The Next Social Network

The next social network is conversation

“Love without conversation is impossible.”

[Mortimer Adler]

Before social networks we had forums and then blogs. In both cases, communities formed around topics and themes, shared interested kept people engaged to help each other. It wasn't the same as in person conversation, but it gave us something we did not have before — scale.

    We still have successful forums and communities, including Reddit, GitHub, and increasingly niche groups that gather behind paid subscriptions. Some of these groups are self-moderated, some have one or more moderators or community managers.

    Specialized networks like LinkedIn are useful for writing about business and since the introduction of the feed, many have been posting and commenting actively. On several occasions, people have expressed frustration at the inability to correspond with contacts. Evergreen topics like the inability to write a good invitation to connect still capture attention. When in doubt, connection is not the same as collection.

    The root of the problem is that at some point we stopped being in awe at the possibilities of connection because of technology and we started to take other people for granted. Once connected, soon forgotten in the quest for higher numbers of connections.

    A few years ago, the word conversation seemed to be everywhere. It became overused to refer to social networks giving everyone a voice, without a clear understanding of its value as a two-way tool to progress in communication. Instead, it was mostly a desire to gain higher numbers of followers, comments, likes, retweets to show marketers and peers the relative importance of one's social presence.

    Being caught being awesome or on a list of top gurus was the point. Social networks offered new entry points and possibilities, especially when they started to scale. But the time when social networks started to show their true colors was much earlier a short couple of years after their birth. Back then the gold rush and crave for attention drove the Faustian trade of attention for attention.

    Three year olds begin to show a focus on “me,” children discover their ego at about that age… Facebook was precocious, it showed signs before then. No, Facebook was never the same as face time — not then, and even less now. The corporation then did an about face on conversation entirely. How quickly we forget!

    Nearly 8 years ago, I wrote:

How long will it be until Facebook's rank-and-file becomes frustrated with the company's refusal to converse? How did a company based on sharing an communication get to this point?

    It turns out that it takes about 8 years. Because only in the last year or so the voices of dissent have started breaking through the deafening noise of complacency and (in best case scenarios) indifference to the new status quo. A few former insiders both from Google and Facebook started to talk about the “tech arms race” to capture (and hold) our attention.

    The problem continues to be the same. What prevents fixes at system level is fragmentation of thought and effort — a few become outspoken heroes, people link, like, and point to several different ideas, maybe even discuss them, one or two people publish a book, but no movement comes of it.

    Yes, maybe at some point enough pressure creates some momentum for legislation or fines, but the underlying problems remain — without practice we lose the ability to use conversation as a tool to connect with others, to test ideas, to transform and evolve our relationships. Conversation is the point.

    Conversation is the next social network. Signs that we crave this kind of connection are everywhere. From the success of popular podcast where people essentially talk about themes or a topic and exchange ideas, to the overflowing networking-only events. It's not just about business, it's about being people reaching out to other people to talk, share stories.

    In Italy public conversations about philosophy and literature are overflowing with people leaning forward, asking questions. The desire to understand thought shared by humanity, make sense of things, engaged with big questions is alive… contemporary citizenship has become a frustrating experience. Talk about poor customer experience!

    Conversation is an emotional tool we have to negotiate meaning, to create strategic direction and impact, and much more. Yet we are unlearning how to stay in conversation long enough to benefit from it. An over reliance on writing is hurting our ability to speak in public (which is every situation when we speak out loud, unless we are alone.)

    When we are in conversation with others, we have the opportunity to both teach and learn — because we elaborate on our thought, and it benefits us and other people. We speak about important things the least with family. Sometimes we realize what could have been when it's too late to do a thing about it.

    Because we comment and not converse online, we lost the ability to call BS on things. Thinking is hard work, but it gets easier when we put more than one head together, constructively. When my father died two years ago, I realized we had left too much unsaid between us. We cannot take unspoken things back, but we also miss out when we don't talk with the people we want and have in our lives.

    We're armed with tools to our teeth and we've never been more isolated, lonely, and indifferent to the state of other people's lives. If we want to make any progress, we need to invite conversation back into our lives. Being busy at being awesome is not a good excuse. None of us is coming out of this alive.

    Books, white papers, articles, stories, even sms are but an invitation to have a conversation — “content” is an artifact, a social object some call it, to initiate a conversation; not an end in itself, but a beginning. We cannot expect to get any good at conversation if we hardly ever practice.

     When was the last time you called a friend, walked and talked with a colleague, had coffee with your siblings?


    See also Bill Nye on conversations are not a promotional opportunity, Malcolm Gladwell and Brian Grazer on genius and curiosity, the power of conversation to discover and appreciate reality, the experience of having the conversation, and how focusing on the process of connection makes the work much more enjoyable.