Oct 2, 2013 ยท 3 minutes

You'd think it would be easy to identify a social network.

They're the websites that allow people to pretend that their lives can be crammed into profile pages and messages. The services that encourage people to spend increasing amounts of time within their ecosystems so they can appease the media, advertisers, and other institutions that wish to know everything about everyone. The companies whose main products, despite every announcement or update, are the people who visit their websites or launch their apps every day.

The truth, as always, is more complicated. An increasing number of services allow people to share images, videos, and other miscellanies without requiring them to actually communicate with other users. Conversations aren't limited to so-called social networks, but that doesn't mean that the comments section of a news article could be considered a cousin to Facebook, does it? And what of companies like LinkedIn or Twitter, which depend on the activities of hundreds of millions of people but are used primarily as professional or information networks instead of casually social tools?

Put another way: what the fuck is a social network?

Seemingly every service that allows people to communicate in some way has been called a social network at one time or another. Before its shutdown, Google Reader had a surprising number of users who relied on the aggregation tool to communicate. Tumblr, which allows people to post their own thoughts as well as the many animated GIFs and other entertaining items they find across the Web, has been seen as a threat to services like Facebook because teenagers use it instead of the social networking wunderkind. Even YouTube, the website with the world's worst comments section, has been called a social network.

It would have been easy enough to simply label every website featuring a text box through which people can communicate with other people -- whether it's in a dedicated comments section, a messaging system, or a method to broadcast that persons' thoughts and life to anyone interested in either -- as a social network. Sure, it would have made the term a vestige of the so-called social revolution, but it would have been nice and simple.

And then we had to go and describe services like Nextdoor, SnapChat, Twitter, and LinkedIn as "anti-social networks," which is an even vaguer term. It's like trying to describe something as the anti-who's-a-what's-it without first explaining what a who's-a-what's-it is and, frankly, it's making my head hurt.

Sarah has described anti-social networks as companies that "do what Facebook couldn't do, by design." They restrict the number of users who can sign on to the service, they don't encourage social interactions, and they eschew public sharing for intimate solutions. They aren't really anti-social so much as they are focused on making it easier to communicate with a small group of people instead of the entire world. (Hell Is Other People, a service that helps people avoid their friends by accessing Foursquare's data, on the other hand, is a real anti-social network.)

Perhaps the answer can be found by thinking of social networks as cities (though Facebook with its 1 billion users is more like a particularly large country) and these so-called anti-social networks as gated communities. Both allow people to communicate with each other and express themselves to the people around them -- the difference is that one allows anyone to talk about anything while the other allows a few people to discuss relatively few things.

The terms are still meaningless. But at least now there's some semblance of order to an otherwise unordered category that allows any website with social features to declare itself a social network. Now if we could only determine what exactly an "enterprise company" is, we'd be all set.