The Social Web and the “Reconnection Generation”

Each generation faces unique challenges and a varying landscape of social interaction. In the last several hundred years we have seen these changes happen at a pace hitherto unknown in human history.

During the nineteenth century reliable high speed steam transportation gave people, for the first time, the ability to send mail and parcels long distances in a relatively short period of time. This gave the children of the era a future with the potential to stay connected to long distance friends and relatives as they had never done before. The modern communications revolution had begun.

When the telegraph was invented it again revolutionized communications giving family and friends the ability to communicate news in hours rather than days and over ever further distances. The telephone made a leap most profound by not only speeding communications again but by also bringing the means for communication into peoples’ very homes. The telephone also gave us the ability to hear another person’s voice giving the media a sense of tactility making intensely personal a world that had previously known only mechanically reproduced messages.

In the personal computer era (the 1970s through the mid to late 1990s) and in the Internet era (since the mid to late 1990s) we have again made leaps in the ease, cost and availability of communications. One of the most important changes that has occurred during this era is the move from temporary communications channels to persistent communications channels.

What is a persistent communications channel? Portable telephone numbers, email, instant messaging, home pages, blogs, etc. What makes these persistent channels is that once someone learns the means by which someone else may be contacted that person can be contacted by that means forever. SGL is my blog and my personal homepage (for those who remember that term.) Anyone wishing to find me again need only remember the URL for this blog and they can check up on my personal news or leave a message for me. No other information would ever be necessary to relocate me should someone lose touch with me at some point in the future. And to make things even easier than remembering the URL – you can always search for it.

In fact, even remembering how to reach me is completely unnecessary. A simple search on Google or Yahoo! for “scott alan miller” will provide you more hits related to me than you will know what to do with. This doesn’t work for everyone but for many people it does.

More than just websites, though, are now persistent. Email addresses, for example, last practically forever. I first opened a Yahoo! mail account around 1997 and still use it today. I will have that email address for the rest of my life. My SGL mail will be with me forever. Either of those addresses will always reach me whether it is today, in five years or in fifty years. Anyone who keeps my email address can track me down in the future. Not like the postal addresses of the past that were accurate only so long as you never moved.

This persistence becomes ever more important as its mere existence fuels a more and more rapidly relocating populace. People move all of the time now. Fifty years ago you were relatively likely to grow up and live in or near the town that you were born in. Today to do so would be almost surprising.

Until just a few years ago, as recently as 1999, the move that most students made between high school and university was so dramatic that it forced a severing of most ties between school life and college life. Any student moving out of their parents’ home would need a new phone number and would have a new mailing address. Only those people who actively worked to maintain ties would be able to maintain them. Once contact was lost it was difficult if not impossible to reestablish.

Today the idea that changing schools, cities, states or even countries would negate two people’s ability to maintain regular contact is completely foreign to the “digital natives” currently residing in our education  and social systems. In fact, social interactions have moved so completely online that even I, as a “digital immigrant”, can barely tell the difference between people that I see in person on a regular basis and those that I only communicate with online. The transparency of online communications to digital natives is so significant that the impact of physical social separation must be nearing nominal in many cases. This trend will continue.

Even today we begin to see this trend turning into a solidified reality.  People are beginning to maintain communications and ties with each other even when one or the other or both are physically relocating, traveling, switched jobs, school, etc.  What makes this phenomenon truly exciting is how often these transitions occur with so little interruption to the communications process that often the other party is unaware that a potentially disruptive event may be taking place.

Today we see a new trend in communications emerging – the social web. The social web is giving Internet denizens the ability to interact in new ways with people that they already know.  More importantly, however, it is providing a framework for maintaining connections with people from whom that they would otherwise naturally drift apart. The real innovation in the social web is in its amazing ability to expand our permanent connection base.

As an example, in the era when email was the most robust and prolific social interaction tool available online, most people would only maintain email addresses for a select number of personal contacts. Maybe twenty or thirty people on average. Maybe many fewer. These addresses would be kept up to date and emails would be occasionally exchanged. This is roughly analogous to the Rolodex of the 1980s. Only so many contacts could be maintained and generally only for people who would be contacted with enough regularity to be able to maintain updated and useful information. Once contact was lost the contact information would be discarded and total number of contacts would be reduced.

