Love at First Profile

Grant McCracken writes that he believes that the days of accidental friends may be numbered:social network

In the “old world” model, we make friends by accident. Our family is from Seattle, so that’s where we were born. Or, our Dad got a job in Chicago, so that’s where we went to school. We like to ski, and that’s how we ended up in Vermont. Accidents of birth, occupation, inclination, all of these constrain the set of people with whom we can be friends.

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My guess is that machines once they are dedicated to this purpose will do a much better job of building social connections than I could do even if I were to devote all my time to it. It can detect patterns in the stuff I put on line, and find hidden resonances with the stuff others put on line. And this would be interesting. It would be fun to get an email that says ‘we’ve found a match.’

Pretty clearly we spend a lot of time and money trying to sort ourselves into like-minded groups, in both the virtual and physical worlds. We join MySpace, Facebook, and LinkedIn (as Grant notes) in an attempt to find people we have something in common with. We also join book clubs, sports clubs, country clubs, museums, and the SPCA, hoping that we’ll find kindred souls as members. We have a need to find people who are like us, and Grant is probably right that machines will be able to do a good job with this.

This search for people I’ll like, though, reminds me of the search for information I want to read. If I end up only reading articles on topics I’m interested in from sources I like, I’m in danger of never coming across a new thought. I also miss stumbling across information that I might not have been able to predict will interest me but does. It’s the same with people. Do you have a friend you’re surprised you can even tolerate, much less like? Someone else you enjoy talking with even though you think differently on just about any subject? Another friend from a completely different background and cultural upbringing? Of course you do. Might a machine someday match you with them?

If our social networks were the result of machine driven sifting and filtering, I have to believe that society would become polarized, with interactions among self-reinforcing groups resembling a Hardball episode – lots of talking and shouting but not much learning and understanding. It is encountering diversity of thought and experience that allows us to grow and develop intellectually. While I, like everyone else, employ filters for many of my friends, I recognize that it is accidental friends who often add the spice to life.

I suspect that Grant just has more faith in machines than I do. He no doubt believes that they will be able to pick up on something we exhibit that provides the evidence for that unlikely match. On the other hand, maybe every thirty-third search they’ll short circuit and throw out a random match. That might work.

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