Wednesday, December 15, 2010

An Architectural History of Social Networking

@ruskin147 is in California to meet the networking pioneers, including Stuart Brand.

In 1985, Stuart Brand was one of the founders of an online community called the Well. As Rory reports, the Well provided "inspiring stories of the power of online communication, as its members used its forums to share their lives, their thoughts, and their passions - whether it be for obscure technology questions or discussions about the meaning of life".

In 1994, Brand wrote a brilliant and controversial book about architecture, How Buildings Change, which among other things contained a theory about evolutionary change in complex systems based on earlier work by the architect Frank Duffy. The theory was then known as Shearing Layers; Brand now prefers to call it Pace Layering. If there is a difference between the two, Shearing Layers is primarily a descriptive theory about how change happens in complex systems, while Pace Layering is primarily an architectural principle for the design of resilient systems of systems.

In the original Shearing Layers theory, the slowest-moving layer is known as Site. In the context of physical buildings, this is the geographical setting, the urban location, and the legally defined lot, whose boundaries and context outlast generations of ephemeral buildings [via Wikipedia].

An interesting question for Brand then is whether social networking continues to occupy the same "Site" as early initiatives such as the Well. In other words, the boundaries and context outlasting generations of ephemeral technology.

Brand told Rory that he saw some of the same principles in Facebook that had governed The Well: "I'm really impressed at a lot of the instincts that Zuckerberg has had. Taking non-anonymity as an absolutely fundamental value of his company and thereby beating off the competition. A Facebook identity is one of the most valuable things his company offers. The lack of anonymity is what gives it value." [Friendster, Facebook and the Well]

But that's not quite the same as asserting a historical path from the Well to the present day. The critical question here is not how aware Zuckerberg and his associates were with the history of social networking, but to what extent this history directly or indirectly influenced their actions and choices. For example, our collective understanding of "anonymity" is coloured by the past couple of decades of internet and pre-internet activity. Zadie Smith (a near contemporary of Zuckerberg at Harvard) talks about Zuckerberg's idea about what a person is, or should be, and worries that her own idea of personhood is nostalgic, irrational, inaccurate [New York Review, 25 Nov 2010]. And of course ironic.

Where exactly did Zuckerberg's idea of personhood come from? There may be a sense in which echoes of the Well may persist in Facebook through the way such concepts are understood and managed. And although we wouldn't necessarily take Brand's opinion of this at face value (or for that matter Zuckerberg's) there can be few people whose opinion would be so interesting and well-informed.

See also

Roger Hudson, The Evolving Web - A Pace Layering view of the development of the Web and the W3C (March 2008)

Howard Silverman, Panarchy and Pace in the Big Back Loop (People and Place, March 2009)

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