I predict a riot: facebook, social groups, symbols and jargon

It’s a human instinct to form groups. Whether it’s families, football teams, churches or schools we have an in-built urge to group together and connect with others. We are social animals: this is why social networking sites are so popular. It’s not due to technology; it’s because they fulfil a basic human need.

We do more than simply passively form groups though. We adopt symbols to identify group members. Whether it’s through clothing, anthems or jargon, we encourage the cohesion of our group and are hostile to outsiders. We over-emphasize the similarity of people within our group, and exaggerate the differences of those outside it. Blacks and whites, Catholics and Protestants, Yankees and Red Sox: there’s much more similarity between – and less within – these groups than we want to admit.

Facebook, myspace and other social networking sites let us form groups in new ways. As we group in new ways, we’ll find new ways of marking out our groups and defining them in opposition to others. Initially, this will just reflect hostility and competition in the real world. Soccer club Everton have an ‘Anti-Everton People’ facebook group (‘for all people who hate the TOFFEES throughout the world’), presumably populated by fans of rival Liverpool. Manchester United’s captain has a facebook network dedicated to him. The ‘Gary Neville is a Wanker’ network has 14,413 members and 3,115 wall posts.

As the internet makes it easy to form groups, it also makes it easy to subvert them. Anybody can pretend to be a member of your group, and harm it from within. The ‘Anti-Everton People’ group is now a closed one because of attacks from Everton defenders.

The fragility of social groups makes jargon and symbols more important. You need to distinguish those who really do belong from those just pretending. If you’re a paedophile sharing child porn then you want to be very sure that your friends are who they claim to be and not federal agents. Customs, symbols and language are one way of doing that.

As technology catches up with human behaviour, we’ll find new ways to antagonise as well as befriend. We’ll also find new ways of protecting our groups from outsiders, and to infiltrate others’ groups.

Here’s one thing that might happen. Currently, networks on Facebook are defined by individuals who have self-selected. You place yourself in the groups you think you belong to. In real life, there is another way to form groups: other people can categorise us. Sooner or later, this will happen in the virtual world too. We will have individual, private tags (an enemies list, for example). We will also be able to socially tag others. If enough people place you in a particular group, then you are tagged. If people consistently label you as ‘asshole’, ‘Manchester United supporter’ or ‘fun to be with’ then that label will stick.

Right now, words are the weapons of choice for competing social groups. But who knows what Facebook widgets, APIs and other new tools will bring. I predict a riot …