Gotta love anomic social networks

BusinessWeek has just added another article to the pile of observations on the increasing popularity of social network sites: “Social Networks: Execs use them too”. Anyone who knows me knows I like social networks. The current trends in social network technologies, however, are disturbing.

Namely, networking technologies are seeking to automate the acquisition and use of one’s broad-ranging social relationships in the same ways that organizations have automated the acquisition and use of the local relationships needed to get one’s work done.

There is an irony that, by providing the product–a new network tie–these technologies are bypassing the need to personally build and use your own existing social network.

In other words, instead of calling your friends to see who might know someone who knows someone who can give you an trusted opinion of someone else, you log into LinkedIn, avoid all those messy and time-consuming phone calls and immediately jump to the right “connection.” And, by doing so, you let wither all of the actual relationships you built that were based on actual, mindful, and interactive contact with others.

Here’s an analogy: between commuting, email, and television, we spend a lot of time sitting. Then we collectively head to the gym for an hour of intense standing, climbing, riding or whatever. For most of us, organizational life has taken away much of our need to actually stand or walk around (unless we’re scrambling to get a PO signed late on a Friday).

In the same way, organizational life has taken away much of our need to “network”–to actually meet new people, engage with them, form productive and reciprocal relationships, and maintain those relationships over time and distance. Instead, most people drop into pre-established organizational networks (“this person will tell you what to do; that person will do what you tell them”). We then bemoan the static nature of our social networks and go to “networking events” where for an hour, like on a stairmaster, we push ourselves to hand out business cards and make untenable lunch plans.

Our fascination with networking technologies reflects two increasingly apparent problems with organizational life. First, the loss of our own abilities to build and mantain meaningful and mutually productive relationships with others. And second, like the unrealistic body images that drive too many middle-aged men and women to the gym every night (you too can have abs of steel and two kids under 5), executives have unrealistic network images that suggest you too can have the contact list of a Hollywood producer.

In an ironic twist–our increasing emphasis on social networks may come from the decreasing nutritional content of our own social networks. To me, the whole thing smacks of anomie and, thanks to Wikipedia, I can wax learned on the subject without truly understanding what I’m saying:

The nineteenth century French pioneer sociologist Durkheim borrowed the word [anomie] from the french philosopher Jean-Marie Guyau and used it in his book Suicide (1897), outlining the causes of suicide to describe a condition or malaise in individuals, characterized by an absence or diminution of standards or values (referred to as normlessness), and an associated feeling of alienation and purposelessness. He believed that anomie is common when the surrounding society has undergone significant changes in its economic fortunes, whether for good or for worse and, more generally, when there is a significant discrepancy between the ideological theories and values commonly professed and what was actually achievable in everyday life.

Anomie essentially represents the lack of meaningful social relationships that connect individuals to their surrounding community. The term was picked up by Robert K. Merton:

Robert King Merton also adopted the idea of anomie to develop Strain Theory, defining it as the discrepancy between common social goals and the legitimate means to attain those goals. In other words, an individual suffering from anomie would strive to attain the common goals of a specific society yet would not be able to reach these goals legitimately because of the structural limitations in society. As a result the individual would exhibit deviant behavior.

Through the miracle of modern technology, we can embrace social networking software that simultaneously increases our connections and decreases their meaning and value. We are perfecting the anomic social network.