In the era of the social web connections are persistent. By adding someone to your list of friends in many modern social networking applications you have a connection to their email, blog, news, pictures and, most importantly, to their own address book. By finding one person online that you know from school, work, the community or simply through shared interest you grow your social network. Social networks deepen the level to which communications become valuable. Instead of maintaining the ability to easily contact a small number of select friends and family suddenly you are able to contact scores or hundreds of people that you know but may not know well enough or care to contact often enough to maintain in your traditional personal address book.

For digital natives the concepts of the social web are obvious. Of course, digital natives maintain persistent relationships throughout their lives. Severing ties because of “inconvenience” doesn’t exist to them conceptually. Friends are friends forever. Acquaintances are worth keeping tabs on. You never know when you will discover a friend from high school at a branch office of your company or that an acquaintance from the gym is in your online university class.

In the past it was accepted that physical relocations meant severing all by the strongest of ties and often those too would be broken simply through neglect, accident or circumstance. I have a friend who has managed to lose her telephone numbers, email and mailing addresses – all at the same time – on more than one occasion. Because she does not use the social web or even a blog where she can post her new contact information she is continuously cutting all ties to her former life and starting over with the few people that she manages to contact again. This used to be standard. But no more.

I like to refer to the current generation and future generations of digital natives as the “connected generations.” The society that they build will be inherently connected to one another. They will see themselves as a single culture rather than a lose collection of individuals held together by location and circumstance. They have strong relationship bonds and many of them. They maintain a social memory far greater than we who come before them can imagine.

Similarly I look at the previous generations as the “disconnected generations.” Their ties to one another are tenuous at best. Their social circles are small. Their relationship bonds are weak. They are islands in the stream of life – isolated from each other.

My generation falls between these two. The disconnected generations are, by and large, uninterested in becoming connected. The ties that have been severed were severed long ago – too long for the bonds to be reforged. Their view of the world does not include the need for a large social cloud persisting around them. They don’t actively refuse social connections but, instead, do not even realize the possibility or the potential for such an extent of interaction. It is completely foreign to them.

Unlike the previous generations, my generation managed to grab onto the concepts of the persistent social network just as our ties were beginning to fail. We were brought up in a world where tie severing was as common as it ever was. But a few technologies and trends began to appear that slowed this process as we became older. Cell phones began to be prevalent just in time to provide many people with overlapping phone numbers. As people began to track multiple phone numbers they found that they could keep connected more easily through traditional tie severing transitions. Long distance phone calls became nominally expensive or free. Email appeared. And the persistent connection revolution was started.

Because we grew up cutting ties throughout our childhoods, but started to resist as young adults, my generation has the unique position of understanding and desiring the persistent social structure that we see forming in the generation that follows us. However, we have already lost contact with a large number of our former connections. Hence we have become the “reconnection generation.” No other large social group is likely to ever again attempt to mount a large scale siege on our own social structure in this way. We are attempting, in a very short time, to rebuilt the ties that were lost, in many cases, many years ago.

The social web has become the tool allowing for this social revolution. We are reconnecting, rediscovering and reinventing ourselves. Believing our pasts to be lost we are now finding that the ghosts are not so often ghosts as we had believed. Finding one childhood friend could lead to the discovery of several more. An old classmate becomes a hub for new connections. Websites like Classmates, MySpace and FaceBook help to create reconnection opportunities that we would never have imagined before.

This generation may be, of all generations, the one that understands the importance of the social web – both in the context of the set of Internet protocols as well as the mesh of social connections – and appreciates the value that it brings to society and humanity. We know the pain of separation and we know the joys of friendships reborn. We have had time apart and now we can reminisce and reunite. We have been alone but now we are together. Solidarity is ours!

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1 Comment

  1. Hey Scott, thanks for the link! It was a great read–really good thoughts. Going to send it on to a few people… 😉

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