Just another cultural institution?

Posted on 26/11/2012


If we back up a bit, social networks aren’t really that complicated…

From the bottom up, social networks look like vast conveyor belts of content and opinion. They’re growing, both in terms of users and data, and constantly bolting on new bits of functionality. But what do they really do? Taking a step back might help.

A talk recently at MIT looked at them another way. If we compare the different, unique functional-sets that they have (like buttons, retweets, +1s) you start to see some similarities.

Social networks are capture and conversion engines. What they  are doing is capturing data (text, image, video, an interaction) and convert it into something culturally and/or commercially valuable. Whether it’s Twitter or Facebook, a photo is uploaded (captured), and any responses, comments to or tagging of that photo convert what is just a computer file into something searchable.

Take the #foodporn trend. If you upload a photo of your meal at a swanky restaurant and add a comment, people can get an idea of where you like to eat, what you like to eat and who among your friends/ followers like similar things (from likes). Captured and converted.

What else captures and converts? In a way, it’s no different to the way art galleries & museums operate. They both collect items and by putting them on display, add to their value. Modern artists continue to play on this, converting an old urinal, an unmade bed and a preserved shark into objects of cultural importance.

Perhaps social networks aren’t so unique after all…