Thursday, December 30, 2010

What social media does for us -- we now have more in common with the Duchess

Last week, Oxford Univesity evolutionary anthropology professor, Robin Dunbar, wrote in The New York Times about how "Facebook and other social networking sites allow us to keep up with friendships that would otherwise rapidly wither away." For most of us, our (on average) 150 or so friends are geographically dispersed, frequenty around the world. Social networks provide a mechanism (technology) that keep us linked over time and across space. In some ways, we are always sharing, linked, and together. And these "friends" in our social networks are mixed groups -- family, neighbors, people we grew up with and went to school with, work colleagues, people we met last summer, people we sold something to or bought something from . . . etc.

I couldn't help but realize how similar this world of social media "friends" available to us today is to the network of people and places that revolve around the life of Deborah Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire -- someone with whom I usually have fairly little in common. I had just read Mitford's engaging and fun memoir, Wait for Me! (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010). Being the Duchess of Devonshire (her husband, head of the Cavendish family, one of the richest and most influential families in Britain since the 16th century) means that she has a network of family, employees, tennants, and a social set that is widely dispersed and enormously varied. This network has its own self-perpetuating communications channels, calendars, schedules, and traditions -- with established, reliable mechanisms (technologies) for interaction (sharing, keeping in touch). A lot like my Facebook page.

The rich are still not like the rest of us. But wealth is no longer a necessary condition for establishing and maintaining a widely dispersed and varied network of personal contacts, intimate and businesslike, across time and space.