Commonality and Difference

Lada Adamic, a researcher at HP Labs, studied the users of an online student centre at Stanford called Club Nexus and found that two students were likely to be friends if their interests overlapped, and that the likelihood rose if the shared interests were more specific. (Two people who like fencing are likelier to be friends than two people who like football.) The net effect is that it’s easier to like people who are odd in the same ways you are odd, but it’s harder to find them.

I just read this in Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody. It’s an impressively succinct statement but it’s focus on transaction costs (the easiness of liking people, the difficulty of finding them) obscures the over-arching significance of the issue. What does it mean to talk about the ‘ways you are odd’? These amount to difference i.e. the ways in which we differ from others in society. However where there is difference, there is always the potential for commonality. Some of the music I like is appreciated by very few of the people I encounter in day-to-day life – thus it’s a difference – though, conversely, it’s also a commonality with regards to a small number of people who are part of my life, as well as a much greater number of people who I don’t personally know but whose existence I’m aware of through various means (e.g. seeing them at gigs, reading fan sites, knowing that people other than myself buy certain music).

So there’s a difference which is actual, in the sense that it’s a property (though not necessarily an acknowledge, recognised or relevant one) of ongoing relationships I negotiate on an everyday basic. But notwithstanding the handful of friends whom share my taste in music, the commonality is only potential. I may share a room with a crowd of people at a gig but there’s no ongoing relationship with them. The commonality is an incidental property of the aggregate crowd (an individual appreciation of the same music has contingently led to its assembly in the room) and, in many cases, it explains at least part of why groups of friends are together at the gig, but it has no relational existence beyond this. However the potential commonality can often easily be actualised because, as Shirky puts it, “it’s easier to like people who are odd in the same ways you are odd’. In my life I’ve had countless relatively shallow (in the sense that the conversation stays on one topic) though very pleasant chats with random people at gigs about the band we’re seeing. A shared taste in music has also been the basis for sustaining some long-term friendships in spite of a lack of geographical proximity.

This is because commonality and difference are important things in human relationships.  At any point in time there’s a balance between the former and the latter which is partly constitutive of any particular relationship. Furthermore there’s a balance between the two in terms of the net ensemble of our personal relationships. In either case our fluctuating proclivities and unfolding biographies leave this balance standing as more or less satisfying. My partner and I might try and do more things together because we feel our relationship needs more commonality to counterbalance the difference which results from an array of separate interests. I might actively seek out people who share a particular interest with me because I come to find it unsatisfying to have too few people to share conversations, activities and plans relating to those interests with. We’re always bound up within networks of relationships (what the philosopher Charles Taylor calls webs of interlocution) and a large part of the moral-existential texture of our life is shaped by continually changing balance between commonality and difference which define these relationships. Furthermore we regularly take action to change this balance, though obviously not conceiving the issue at stake in this sort of terminology.

The important thing Shirky is pointing to is the way that social media is reshaping the dynamics through which such changes can occur. It’s easier than ever to actualise potential commonalities because the internet massively reduces the difficulty involved in connecting with others who share an interest. Furthermore the mediated connections it facilitates can easily rise to unmediated (i.e. face to face) connections. In fact the growing majority within society who use the internet renders the interpenetration of offline & online networks inevitable, to the point that the boundary between the two becomes intrinsically ambiguous.

The internet has radically changed the interface between commonality and difference within society because it has made it easy to connect with similar others who we might not otherwise encounter in our everyday life. The growth of the asexuality community can be seen in these terms. What started with online interaction on message boards and blogs has given rise to something which is, in a very real sense, a community. Some of this communal life is played out offline, though much still happens online. In fact it’s the latter, particularly the perpetual discussion & deliberation about personal experience, which explains the formation of the community. Social media offers heretofore unparalleled opportunities not just for making connections but for articulation and elaboration of the commonalities which underlie such connections. In doing so the relationships involved changed but so do the people themselves. Online discussion within the asexual community has spawned a rich vocabulary replete with concepts which become a part of how the individuals involved see their selves and see their lives.