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The Facebook Alloy

In metallurgy, an alloy is a mixture of two different metals that has different properties than either of those metals taken separately. 

For about a decade or two there was a long debate among specialists about whether internet connections were really community or really not community, whether the Internet was a good, maybe even a better substitute for the you know the Rotary Clubs and so on, they’re no longer with us or no longer attractive to people or whether the Internet was actually maybe even evil, drawing people away out from human connections.  I think that’s the wrong way to phrase the question.  

In metallurgy, an alloy is a mixture of two different metals that has different properties than either of those metals taken separately.  In the case of the Internet and its interconnection with real, that is face-to-face connections; the key issue is not a solely Internet-based connection or a solely face-to-face connection, but different kinds of alloys different kinds of ways in which people connect with other people in part via the Internet and part in real life.  And there are lots of different kinds of alloys.  And the really interesting question here is; what are the kinds of alloys that are out there or that might be developed, some let me give some examples. 

E-mail is a very good example of a very productive, socially productive, alloy.  I mean, it takes everybody a lot of time, I spend way too much time on the Internet myself doing e-mail myself, but very few people send e-mail to people they don’t already know in real life.  Indeed most e-mail is sent to somebody you know very well and are likely to see tomorrow, I mean it’s not like it’s a substitute for face-to-face connection as a complement to face-to-face connection.

My daughter is a writer and I’m a writer.  When I was writing Bowling Alone, and I was living out in the woods in New Hampshire, she was living in Costa Rica at that point and you know without the Internet we would probably have seen each other once a year or something like that, but because of e-mail, every night we would send back and forth messages saying you know how are you doing, how’s that chapter going and that sort of thing.  I’m sure I’m much closer to my daughter because of e-mail than I would have been without it.  There is a really closer bond.  I did not meet my daughter on the Internet, by that I mean, it’s a relationship that has also some real properties and not just some… it’s not a purely cyber connection.

Take another example, Facebook.  I speak with some pride about Facebook because one of my classes was one of the beta testers for the very earliest version of Facebook because Mark Zuckerburg happened to be the roommate of a person of whoever was taking my class and so we used my class and I am one of the oldest members of Facebook in existence.  And initially, the business model of Facebook was it was located on college campuses.  So that the people that were your friends on Facebook were real people you really knew.  I mean I knew… they were my students might see them walking across the campus and I would see them every week when we had a seminar and I would also connect with them via Facebook.  Now, that is an alloy.  The connection that was partly real face-to-face and partly, you know, Web-based.  And it was much easier to keep in touch with people and it still is easier for me to keep in touch with former students via the Facebook than without it.

Facebook removed this connection between Facebook and real face-to-face connections.  And so now you can find anybody or you can “friend” anybody all over the world via Facebook.  And if you’re at all visible, I’m a little bit visible, so everyday I get you know probably a half dozen requests from people all over the world to be their” friend.”  I mean, last night Hans from Berlin sent me a note saying he wanted to be my “friend.”  Now what does that mean?  I mean does Hans saying if I show up and early tomorrow but I think Russia is pad or that if I get sick you all rush over from Berlin with chicken soup?  I mean, it’s a “friend” it’s not like my other friends.  I don’t mean that Hans is an evil person I just mean the word “friend” this is a different alloy.  It’s an alloy that no longer has the same properties as Facebook itself did when it was based at Harvard.  

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying that the new model is bad I’m just saying it’s not the same thing.  So the really interesting question is, for about the Internet, is how does it go to expand and create many different kinds of alloys, that is many different kinds of social networks that are in some respects better than, in some respects worse than, but certainly different from the other networks that we used to have.  If you ask me, Bob, do you think that a purely Internet-based network is as good as or can replace the old networks that Bowling Alone described as declining, I would say absolutely not actually.  A purely Internet-based connection is highly vulnerable to fraud because of the issue of impersonation.  You don’t know exactly who you are talking to and you don’t know whether the person is actually who they say they are.

I don’t want that to be a straw man because actually most Internet connections are not purely Internet-based.  The Internet is used as the telephone was used a hundred years ago.  Not to create a new brand of friend that… you had telephoned friends.  I mean most people don’t use the telephone to make new friends; they use the telephone to keep in touch with their existing friendship network.  That’s likely to be the case with the Internet.  It’s not gonna, some people, especially some young people, think of the Internet is going to solve these problems, stop worrying about the Rotary Clubs.  And if were going to fix the problem that Bowling Alone described then sure were gonna have to use Internet technology, I absolutely think that.  I just don’t think though that just any old, you know, take two internets and call me… take two internet tablets and call me in the morning and you’ll be just fine.  

We know that real face-to-face connections extend your life expectancy.  The more friends you have, real friends, that you have, the longer you’re going to live, a lot actually, there’s a big effect.  We have no idea whether a “friend,” whether Hans, knowing Hans, is going to add to my life expectancy at all.  I mean, it probably won’t hurt it.  That’s what I mean when I say that to look empirically to see what are the different… what are the effects of different kinds of alloys. 


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