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    Are social media, social? (Part Five)

    In the 1930’s radio was a crucial part of European and North American culture. It was a medium that anyone could listen to and many people did. It was also a medium that was used by the Nazis for example, as a propaganda vehicle. Communication’s systems are by their very nature open to abuse as well as good. Radio is now one of the most important media used in Africa for learning at a distance.

    I bring up what seems like an archaic medium, radio, to suggest that social networks have always been at the heart of the many different ways in which humans communicate with each other. In each historical instance, as a new medium has appeared, there has been an exponential increase in the size of networks and the manner in which messages and information have been exchanged.

    These increases have radiated outwards like a series of concentric circles sometimes encapsulating older forms and other times disrupting them. The fundamental desire to reach out and be understood remains the same. This is what we as humans do, even in our worst moments. We primarily use language and then layer other media not so much on top of language but within its very structure. The brilliance of working with 140 characters is that it takes us back (and may well be pushing us forward) to poetry. The psychology of engaging with an economy of words within the cacophony of messages directed towards us each moment of every day is encouraging a more precise appreciation of the power of individual words. In this sense, I am very heavily on the side of Twitter.

    At the same time, Twitter is not a revolution. Information in whatever form, depending on context, can be dangerous or benign. But information exists in a very precise fashion within a defined context. Notice that the Twitterati in general identify themselves. Twitter is somewhere in between text messages and instant messages, an interlude that connects events and experiences through the web as a hub. Early on Twitter was described as microblogging. My next post will look at blogging and what has happened to the many claims made about it when blogging first appeared.

    Part Six...


    Are social media, social? (Part Four)

    Heidi May has produced some important comments on the previous entries of Are Social Media, Social? May suggested a link to Network, A Networked Book about Network Art which is a fascinating example of the extensions that are possible when communities of interest establish a context to work together and collaborate. Heidi May also asks about the Diaspora project. Diaspora will attempt to build an open source version of Facebook. I wish them luck. This is an essential move to broaden the scope and expectations that we have about the role and usage of social networks, about privacy and most importantly about controlling the very code that governs how we relate within virtual spaces.

    A good example of some of the challenges that we face within networked environments is what happened to the famous German philosopher, Jürgen Habermas. “In January, one of the world’s leading intellectuals fell prey to an internet hoax. An anonymous prankster set up a fake Twitter feed purporting to be by ­Jürgen Habermas, professor emeritus of philosophy at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University of Frankfurt. “It irritated me because the sender’s identity was a fake,” ­Habermas told me recently. Like Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, ­Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe and former US ­secretary of state Condoleezza Rice before him, ­Habermas had been “twitterjacked”.” Stuart Jeffries Financial Times, April 30, 2010.

    As it turns out the hoax was removed but not before the individual was found and apologized. Subsequently, Habermas was interviewed and made this comment:

    “The internet generates a centrifugal force,” Habemas says. “It releases an ­anarchic wave of highly fragmented circuits of communication that ­infrequently overlap. Of course, the spontaneous and egalitarian nature of unlimited communication can have subversive effects under authoritarian regimes. But the web itself does not produce any public spheres. Its structure is not suited to focusing the attention of a dispersed public of citizens who form opinions simultaneously on the same topics and contributions which have been scrutinised and filtered by experts.”

    Habermas suggests that power resides with the State even when social networks bring people together to protest and demonstrate. The results of these engagements are contingent and don’t necessarily lead to change or to the enlargement of the public sphere.

    The question is how does the public become enlightened? What conditions will allow for and encourage rich interchanges that will drive new perceptions of power and new ideas about power relations?

    The general assumption is that social networks facilitate the growth of constructive public debate. Yet, if that were true how can one explain the nature of the debates in the US around health care which were characterized by some of the most vitriolic exchanges in a generation? How do we explain the restrictive and generally anti-immigrant laws introduced by the state of Arizona? The utopian view of social networks tends to gloss over these contradictions. Yes, it is true that Twitter was banned in Iran during the popular uprising last year to prevent protestors from communicating with each other. Yes, social media can be used for good and bad. There is nothing inherent in social networks, nothing latent within their structure that prevents them being used for enhanced exchange and debate. For debates to be public however, there has to be a sense that the debates are visible to a variety of different constituencies. The challenge is that the networks are not visible to each other — mapping them produces interesting lattice-related structures but these say very little about the contents of the interactions.

