The theory of the centripetal Internet : How globalizing is social media ?

Facebook and similar websites took our social life to the cloud. They digitized it. It feels as if we chose to offshore that thing we call "social life" to a country that goes by the name of "The Internet". And if the Internet does have a globalizing effect (Argument n°1), it might mean that social digital media will also have a globalizing effect (Argument n°2). Only Argument n°1 is ... arguable. One brilliant TED talk by Ethan Zuckerman (that has the effect of a cold bucket of water thrown on the back of any Web over-excited Aficionado) reminds us of how un-optimal the globailizing effect of the Web is

[ted id=916]

One might even wonder if the web isn't un-globalizing the world by making it easier for each and every one to access more easily only the information he's been wanting to access : His own, his area's, his country's. Yes, the Internet does open up horizons, just as low-cost flights open up the horizons of infinite, numerous trips. But do we really grasp these cheap trip opportunities ? Do we really check what's happening in Mongolia that often just because, now, it's possible ?

And what if I told you that in five years Chinese will be the dominant language of the Web ? Will you start learning Mandarin or will you just hope most of what you read will stay in the same language ?

Are we local by nature ? Do we prefer proximity ?

I've been looking at the map of online communities lately :

2007

2010

Isn't it crazy how much it has changed ?

It feels like we're seeing civilizations like the Mayas and the Aztecs and the Incas rise and fall but instead of it happening over hundreds of years, it's happening in the course of two to three years ! Our civilization has moved online ! And you might be a national of many of the countries shown above : Both a farmviller and a twitterer and a Facebooker right ?

But inside every nation, you can bet that the clusters of friends and network are pretty near geographically. Let me repeat this : Geographically yes. THE INTERNET IS A CENTREPETAL FORCE, not centrifugal. It strenghtens communities, it doesn't open them up. So back to my question. Are we local by nature ? Do we prefer proximity ? I may not be sure but I do know this :

"Proximity overpowers similarity" as Gladwell puts it in "The Tipping Point". The nearer we are to those who are like us, the more we will tend to interact with them. In other terms, 10 years ago, for you to overcome that tendency to chat/mail/speak/share/communicate with those who are like you, I would have had to put you in a jungle with Amazonian indians (unless you are an Amazonian indian reading this blog), far from every person you know

Only today it would be useless : The Internet makes it so you can still chat/mail/speak/share/communicate whatever your new environment. Eventually you'll meet new people. But the web roots you in your original community in a way. Because your community is in the cloud ! And you are too !

Peter Warden showed how community clusters formed in the US over Facebook :

But more incredibly, a Facebook data intern has shown the world how similar it is online than it is in reality when it comes to social links :

The whiter the line the more the links and Facebook friendships. Does it look familiar ? Some migt say it's only natural that the social web reflects our social world. I agree. But what I'd like to know is how this map above will change in the years to come. Will it become all white with links covering the seas and the oceans or will it evolve into the exact same map of our world as new users start using Facebook ?

My question is simple really : Is the Web a mirror of our society or the trend-turned-tool-turned-phenomenon that will change it from within ?