I like studying the goings-on of the world, like the occurrences of democracy and capitalism. So I am interested in the phenomenon of social networking and what it means to the world. Much of it is trivial. But even in triviality social networks have created bonds between peoples that have transcended and transformed the world.
The social networking craze, like Facebook and Twitter, started in the West. You could say it is a product of Western thinking. And like many Western social constructs social networking has become a worldwide phenomenon, like democracy and capitalism, two institutions that have been key in expanding social networking.
I’m thinking of another network that started earlier and has also permeated the world, railways. There is a similarity between the two in that they've had a liberalizing effect on human activity. They both connect people and afford a web of infrastructure from which to advance and progress. Both facilitate a mobility, railways a physical one and social networking a cognitive one. The modern world would not exit without either. Both have been instrumental in bringing a standardization and social cohesion to the world. They've made possible the cosmopolitan, integrated world we live in.
Social networking, also known as exchange networking, is a phenomenon that chiefly grew and developed in the West. It came about as politics and business activity between individuals grew and expanded. It grew out of people's cumulative experience and the need to cooperate. It grew as a vehicle of communication and the exchange of data and ideas, a back-and-forth. It grew as a deliberative feedback system in business and politics, as a way of seeking improvement and solutions to problems. It grew as a mechanism of developing social capital and a means of social support. The more Western societies engaged themselves in politics and business, the larger and stronger exchange networks grew. They grew exponentially, feeding on themselves as a means of facilitating the process. By no means have social networks been the exclusivity of the West. Peoples around the world have always engaged themselves in such a manner in trade and commerce. But it is in the West where social networks differed and became all inclusive, secular and pluralistic, crossing multiple cultural differences and transcending social barriers. In the New World it became the glue that bonded the diverse people who came together from all over the world. Social/exchange networks build trust and respect amongst its participants. Without these networks and their cross-breeding it would be impossible to conduct the activities that bind and connect us today. They’ve helped develop our civility and the civil traditions that govern us today.
Facebook and Twitter are extensions of the earlier exchange networks people built doing everyday business and politics. Without the development of those earlier systems the social medias of today wouldn’t exist. They are a further step in the continuation of getting people talking to each other and developing commonalities. People having things in common is a major step to world security and peace. It creates alliances. And it is due to networking on a grand scale, in politics and business, that Western nations no longer go to war with each other even though there may still be social and cultural divides. Networking creates a hub and a web of connections between people that transcends cultural and social divides. Two of the biggest networks we rely on today came to be after WWII, The United Nations and The European Union, as a means of cooperation in order to prevent future wars. This is something that the West has been trying to impart on the rest of the world, that if you build network capabilities and keep the channels of communication open a peace and harmony will follow.
A philosophy magazine I subscribe to has a Facebook connection. On it it posted a link to an article I had overlooked. And this I believe shows the necessity and relevance for social media/networking, as a parallel, back-up system, as a means of making one aware of what may have been missed or overlooked, as a reminder of something that could make a difference. And this is what networking through the ages has been all about - with the clustering and flow of information, to insure that things remain fluid and dynamic. It’s about putting and keeping information out there so that it will make a difference.
Recently we have been witnessing a lack of peace and harmony in many parts of the Middle East. I attribute this to a lack of networking and not having developed the solid lines of communication and exchange of ideas that transcend ethnic differences. Much of the Middle East has remained tribal and divided. And because of the lack of networking, this part of the world has not developed the political and diplomatic skills, or will, to avoid wars. The lines of communications that transcend aren’t there to help resolve conflicting issues. Moreover, a lack of individual freedom and participation in business and politics has held backed the development of networks that could bring stability to this part of the world. Without such networks people aren’t given or feel they have a stake in the system, so there isn’t that deep-rooted desire or concerted effort to save the system they inhabit. And without the networking of people being engaging themselves in the process things fall apart as they have in many parts of the Middle East. And as W.B. Yeats wrote in a poem, If the center doesn’t hold, things fall apart. But networks and people networking together helps hold the center together.
It seemed like things started to change in many parts of the Middle East with the occurrence of what became know as the “Arab Spring”. Individuals had risen up to challenge their leaders in Tunis, Egypt and Libya about massive corruption and how poorly they were being governed. Much of the uprising was credited to the social media of Facebook and Twitter, which allowed people to share information and inform one another about the next protest or demonstration. It was true networking for the purpose of changing things and improving life. But in the end it failed as a way to transforming society because it was a shallow networking since it hadn’t built on the existence of other social networks because none existed. The success of social networks to change and improve things occurs when there are multiple lairs of it so to have a complex hive of activity. Complexity protects the over all system. It acts as a safeguard to external threats. A multilayered networking offers safeguards and alternatives. If one approach to the network falls short another one is there to take over. This kind of experience or network complexity did not exist in Egypt or Libya prior to the Arab Spring, thus little or nothing was gained and thus a major reason why instability still continues in those countries.
I was watching a documentary about the famed photographer Erwin Blumenfeld. He said something relevant, that without a mirror he “would never have become a human being: no mirror - no art, no echo, no music”. Networking is like a mirror. We could not really be human beings without social networks. We would not develop our potential, progress or add value without the reflective or feedback mirrors networks provide.
Communism is another system of governance that failed because it didn’t develop the autonomous social networking that emerges and is cultivated in democracies. Networking requires an open, transparent society. Communism was a closed society. Individuals weren’t free to express themselves or exchange thoughts about how things could be improved. Thus communism didn’t build-up the immunity of feedback system or the sharing of information that Western nations did, which could have improved people’s lot in life. Instead, this lack of social networking made things worse. Because communist rulers weren’t challenged through autonomous information sharing networks like television, newspapers and just everyday simple unfiltered communications (like in democracies), they were free to covered-up their incompetence, thus further corrupting and ruining the system. Ironically, because people couldn’t network freely, it was an alternative social networking that eventually helped bring an end to authoritarian communist rule, clandestine undergrounds network, which slowly undermined the authority of the state.
One of the biggest agents for the creation of exchange network has been Health, through agencies like the World Health Organization. With the world’s population becoming increasingly interconnected the world’s collective health is a big issue. It is important that if there is an outbreak of an infectious disease in one country that the rest of the world knows so it doesn’t spread. International cooperation and the exchange of information is essential if outbreaks like SARS and Ebola are to be contained. Such interaction between nations has the effect of fomenting transparency and transcending antiquated social norms, which is good for democracy and the people of the world. The networking that develops with the exchange of medical information tends to spawn additional networking in other agencies and areas of human governance, where none barely existed before.
Networks are complex things. David Christian of “Big History” has something interesting to say about complexity, that it requires a lot of energy to sustain it. And to make energy, that requires work. So this gives us a tangible sense of what networks are. Not only are they people orientated and engaging but they are full of dynamic energy, ingredients necessary for vital, sustainable societies.