains, a simple search across all time and space is currently only
possible in the digital realm. Just as most people don't assume that their
employer is observing them at the bar, they didn't assume that their
behavior might come back to haunt them. So a concern as more social ties go
digital on Social networking sites – whether open like Facebook or Gather,
or niche communities like IxDA and the conversations that happen in the
comments on Boxes and Arrows, I have to manage my profile and the posts I
make because the aggregation of my personal (or profile) information across
newsgroups, bulletin boards, websites, and listservs provides for tremendous
contextual convergence. Not only must I control what I produce digitally,
but I must also control what others say about me (to the extent that I can)
and what private conversations become public because one of the discussants
decided to upload the archive to the web. This level of control is virtually
impossible without completely removing oneself from the digital domain.
Instead, in order to be socially acceptable, an individual must perform
according to the social norms shared by all observing parties (think about
some of the posting rules on IxDA – or the rules on u-Test). Since this
means that I must accommodate the entire world (a.k.a. universal
assimilation), I become incapable of presenting any unique identifiers or
faceting my identity in any meaningful fashion. Needless to say, to do so is
completely undesirable, if not absolutely impossible. When individuals
recognize the implications of aggregation, many of them choose to either
become anonymous or explicitly construct multiple digital personas (guilty
as charged!). Most frequently, people maintain multiple email addresses that
cannot be linked to one another or to the associated person. Although this
allows an individual to maintain facets, this presentation is ultimately
fragmented or contextually void. This presents the most interesting topics
for discussion with regards to professional organization social networks –
where there is conflation between professional self and digital self. There
is relatively no downside to inventing a completely fictitious digital
persona for Facebook or LiveJournal – but because groups like IxDA have Face
to Face meetings, conferences, professional associations – maintaining an
identity that matches reality is almost imperative (there is no benefit to
"faking it").

Sorry about my long rant – when I was designing gather
<>– I had spent a lot of time thinking about privacy,
personality, and social ties as part of understanding exactly what I was
unleashing into the world.

Some references I dug up off my hardrive for those interested in social
networking and identity theory ---

Burt, Ronald. 1993. The Social Structure of Competition. Pp. 65-103 in
Explorations in Economic Sociology, edited by Richard Swedberg. New York:

Chomsky, Noam. 1986. Knowledge of Language: Its Nature, Origins, and Use. New
York: Praeger Books.

Freud, Sigmund. 1974 [1923]. "The Ego and the Id," vol. XIX in The Standard
Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (SE), eds.
James Strachey et al. London: Hogart Press and the Institute of

Garton, Laura, Caroline Haythornthwait, and Barry Wellman. 1999. "Studying
Online Social Networks." Pp. 75-105 in Doing Internet Research, ed. Steve
Jones. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Goffman, Erving. 1956. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York:

Grnovetter, Mark. 1973. "The Strength of Weak Ties." American Journal of
Sociology 78: 1360-1380.

Kilduff, Martin. 1992. "The friendship network as a decision-making
resource: Dispositional moderators of social influences on organizational
choice." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 62: 168-80.

Krackhardt, David. 1999. "The Ties That Torture: Simmelian Tie Analysis in
Organizations." Research in the Sociology of Organizations 16:183-210.

Mead, George Herbert. 1934. Mind, Self, and Society, ed. C.W. Morris.
Chicago: University of Chicago
~ we

n: will evans
t: user experience architect
e: wkevans4 at


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