Tufekci on the new social physics

June 6th, 2008

Zeynep Tufekci gave a very interesting talk on “A Different Kind of Social Physics: Online Communities and the Revolution in the Architecture of Our Social Spaces” at the JHU Applied Physics Lab last week.

Dr. Tufekci is an assistant professor in UMBC’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology and has interests in the social impacts of technology and social computing. What is somewhat unusual for a Sociologist, I assume, is that her undergraduate degree is in computer science and she worked as a programmer before getting her PhD in Sociology.

Her talk made some very interesting points about how the new environments created by social computing systems differ from the ones we have evolved to adapt to.

“Everyday, tens of millions of people chat, text, email, poke, twitter, IM and facebook (and, yes, that is a verb). They do what people have always done: they make friends and mark enemies, they assert and seek status, they look for affirmation and for connection, they check out the competition and, above all, they seek the comfort of community. Contrary to earlier predictions, people do not undertake revolutionary, unheard of acts just because the medium is new. In fact, the rise of social computing is hardly surprising to social scientists: we know this is what people do. The significance of this development lies from not the acts themselves but in the characteristics of the environment.
      The social physics of online communities are starkly different than those of the offline world — and that has far-reaching consequences. A different type of optics, audience, persistence, traversability and other structural attributes combine to create a different kind of social architecture. However, all evidence so far shows that most people bring to this new medium the cultural vocabulary of the regular, offline world (and, indeed, what else could they do?). This talk will explore the potential consequences of millions of mundane acts performed in a new kind of medium, as well as research opportunities presented by this revolution in the shape of our sociality.”

She was able to illustrate her points with examples gathered from the students in her classes about how their social lives are lived out through systems like Facebook.

Zeynep’s presentation slides are available.