A Model of How Collegiate Online Social Networks Fit into Internet Communication (Part 1)

(Writer's note: I would like to apologize for the next series of posts, as they are going to deal with my dissertation and may be slightly technical. I'll mark this post as dissertation in the category section. Thanks in advance.)

The development of a profile on an online social network begins with simple access to the technology, both hardware and software. This could be examined as a digital divide issue (Van Dijk) or even an issue of the portability of new communication technology or it could be discussed in terms of the democratization of the network. This access leds to the ability of the individual to add content through the network by referring to outside sources. The individual has the ability to create their own content to add to the robustness of the network. Both of these points (access to technology & the ability to add content) forms the basis of a multimedia literacy for the individual.

One way that a user of an online social network can find value in the network is through the perceived interactions conducted online and the perceived connection point that the environment of the online social network provides. It is fair to make the statement that users of most online social networks use the service to keep updated on what their friends are doing, find where people went after they graduated high school and discuss plans for the future. These interactions occur within the friendly confines of the graphic user interface and the overall framework of the social network. It is through these gated gardens of the network that guideposts appear to point users to a "familiar" world that the user may or may not recognize. Pictures and videos that appear on the network and the textual clues present in posts creates an image for the user to construct and/or analyze. It is by the cultural power of these online artifacts that users have the capability to take those connections from the online social network and place them in the real world environment. The perceived value of the network and the ability to bridge online/offline relationships represents a basic version of a social network theory.

The brick and mortar structure of the university exists, in one role, as the traditional mechanism of socialization to incoming freshmen. It is through the orientation process that individuals educate themselves and prepare them for the academic world. With the introduction of services like Facebook, the role of orientation is enhanced by students from the university assisting those incoming freshman to the environment of the university. This discussion of the university forces all of the stakeholders to examine the university through a critical lens. The university can be judged and analyzed based on a number of criteria giving the student an basic understanding of how good, or bad, is the college. The Internet plays the great equalizer to all information, public relations and spin.

How Networks Make Networks

As Monty Python Flying Circus used to say, "Now for something completely different!" I going to attempt to define two really complex concepts and attempt to connect those concepts into the everyday world of social media. Those two terms are infotaxis and stigmergy. Both refer to a similar natural function, that is changing embedded information in an environment that other members of a community could translate, understand and use the information for the betterment of other individuals or the community as a whole. Stigmergy typically refers to the ability of social insects to provide indirect coordination and communication between the members of a community, where the environment changes through interactions between an agent of the community and the environment itself. The changes in the environment translates into either the planning of a task which will be performed by the same or a different member of the community ("to do list") or translates into new pathways for the community to follow ("redefining the structure of the network"). Stigmergy has been adapted to social networks through the work of Mark Elliot and his theoretical framework for mass collaboration.

Infotaxis is more about applying a mathematical analysis to define patterns based on limited information, especially about the zigzag pattern created by social insects. The individual member of the community uses a seemingly random movement pattern to gather information about their environment. For online social networks, an individual member of the network could use an informal ritual to sort through the information present on the network and develop some based on what information has been gathered.

Both of these terms focus on how communities manage self-organization through levels of interaction and the ritualization of communication. In the natural world, this distribution of information helps insects plan and create the necessary social structures needed for basic survival. These actions are conducted without a formal hierarchy of the system delivering information or even true "face-to-face" communication between members of the community.

I wrote a very short post how I thought infotaxis and stigmergy would connect to my dissertation topic of how Facebook can help freshman cope and adjust to their first year of college. So, after think more about infotaxis and stigmergy in the broad scope, it makes sense that the typical member of an online social network would use some of the same information gathering skills that are used by social insects. In online social networks, people develop informal hierarchies based on nodes ("groups") and/or common interests. Informal hierarchies also develop through a folkonomy of the network and a development of shared resources in the network. For the typical freshman entering their first year of college, having access to campus resources through an informal online social network like Facebook would represent an mechanism of adjustment or a coping mechanism depending on what information the student was trying to gather.

The TENCompetence Foundation discussed how stigmergy fits into the new paradigm of social media during their last Winterschool. There was a discussion regarding the ten new principles of social media development; they are adaptability, stigmergy, evolvability, parcellation, trust, sociability, constraint, context, connectivity & scale. It would be fair to make an argument that web developer should look and study these principles in order to cultivate their audiences.