Five years ago on my old blog I wrote a piece which described Twitter as an optimal relational field where I attributed some of the then young site’s success on the balance and clarity it fostered in the relationship between users.
I was reminded of it today as I learned that Twitter was adding a Mute feature.
Here’s the full piece:
Twitter and the Relational Field
When people interact, very little attention is paid to the spaces between them, the field upon which they are interacting. Nevertheless, this space is an incredibly important part of the interaction. The energy behind the correspondence, the relationship of the participants, the implicit rules of the setting, the physical surroundings…
I call the space in between people’s interactions the relational field. Im borrowing the phrase from relational psychology which posits that humans are inherently social and that no personality exists independent of relationships. Think about it, the dependent personality must have others to lean on and the domineering personality must have others to boss around and so on..
A few years ago on my old blog I used a baseball diamond as a metaphor for the optimal relational field:
In the movie The Field of Dreams, the baseball diamond serves as a rich metaphor precisely because the one the Kinsellas build in their corn field carries with it relational meaning - from being a place where a ball is thrown back and forth purposely between members of a team to representing a game where countless fathers and sons have bonded both literally in games of catch to figuratively in their inherited common interest in the home team..The baseball diamond contains many attributes inherent in the constructive relational field. It is a simple space with clean lines and defined dimensions while at the same time connoting openness and free space where team members can chase down fly balls or slide in the dirt. The diamond wonderfully balances structure and freedom, a fundamental dialectic in human relations.
I bring all this up because I like to think of the online social network as a relational field as it too is the space within which people interact. I think by framing the socnet as such I can glean some insight into structure, process, function and ultimately optimality.
The optimal relational field
The relational field has attributes such as clarity, contingency, complexity and structure and relational psychologists know a good bit about how the qualities of these features affect the development of relationships.
The optimal relational field is one that has the potential to foster enduring authentic relationships. It is defined by clarity and a balance between a control and freedom dialectic. Clarity implies that the rules of the field are understandable and contingent. That is, the participants get the rules and sense that there is an internal fairness to them.
Balance within a control and freedom dialectic implies that there is enough structure to maintain the field while at the same time allowing for the participants to express themselves authentically and without fear of noncontingent retribution.
Twitter as an Optimal Relational Field
Its my sense that a primary (and not yet discussed) reason why twitter has grown so quickly and produced so many loyal participants is that it provides the closest we have seen yet to an optimal relational field among the online social networks.
To begin, the level of clarity is high. That is, everyone understands the rules. If you are interested, you can follow someone and she can freely choose to reciprocate or not. Likewise, someone, if she is interested, can choose to follow you and you can choose to reciprocate or not. Further, while the default is openness one has the choice to prefer and adopt a higher degree of privacy by either choosing a private account or blocking specific followers. This is simple, straightforward and intuitively reasonable.
Next, the dialectic between control and freedom is well balanced. On the one hand, there is a clear structure to the site as expressed in the above paragraph, but on the other hand, there is also an incredible openness in terms of what can be discussed, shared, linked and retweeted. As I wrote above,
It is a simple space with clean lines and defined dimensions while at the same time connoting openness and free space where team members can chase down fly balls or slide in the dirt.
The optimal nature of Twitter as a relational field is one of the critical reasons why the platform is growing quickly. The balance of the control/freedom dialectic fosters an environment which allows for connection with others and a broad range of types of communications. It is no surprise we are finding so much innovation atop the platform, such fertile soil…
It seems to me that the new feature will cloud the relational field by decreasing the clarity of the relationship between users. In the big scheme of things, its probably a minor erosion in product quality.