Saturday, May 10, 2014

Latent City

A couple of decades ago, social network analysis was a fairly recondite branch of sociology and anthropology applying mathematical matrices to social relationships.  And then there was Facebook.  With the widespread adoption of social networking sites (SNS), several things happened.  First, these social networks utilized the same graph theory and matrices that social network analysis had applied to social relations.  Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and other social networking services are analyzing your social network data constantly, mining your information for friend recommendations (and to better sell you to advertisers).  Second, courtesy of the enormous popularity of SNS, we now initiate and maintain social relations based on those same matrices.  In other words, from an abstract representation of social relations, social network theory becomes generative of actual social relations; we relate to each other according to matrix logics of tie strength and degree centrality—a neat inversion of the usual relationship between empirical observation and theoretical interpretation.

And so, social network analysis can be said to have a profound impact on social lives.  But does it end there?  In South Korea (where I do fieldwork), social networking sites are overwhelming utilized through smart phones; people tweet or Facebook from their mobile devices.  As with any SNS platform, this means that people are making (and re-making) social connections with each other, but it also means that people are connecting to place in complex ways.  Even if gelocation is disabled, these social media still have this embodied dimension—they’re not just tweets, but tweets in a particular place at a particular time.

Photo courtesy Michael Najjar and wikicommons
Image courtesy Michael Najjar and wikicommons

But more than this: just as theories and methods for social network analysis can be said to structure our social lives through SNS, so the city itself can be said to be re-forged according to social networking logic.  For example, one of the most useful concepts in social network analysis is tie-strength and particularly the distinction between strong ties and weak ties.  Our daily round builds strong ties with places around us, ties that are reinforced through multiplex relationships to place as the embodiment and practice of social life, memory and bodily hexis.  On the other hand, we also form numerous weak ties with places and neighborhoods that lie on the interstices of our daily round.  Less places we know then places we know of, weak ties to place form the connective tissue between islands of strong ties in the city.

With the advent of gelocational apps, social networking sites have become very good at showing our tie-strength to place.  Foursquare, for example, rewards strong ties (and renders them visible) through granting users “mayorship” over places they frequent.  In addition, it encourages the exploitation of weak ties through the assignation of badges for checking in a new place.

However: social networking sites are also useful in rendering latent ties.  Haythornthwaite (2002) defines a latent tie as one “for which a connection is available technically but that has not yet been activated by social interaction” (289).  Social media generate vast clouds of low-density relationships: thousands of friends with weak or entirely absent connections to us and to each other.  And yet, these ties aren’t entirely useless; they can be activated through circumstance and initiative—e.g., a sudden move to a new city stimulates you to mine your social contacts for advice.  In this, social networking sites like Facebook are latent tie machines, enabling users to construct reservoirs of potential relations that can be maintained nearly indefinitely with little effort.

Could the same be true of our socially networked relationship to urban spaces?  In other words, do social media construct latent ties to geography?  In many ways, we are already tied to place in networked ways.  Network theorists have long looked at structural equivalence of actors in a network: people in similar positions not only have similar roles, but similar relationships to others vis-à-vis that position in a network.  For example, professors may not know each other, but they tend to have the same sorts of connections (in terms of directionality, tie strength, etc.) as other professors.   In a similar ways, our identities involve multiple, structural relationships to space, especially through race, gender and class.  Indeed, these are generally over-determined relationships in U.S. cities, leading to hyper-segregation by race and class.

But social media suggest other latencies.  Let’s say that you’ve become involved with the Baltimore & Maryland Workers Assembly in your support for an increased minimum wage.  You go to their Facebook page to find out information about their May Day rally in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor (Peoples Power Assembly)—and perhaps you post up your own memorable photo or video clip from the event.  Now, you have a latent connection to a few hundred other people who have posted or liked the page—not even a weak tie, but something that could develop into one if you followed up on these latent relationships.  In the same way, the page facilitates spatial latencies—in this case, to other rallies for worker’s rights, both in Baltimore, and beyond (Washington, D.C., Detroit, etc.).  You may never contact the other people affiliated (however tenuously) with the Baltimore & Maryland Workers Assembly.  Similarly, you may never attend future rallies in Baltimore or Washington, D.C.  But those spaces nevertheless carry a certain latency—a networked signification that could become activated when, say, minimum wage legislation again comes up in Maryland’s Assembly.

Multiply these latencies over and over again through diverse social media, and the city looks less like a series of physical spaces than a charged field through which we move, each structure or square a potential connection or action that precedes our conscious decisions to move or act.  And while this offers new possibilities for knowledge and practice, it also seems to confirm Orwellian fears of a surveillance state that is prepared to exploit this data in order to limit our movements: a latent city that connects to us with infinite filaments of power and politics.

Previous published in Anthropology News.