By way of conclusion, I would like to evoke a question to which social scientists have not provided a satisfactory answer yet. While ICT users are online friending and bonding and bridging, are they actually enlarging their personal social networks? This question has a bearing on social capital, social connectivity, social cohesion - all notions that are political in nature. Are people displaying impressive friends scores in social media actually surrounded by a richer, more supportive social environment than their less-connected counterparts? Or are they just adding names to a useless list - names of people they won't even keep in touch with, people they cannot actually take into account because after all, there's just a limited, finite amount of persons one can keep track of?
Those who have been looking into the question of the actual size of personal networks of internet users, have often focused on the cognitive limits of the number of individuals one can create ties with, both online and offline. Famously, in 1992 anthropologist Robin Dunbar proposed a rough estimate of 148
. The 'Dunbar's number' was the result of a large-scale study comparing the size of the neocortex in primates and humans. As the size of the neocortex can limit the number of individuals primates (both human and non-human) can keep track of, social group size vary according to brain volume.
One can question this measure as well as the very approach adopted by the anthropologist, yet it is interesting to observe how - since we have been focusing on that peculiar brand of primates that use the Internet - Dunbar's number has suddenly soared. In 1998 the figure pretty much doubled when social network analyst Peter Killworth contemplated a mean personal network size of 290
. And in 2010 that number doubled again, as Princeton sociologist Matthew Salganik settled for an estimate of 610 personal ties
. Although these studies did not exclusively focus on Web-based social media, we might make the educated guess that - as superficial acquaintances as well as strong personal relationships now build up on both online and offline interactions - maybe social networking utilities are a technological extension of our ancestral tendency to keep track of our fellow humans. We can recognize and keep in mind our most recent friends, some of our co-workers, very few of the people we meet everyday. But we also bump into people online, follow them on Twitter or eye them on Facebook. Sometimes these people are at the very center of our social network, close to our core of relations and associates. Sometimes they are at the periphery of our social life. Maybe social networking services are just a way of keeping center and periphery together in a more efficient way. Maybe, the jury's still out on that. We still don't know: these are just hypotheses that shape our work as sociologists.
What is clear is that now that our research field has significantly expanded its initial knowledge base - and that the myth of the socially isolate computer bum has been replaced by an empirically documented figure of a connected individual - we have to direct our attention to the conditions allowing our contemporaries to fine tune (sometimes effortlessly, sometimes laboriously) an increasing number of persons they consider as relevant to their social existence.
While doing this, we mustn't forget that today's Internet users are also subject to an increasing number of political threats. As social scientists and as "political animals", we have the duty to denounce these dangers. If, as I have maintained, computer-mediated communication relies upon a prudent mix of social density (our "little boxes") and social openness (our "long bridges"), state powers and corporate giants cannot be allowed to throw either one of this mechanisms out of gear. Yet this is exactly what is happening as we speak. From China to France to the US, governmental campaigns to censor the Net jeopardize its openness. Liberticide laws, like the French LOPPSI 2 (Loi d'Orientation et de Programmation pour la Sécurité Intérieure), international campaigns against free speech like the one recently orchestrated against Wikileaks, bandwidth or content restriction plurilateral agreements (like the ACTA Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement), constrain net neutrality and empower Internet gatekeepers. If in the next few years the fragmentation of the Internet in small national, commercial, and infrastructure subnetworks will continue at the present pace - the creation of long bridges might become impossible. On the other hand, our little boxes are in danger of disappearing too. Companies like Google and Facebook act as de facto
moral entrepreneurs, influencing media, lobbying politicians and bullying users into renouncing privacy and personal data ownership. The double standards of such transparency-happy organizations - always willing to harvest their users information while remaining utterly secretive to their own - result in periodic privacy disasters, exposure of personal details as well as potential trust bond breaking and life trajectories disruption for their users.
Our role in the next few years is not only to help understand a technological and social phenomenon, but also to help shape a political agenda that propels the best and limits the worst of what the Internet can bring to us.