“… oh, no, i wouldn’t introduce them.”

There’s an interesting post about social networking over at SpaceCollective* in which a blogger called Venessa discusses the idea of network weaving. The idea is that rather than letting your social networks evolve randomly you actively manage them to make them more productive. Talking about Twitter, she says she’s

... started using the hashtag #networkweaving when I “introduce” new connections I make to connections I already have who share common interests. I’m finding it a lot more valuable to others than doing a general #followfriday.

My instinctive reaction to this was “Ugh!” And i wondered why. Maybe it’s just that i’m just not forward-thinking enough (quite possible); yet somehow that didn’t seem to be the whole explanation. I thought about what a #followfriday actually is. On the face of it it’s a suggestion (plea?) to your followers to follow somebody you yourself are following. However, it’s so ritualistic and so impersonal – always done on the same day of the week, sent to all your followers at the same time – that in truth it’s more like a statement of appreciation or loyalty. It works primarily to affirm your own link with the person you #followfriday. Those receiving the #followfriday may choose to check out suggestion; they may not. In either case it’s unlikely they will feel any actual pressure to do. Retweeting does a similar job.

The #networkingweaving idea is different. It introduces an element of personalisation. You and whoever else is included in the tweet are being specifically targeted, singled out. You are not just being made aware of one another’s presence, you are – as the blogger herself puts it – being “introduced”. An introduction places obligations on those introduced. You can’t just politely** pretend not to notice someone if i introduce you to them, which is something you could do quite easily if i just sent round a group email mentioning that they exist.

It also – and i think this is important – draws attention to the role of the person who is doing the “network weaving” and becomes more about them (their role as connector, their bank of interesting and useful contacts) and less about the people they are supposedly attempting to connect to one another. This is borne out in the title of the post which is “The Importance of Managing Your Online Reputation”. Your reputation. This is about you, not them.

At this point i remembered a passage in the book i’m currently reading, The Death and Life of Great American Cities*** by Jane Jacobs. I don’t know how many people have read this book so i’ll briefly explain: published in 1961 it is a landmark text in the field of urban planning, a blistering critique of the rationalist planning policies of its time. In one of the early chapters she discusses the very issues of the private versus the public which are so beloved of web theorists today. In the city she says “privacy is precious”. This doesn’t mean that people don’t want contact with other human beings, quite the contrary:

A good city neighbourhood achieves a marvel of balance between its people’s determination to have essential privacy and their simultaneous wishes for differing degrees of contact, enjoyment or help from the people around.

Twitter and social networks like it may not be city neighbourhoods but they have important similarities. Like the big city which people move to both because it offers them opportunities to broaden their horizons but also autonomy, so social networks attract people who want contact with others but contact they can control.

Talking about how the balance she describes above is maintained Jacobs gives us as an example a local shopkeeper in her own neighbourhood who is respected and trusted by his clientele to the point where they leave spare keys with him for safekeeping. This shopkeeper lends an umbrella to one customer, provides information about local rents to another and listens to yet another customer’s tale of domestic woe. Yet when asked if he ever introduces his customers to one another he answers:

“No, that would just not be advisable. Sometimes, if i know two customers who are in at the same time have an interest in common, i bring up the subject in conversation and let them carry it on from there if they want to. But oh no, i wouldn’t introduce them.”

Jacobs says that this attitude on the part of the shopkeeper shows just how well he understands where the line is drawn between the public and the private. I’m struck by the similarity between the shopkeeper’s tactic of bringing up of a subject in conversation so that his audience – the customers in his shop – have the chance to discover that they may share interests in common, may want to choose to approach one another and the way that retweeting and the #followfriday tradition work on Twitter. And how his rejection of the idea of making introductions parallels my unease about the #networkweaving idea.

Introductions are intrusive. They also formalise where formality is not necessarily the most productive approach. I’m not saying that they’re never appropriate, but if we think about where they work best we realise it’s contexts like parties, meetings, conferences – situations in which people have already consented implicitly to being connected to the other people present – or else spontaneously in contexts where say two people run across a third who is only known to one of them. In that situation, the introduction feels like a courtesy rather than an imposition and serves to reduce rather than create social tension because it resolves a problem – the problem being that the two strangers are already confronted with one another via the third person who is interacting with them both. They no longer have the option to choose to remain unaware of each other. In fact, in this situation an introduction is usually the only appropriate action.

There you have it: my two penn’orth on the subject of “network weaving” and introductions.

* A  website which says it’s a place “where forward-thinking terrestrials exchange ideas and information about the state of the species, their planet, the universe, living the lives of science fiction today.” i confess i’d never heard of the site till James Reilly submitted the link (to this post) to Friendfeed, but it’s very stylish.
** You can ignore them impolitely of course, but this violates social norms and thus is liable to be stressful for many (most?) people.
*** ISBN: 0-679-74195-X. Published by Vintage Books (my edition is anyway).