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    « Are social media, social? (Part Two) | Main | President's Convocation Speech of 2010 - Emily Carr University »

    Are social media, social?

    Warning: This is a long article and not necessarily suitable to a glance. (See below on glances.)

    I have been thinking a great deal about social media these days not only because of their importance, but also because of their ubiquity. There are some fundamental contradictions at work here that need more discussion. Let's take Twitter. Some people have thousands of followers. What exactly are they following? And more crucially, what does the word follow mean in this context?

    Twitter is an endless flow of news and links between friends and strangers. It allows and sometimes encourages exchanges that have varying degrees of value. Twitter is also a tool for people who don't know each other to learn about shared interests. These are valuable aspects of this tightly wrought medium that tend towards the interactivity of human conversation.

    On the other hand, Twitter like many Blogs is really a broadcast medium. Sure, followers can respond. And sometimes, comments on blog entries suggest that a "reading" has taken place. But, individual exchanges in both mediums tend to be short, anecdotal and piecemeal.

    The general argument around the value of social media is that at least people can respond to the circulation of conversations and that larger and larger circles of people can form to generate varied and often complex interactions. But, responses of the nature and shortness that characterize Twitter are more like fragments — reactions that in their totality may say important things about what we are thinking, but within the immediate context of their publication are at best, broken sentences that are declarative without the consequences that often arise during interpersonal discussions. So, on Twitter we can make claims or state what we feel with few of the direct results that might occur if we had to face our ‘followers’ in person.

    Blogs and web sites live and die because they can trace and often declare the number of ‘hits’ they receive. What exactly is a hit? Hit is actually an interesting word since its original meaning was to come upon something and to meet with…. In the 21st century, hits are about visits and the more visits you have the more likely you have an important web presence. Dig into Google Analytics and you will notice that they actually count the amount of time ‘hitters” spend on sites. The average across many sites is no more than a few seconds. Does this mean that a hit is really a glance? And what are the implications of glancing at this and that over the period of a day or a month? A glance is by definition short (like Twitter) and quickly forgotten. You don’t spend a long time glancing at someone.

    Let’s look at the term Twitter a bit more closely. It is a noun that means “tremulous excitement.” But, its real origins are related to gossiping. And, gossiping is very much about voyeurism. There is also a pejorative sense to Twitter, chattering, chattering on and on about the same thing. So, we are atwitter with excitement about social media because they seem to extend our capacity to gossip about nearly everything which may explain why Justin Bieber has been at the top of discussions within the twitterverse. I am Canadian and so is he. Enough said.

    Back to follow for a moment. To follow also means to pursue. I will for example twitter about this blog entry in an effort to increase the readership for this article. In a sense, I want you the reader, to pursue your interest in social media with enough energy to actually read this piece! To follow also means to align oneself, to be a follower. You may as a result wish to pursue me @ronburnett.

    But the real intent of the word follow is to create a following. And the real intent of talking about hits is to increase the number of followers. All in all, this is about convincing people that you have something important and valuable to say which means that social media is also about advertising and marketing. This explains why businesses are justifiably interested in using social media and why governments are entering the blogosphere and the twitterverse in such great numbers.

    Here is the irony. After a while, the sheer quantity of Twitters means that the circle of glances has to narrow. Trends become more important than the actual content. Quantity rules just like Google, where the greater the number of hits, the more likely you will have a site that advertisers want to use. Remember, advertisers assume that a glance will have the impact they need to make you notice that their products exist. It is worth noting that glancing is also derived from the word slippery.

    As the circle of glances narrows, the interactions take on a fairly predictable tone with content that is for the most part, newsy and narcissistic. I am not trying to be negative here. Twitter me and find out.

    Part Two

    Reader Comments (11)

    Have you read about Dunbar's number? He determined that humans have the capacity to form relationships with a maximum of roughly 150 people, based on the evolution of the human brain from hunter-gatherer societies.

