Monday, March 14, 2011

Adaptive Social Inclusion Networks

I'm a bit of a hermit, but if I go too long without hanging out with friends, I get a little buggy. As I've gotten older, it's gotten harder to hang out with friends. I think this is probably true of everyone: as people get older, their social circles seem to stagnate. Perhaps this is just because many people get married, and living with their spouse is a fair amount of social interaction.

Well, regardless of the reason, it got me thinking. If I wanted to hang out in college, I just popped down to the lounge and there were always people around. Even if I didn't know any of them, it was always easy to just pick out a geek and start up a conversation. Now that I'm over thirty, I don't do that any more. A) I'm not on a college campus, and B) most people my age aren't randomly hanging around hoping to get talked to.

When it comes to socializing, there are a lot of subtle challenges, largely falling into three groups.

The first problem is the age segregation culture. In American culture, we seem to have decided that the only people who can hang out together are people within a few years of age. This wasn't really a noticeable problem when I was young, because as long as you're in school, you're in a place where there are loads of people your own age in close proximity all the time. Now, I don't have anything against people my own age, but there's no incubator for my current age bracket. The density is too low.

This age segregation is a huge problem. I think it's probably one of the worst parts of American culture, and it spells demise for any circle of friends. Without a continuous stream of fresh blood, any group will wither away as the years pass.

Even though I'm perfectly happy to ignore any cultural norm that irks me, this age seg issue is a real barrier to people like me, who aren't really very social.

The second category of issues for social groups is pre-existing social mixing groups. For example, I can go to a skeptic's meeting, or a cartoonist's con, or any number of other existing groups. Generally, these groups break down the age segregation barrier somewhat, depending on their nature. The skeptic's meeting has a wide age range, but something like an anime convention is going to be mostly young people.

Social groups like this have existed pretty much forever. Any given church is an example. By joining a social group, you can get your socialization even if your best friends move away. And if you like your social groups to actually accomplish something, you can simply join one that accomplishes something.

However, these pre-existing groups are as much a curse as a blessing. They have two serious flaws.

One is that they have a defined set of parameters. Most of these groups meet on specific days at specific times for specific reasons. They don't really "hang out". Meetings are not my idea of socialization: there are too many people and too much noise. In order to manufacture a less aggressive setting, you have to make friends with people and manually arrange to meet them at some other time, a process which gets steadily harder as the age bracket gets older. This same problem is exacerbated by the fact that the organizers of a group want to feel like they are doing something, and tend to fill every minute of meeting time with stuff.

The other flaw with pre-existing groups is that they lag behind the times. These groups don't really use the internet very well.

Even if the group is really new, it is still a defined group. You can come participate, we plan for an event this Tuesday! How oldschool: it's almost certainly possible to enhance this kind of situation using a more adaptive scheduler that weaves together micro-meetings. Of course, that would feel very weird, culturally speaking. We're too used to these oldschool groups, which is why we keep doing them that way.

The third major set of issues is the internet.

It's very easy to make friends on the internet, and hang out with random people on the internet. However, I feel that this is not a good substitute for face time. Maybe when I have 3D wall projectors that make it feel like they're in the same room with me, yeah. But for now, face time is hundreds of times more effective at filling my need to hang out.

The internet is a great organizer, but it is a poor taskmaster. While I can build a social tool that creates micro-meetups, if nobody goes, then it's a big waste of time.

This problem is made a hundred times worse by the nature of the internet itself, which actively discourages leaving your home. If you think NEETs are only in Japan, you are kidding yourself. Hell, the term NEET is originally a UK term.

Even people who are gainfully employed often spend most of their free time on the internet.

There's nothing inherently bad about this, but I think it's good to get out of the house. Hell, I use the internet for productive results, and I still would like to hang out with friends. I guess I sound like someone's mom, but spending face time with people is very valuable: you don't have to stop using the internet, but you should at least talk to your friends in person from time to time.


All this extensive chattering has been leading up to this thought exercise: can we create an Adaptive Social Inclusion Network? An ASIN fills one particular role: it gets people who have a hard time socializing to hang out.

In order for an ASIN to properly function, it needs:

1) No age barriers. It should welcome a wide variety of ages, preferably all ages. Not just on paper, but by the fundamental way it works.

2) No lifestyle barriers. It should welcome a wide variety of people living different kinds of lives. Someone who has only a few free hours a week, someone who just popped over from Indonesia to tour the area, someone who has loads of free time but spends the rest of it playing WoW...

3) No viewpoint barriers. It should welcome as many different kinds of people as possible. "Variety is the spice of life" is especially true when you're talking about socializing. If you're not irritated at a friend's stupidity at least once a month, you probably haven't really got any friends.

4) Fresh blood. It should actively welcome new members and strangers.

5) Adaptive meetups. It should schedule little mini-meetings to have random groups of 4-10 do something fun. For example, watching a terrible movie, or learning how to draw. This requires some amount of scheduling knowledge on the part of the software, to try and guess who will be available for what, where, and when. It also requires you to have a variety of mini-meeting subjects to keep people interested.

6) Taskmastering. You need to be able to pull in hermits. This is probably the most difficult, because it really can't be done with software. You need a real human to interact with the hermits to badger them into coming not just to the main meetings, but to the mini-meetings. This doesn't have to be aggressive: an email written by a real person would probably do the trick for anyone active enough to actually join the ASIN in the first place. A kind of karma system for people who email other people would probably work.

7) Acknowledging multiple kinds of social needs. People socialize in different ways. For example, I can't stand parties: if there's more than half a dozen people, I get a tremendous headache. Also, I prefer to talk about cool things and maybe work on small projects together, rather than just watch a movie. I'm happier sketching out a comic book with someone than playing poker with them.

a) Attention needs to be paid to people who are at a meeting or mini-meeting and not enjoying themselves. They don't necessarily need to be forced to enjoy the meeting, but you should at least change their category so they are invited to meetings that are more their speed/with people they are likely to get along with.

b) Self-improvement is a valuable goal that some people will want to pursue. It's worth mentioning this specifically, because it has to be handled gently. When people hear "self-improvement" they hear something desperate, but the truth is that most people want to improve themselves, and having friends of the right sorts is often the best way to go about it.

c) Cooperative tasks and "pester-helping" are also worth mentioning. There are many people who are working on something cool as a hobby or self-employment task. Having friends that pester them about it means it's far more likely to get done. If you stop working on a game and your buddy comes up, face to face, and asks you when the next stage will be done... you'll probably start programming again.

d) Sex and romance are always touchy subjects. I don't have any real opinion on them in this context, except to say that there probably needs to be a pretty strict policy about it. Do whatever you want on your own time, but if you're at a mini-meet, don't cross the line. Whatever that line was defined to be.

e) "Ally clusters": most people are very strongly influenced by their friends. A way to massage who hangs out with who would go a long way towards keeping people happy and productive, if that's what they want to be. This might be impossible, though: the software would need to be brilliantly designed to understand things so deeply.


So, that's the sort of thing I've been thinking about recently.

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