C: Community Ripples

This theme explores the nature of digital social media and asks how we can make social media that act as a convivial tool to enhance communication between autonomous persons. We aim to develop a practical tool – a prototype site – that offers an alternative to the broadcasting model of consumerism and data surrender that has come to characterise most “social networking”.

Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist, has demonstrated through anthropological, historical, and sociological research that people appear unable to sustain more than 140 friendships and that this limit has its origin in the evolution of the human species. He suggests that people have 4-6 very close friends, 15 or so close friends, another thirty moderately close friends, and about 100 people they regard as friends but may not feel particularly close to. An image of this model of friendship bears no resemblance to a network but looks instead like a series of ripples getting weaker as they spread across a social pool.

The change of metaphor from “the network” to “the pool” raises practical and theoretical questions. People belong to many different pools that overlap in different ways and at different strengths. Everyone seems located at the centre of their own pool, yet everyone occupies other places in other pools. Everyone’s self-perception results from their observations of the various ripples that wash against them.

We intend to look at how these overlaps actually work by bringing together existing research and conducting our own inquiries. We will also ask what so-called social software might look like if designed explicitly to service a social pool: if it adopted rippling rather than networking as its metaphor.

This work will form the basis of a number of student projects. We will aim to produce several papers detailing different aspects of social rippling as well as a fully functioning prototype of ripple-based software to act as a springboard for public discussion. Based on the results of this discussion we will refine the prototype. We regard this as a tool for fostering debate as well as encouraging new online practices.