    It's very strange to finish university only to look at the job pool and see careers in what is essentially 'friending' people online. I find the concept fascinating, to think that an entirely new avenue has opened up in marketing and that businesses are now trying to monetize friendships.
    May 8, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterstephanie vacher
    Hi Ron,

    I agree with you in the sense that we need to debunk the various threads of digital utopianism. The phrase "social media" has utopianism embedded right within it, and common examples (as you point out with Twitter) are rarely social. There is more sociability (reciprocal engagement) in the lost form of letter writing, and certainly more in email (never cited as an example of "social" digital media) than in typical Twitter communications.

    Much like the term "mass collaboration", many of whose touted examples are neither mass nor collaboration.

    I think the real point is that much of the discourse around this whole set of topics is profoundly ideological, with various camps of digerati, media, academia presenting grand positions of positive or negative persuasion. This is rooted in the fact that leading digerati were active in the ideological hothouses of the 1960s and 1970s. There were crucial moments when some of these individuals and collectives managed to shape not only the ideas, but also the technologies and rules of engagement ("code" as Lessig says) of the Internet era. Many are still driven by that animus. Sometimes now as apologists for the very things they critiqued back then, but that's nothing new.

    There is of course a non-ideological alternative... to view digital media like any other media... a double edged sword, or in this case collection of swords (armoury?). Sometimes used to very good effect, sometimes very bad - and, like other media (paper, photography, print etc.) - not easily pigeonholed functionally let alone wrt impact. (A second, higher level analysis can only be empirical, post hoc, historical - eg. the impact of printing on civilization. Things happen faster now , but sixty years on can we yet tease out the impact of television on society as a whole?)

    The point, I think, is to name and unmask ideologies in general, and utopianism in particular. Fact-based rigor is usually useful for such things.


    May 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Ticoll
    one of the things that I find particularly disturbing about twitter is that both content (tweets and comments) and actions (following, unfollowing etc) can be preprogrammed and automated, so that in a way the slippery, glancing, gossipy exchanges become a machine conversation rather than a human one.
    May 8, 2010 | Unregistered Commentersuzi
    I na similar way, I sometimes wonder about the socal character of Facebook. At first, it really looks like a sort of public place with the news feeds coming in from the three hunderd «friends» I have with discussions, answers and comments to specific posts going on. Genuine and sometimes interesting exchanges are going on. No question about that and I enjoy it. But when I come to think that my public space (i.e. the news feed I get on my page)is not the same as the public space of all my «friends» because it is dependent on the specific list of "friends"of each of them, I wonder. What is a public space if it is not shared? It really is a new type of social order torn between the wish to communicate and exchange and an extreme form of individualism, as monitored by the opaque and blind forces (robots?) of the Facebook Team.
    May 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPierre Hébert
    Dunbar's number is very important. However, social media do allow a "stretching" beyond the norm. The question is how many people does one interact with at an honest, direct and really personal level? What I like about Twitter is the constant flow of information about what my 'friends' are doing and sometimes thinking. What I don't like is that I wouldn't under normal circumstances pick up the phone and continue the conversation.

    As to machine processing, I am not sure where the boundaries are and need to look into the extent to which these conversations from a marketing point of view default to the machine.

    Thanks to all for the comments!!
    May 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRon Burnett
    I wrote a longer reply but lost it in a crash. Perhaps it's better this way. I wanted to leave a glance-able thought:

    We see through glancing. Visual reality is a collage that our eyes are constantly producing through quick brief movements and moments.

    Given that technological advances are moving towards more natural ways of communicating (are they not?), perhaps this emerging reality of one second webpages, tweets and RSS distractions is our minds' way of seeing through our information landscape and trying to assemble a single coherent image.

    Perhaps it is a futile task, but it seems like a very innate and natural response to the information tools we have.
    May 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterIan Wojtowicz
    What I find most compelling about this first part of your analysis of social media, is your deconstruction of the language that has been assigned to these tools and behaviors that we use. I feel that this is crucial to us understanding our relationships with the technologies we use. We need to apply the same level of criticality to this language as we would with any other language. I’ve been thinking about this a lot and did a similar deconstruction of the term ‘user’ on my blog awhile back, in relation to an online discussion I had with a fellow Rhizome member surrounding the concept of ‘user’ described in the recent Digital Folklore book by Olia LIalina and Dragan Espenschield

    “...responses of the nature and shortness that characterize Twitter are more like fragments - reactions that in their totality may say important things about what we are thinking, but within the immediate context of their publication are at best, broken sentences that are declarative without the consequences that often arise during interpersonal discussions.”

