Social media has created a world in which everyone is interconnected. Forget six degrees of separation; we’re probably down to three. So have we completely lost the notion of a stranger?
Charlie O’Donnell, CEO of Path 101, recently wrote a post on his personal blog about the shift towards using social systems to connect with pre-existing friends and away from using them as a means to connect with strangers. He contrasts the rather closed networks on Facebook with the open chat rooms of AOL.
The topic struck a chord with me and I was compelled to write a rather lengthy comment. I wanted to re-post it here because I’m curious to hear the perspectives of some user experience folks that I know aren’t reading Charlie’s blog (they should).
Maybe I was one of those people you were talking to in AOL chat rooms late at night. I got my first Mac in the 5th grade (age 10) and had my own phone line. I would log on when I got home from school and would be up past 2 AM most nights chatting to perfect strangers.
Fifteen years later, the only strangers I talk to online are on Twitter. And they’re not perfect strangers either, they’re friends of friends that I just haven’t met yet.
My AOL profile said a lot about who I am — my age/sex/location, where I grew up, my favorite movies/books/TV shows, hobbies, activities. Sure, pretty similar information to a Facebook profile. But what it didn’t include was: my name, my photo, my phone number, where I went to school, or any other truly personally identifiable information. There was absolutely no way I could be found. It felt safe.
Talking to strangers online during the most impressionable years of my life no doubt contributed to the person I am today. Particularly as an only child with two working parents. But had my friends been computer nerds like me with AOL accounts and private telephone lines, chances are I would have been up late every night talking to them — not to some 40-year-old weirdo in Minnesota.
What was really happening was that I was craving connection. Attention. I had to get it from anywhere I could find, and there was a box on my
computerdesk that I could sit in front of and play a never-ending game of what-will-happen-next. Better than a TV show or a book, I was a player. I could affect the outcome. And it felt powerful and electrifying.
Now that virtually everyone we know in the real world is online, the need to seek out strangers isn’t as great. Between email, our buddy lists, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Flickr, etc… we’re always communicating, always sharing, and that thirst for connection is consistently quenched.
But sometimes, every now and then, the hankering for a stranger is still there.
Is the answer simply that now that everyone we know is online there’s no need to connect with a stranger? How has our design of social systems encouraged this insular behavior? Was there research that led us to believe that there was greater value in “meeting” and communicating with people in our real-life circles in the online space? Does our regard of strangers as unsafe dissuade the more cautious among us from embracing social media and thus there was a significant need to design systems around pre-existing social networks in order to tip (as Malcolm Gladwell would put it)? Are strangers dangerous entities that we need to protect our users from? And what are the use cases in which connecting with a stranger is actually beneficial?
Let me take a step back and ask: What is a stranger exactly? According to Dictionary.com, a stranger is a person with whom one has had no personal acquaintance; a newcomer in a place or locality; an outsider. When someone I don’t know sends me a friend request on Facebook, I assume they are a stranger to me. But then I can look at our mutual friends and soon I find that they are not “out of place” or unknown at all — I just haven’t met them yet. In the new web world, you’re strange when you aren’t connected, can’t be Googled, don’t have a LinkedIn page, aren’t revealing information about yourself/your career/your interests all over the damn place. That’s when people start to get suspicious.
People who don’t really know each other and could likely never meet are communicating constantly on Twitter. But there’s a certain commonality there, whether it be common acquaintances or interests or professions. And also, people are projecting outward in a very public way that somehow diminishes the uncertainty and fear and mystery that surrounds a perfect stranger. There’s a certain level of accountability there — liability.
It strikes me that dating sites might be the very last place where strangers are actively seeking each other out. I lump Craigslist into the mix, with its Missed Connections and Rooms & Shares postings.
Still, the underlying intention is to someday meet IRL. Are there places on the web that strangers connect for connection sake, wanting to remain anonymous and have an open communication with someone they needn’t worry about accommodating in their real life — a sort of sanctuary? Has negative press and some God awful criminal situations (albeit outliers) permanently shifted our focus to supporting and strengthening existing relationships?
Ultimately, what is the cause of the stranger aversion and is there anything we can do as user experience designers to create safe environments to harness the power of sharing between the unacquainted, never-to-be-acquainted?