    How often do we really step back and reflect on these fragments as connected elements within a larger dialogue/conversation/narrative? What might we learn about ourselves and others if we made it a ritual every few days, every week, to review our correspondence? What might we learn about the actual content, in addition to the trends of the communication process?

    This is basically why I feel strongly about artists making work that critically reflects upon these fragmented acts. I think it’s great that we now have a venue to record our instantaneous thoughts, however, I prefer the idea of it not only be a broadcast/recording medium but also an me, that’s the great thing about it.

    This is also why I am in favour of social networking tools being incorporated into education, ideally with creative approaches that allow us to step back and observe our actions. For instance, a spontaneous ongoing twitter session can be discussed and disected in relation to other related content, ongoing creative process and dialogue can be critically reviewed for a better understanding of how all the parts connect to the larger whole.’s even possible for this critical process to occur within the online systems since WE are the ones who choose what to do with the technology WE use.

    Sorry for the length of my’s obvious I’m a big believer in “blogalogueing”...
    May 10, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterheidi may
    What I find interesting about the deconstruction of the language here is its sexual undertones - circle of glances, pursue, twitter .... It took me a year to start using Twitter simply because I couldn't get over the name. For some reason it sounded like masturbation to me. And masturbatory writing has to be really good to be interesting ....

    I find Twitter to be most valuable in situations like the uprising in Iran last summer, or in a rapidly changing campaign (political or otherwise) context where contiguous and far reaching updates become useful to all users. There is also of course the poetic possibilities offered by the brevity of Twitter, but surprisingly I have yet to see this potential exploited with any regularity or elegance. I am not saying it doesn't exist, but certainly you'd have to look hard to find it. The norm is a clunky abbreviated sentence structure that resembles the short hand of yore - something that predates my generation and which I personally have no interest in reviving as a communication style.

    I quite enjoyed this article by Maureen Dowd (but then I like her writing):

    Another approach to the question of 'are social media, social?' could be, after using social media, do you feel like you've had a social experience? This leaves out the social value part of the question and focuses more on the feeling of the experience and what it does to the emotional body. The answer for me, surprisingly, is Yes. Even though I am not a fan (another word) of the quality of discourse on say, Facebook, I can and do leave an extended Facebook browsing session feeling much the way I do after leaving an actual visit with my friends - my emotional body is somewhat exercised and I am ready for work. This is not to say they are the same thing, but to find that there is any overlap in sensation at all surprised me. Why should it? The telephone accomplishes the same thing and I never wondered at that. What's different though is that the telephone is a highly personal, intimate, generally one on one mode of communication. Facebook is personal in as much as identity creation is concerned - the way people mark up their facebook or myspace pages reminds me of an expanded version of the way students once marked up their notebooks or young adults invariably recorded a highly personal outgoing message (usually with music) on their first answering machine - their gateway to the world and small space in which to declare 'this is me.' So although social networking sites have expanded this space, the interactions that occur within it are more communal and less personal. We might ask what is the cumulative effect and value for us of such increased impersonal or group communications. The obvious upside is that as Ron pointed out we connect and cross paths with people (and interests) that we otherwise might not have, and can perhaps articulate ourselves into the whole of society with more accuracy than we could before. What is the downside to a de-personalized communication forum as the personal norm?
    May 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterValery Lyman
    Valerie, do you mind if I cut and paste a section of your post into a project I am doing here: (and possibly on the facebook page for this project too?) Maybe I will try and track you down on FB and "friend" you :)

    May 22, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterheidi may

    Of course you can use it! (see you there).

    May 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterValery Lyman
    Ron, I found you through Twitter, interestingly enough. A librarian I follow linked to your series. I'm just starting to make my way through it.

    I've been writing a long series on my site about social media. I started just a few days after you started this series. My focus is on the virtual social network -- how those network dynamics might affect us and interact with our real-world social networks.

    I find everything having to do with virtual social network dynamics to be fascinating, and I look forward to reading your series. It makes me happy to see people talking about this topic that we ultimately know little about.
    May 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDana Guthrie Martin

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