    The overall effect could be described as mythic since we cannot connect to ten thousand people or know what they are saying to each other. At a minimum, the public sphere takes on a visible face through traditional forms of broadcast that can be experienced simultaneously by many different people. Twitter on the other hand, allows us to see trends but that may often not be enough to make a judgment about currency and our capacity to intervene. Is the headline structure of Twitter enough? Should it be?

    The computer screen remains the main interface and mediator between the movement of ideas from discourse to action. And, as I have discussed in previous posts, networks are abstracted instances of complex, quantitatively driven relationships. We need more research and perhaps establishing a social network to do this would help, more research on whether social media are actually driving towards increasingly fragmented forms of interaction. A question. How many of your followers have you met? How many people leave comments on your blog and what is the relationship between hits and comments? Beyond the ten or so web sites that everyone visits, how many have settled into a regular routine not unlike bulletin boards of old?

    The recent election campaign won by President Obama in which social media played a formidable role suggests that my questions may have no pertinence to his success. Consumer campaigns and boycotts made all the more practical and possible by social networks suggests the opposite of what I am saying. The potential intimacy of dialogues among strangers working together to figure out problems and meet challenges may contradict my intuition that these are variations on existing networks albeit with some dramatic enhancements.

    A final thought. We often talk about the speed with which these phenomena develop without referencing their predecessors. For example, if the Web is just an extension of bulletin boards and hypercard systems then we need to understand how that continuity has been built and upon what premises. If Twitter is an extension of daily conversation and is helping to build the public sphere then we need more research on what is being said and actually examine whether Twitters translate into action.

    Part Five 


    Are social media, social? (Part Three)

    Some non-profits are using Social Media for real results. They are raising the profiles of their charities as well as increasing the brand awareness of their work. They are connecting with a variety of communities inside and outside of their home environments. In the process, Twitter is enabling a variety of exchanges many of which would not happen without the easy access that Twitter provides. These are examples of growth and change through the movement of ideas and projects. Twitter posts remind me short telegrams and as it turns out that may well be the reason the 140 character limit works so well. Social networks facilitate new forms of interaction and often unanticipated contacts. It is in the nature of networks to create nodes, to generate relationships, and to encourage intercommunication. That is after all, one of the key definitions of networks.

    Alexandra Samuel suggests: “But here’s what’s different: you, as an audience member, can decide how social you want your social media to be. If you’re reading a newspaper or watching TV, you can talk back — shake your fist in the air! send a letter the editor! — or you can talk about (inviting friends to watch the game with you, chatting about the latest story over your morning coffee). But the opportunities for conversation and engagement don’t vary much from story to story, or content provider to content provider. On the social web, there are still lots of people who are using Twitter to have conversations, who are asking for your comments on that YouTube video, who are enabling — and participating in — wide-ranging conversations via blog and Facebook. You can engage with the people, organization and brands who want to hear from you…or you can go back to being a passive broadcastee.”

    These are crucial points, a synopsis of sorts of the foundational assumptions in the Twitterverse and the Blogosphere. At their root is an inference or even assertion about traditional media that needs to be thought about. Traditional media are always portrayed as producing passive experiences or at least not as intensely interactive as social media.

    Let’s reel back a bit. Take an iconic event like the assassination of John F. Kennedy. That was a broadcast event that everyone alive at the time experienced in a deeply personal fashion. The tears, the pain, people walking the streets of Washington and elsewhere in a daze, all of this part and parcel of a series of complex reactions as much social as private. Or 9/11, which was watched in real time within a broadcast context. People were on the phone with each other all over the world. Families watched and cried. I could go on and on. It is not the medium which induces passivity, but what we do with the experiences.

    So, Twitter and most social media are simply *extensions* of existing forms of communication. This is not in anyway to downplay their importance. It is simply to suggest that each generation seems to take ownership of their media as if history and continuity are not part of the process. Or, to put it another way, telegrams, the telegraph was as important to 19th century society as the telephone was to the middle of the 20th century.

    In part one of this essay, I linked Twitter and gossip. Gossip was fundamental to the 17th century and could lead to the building or destruction of careers. Gossip was a crucial aspect of the Dreyfus affair. Gossip has brought down movie stars and politicians. The reality is that all media are interactive and the notion of the passive viewer was an invention of marketers to simplify the complexity of communications between images and people, between people and what they watch and between advertisers and their market.

    For some reason, the marketing model of communications has won the day making it seem as if we need more and more complex forms of interaction to achieve or arrive at rich yet simple experiences. All forms of communications to varying degrees are about interaction at different levels. Every form of communication begins with conversations and radiates outwards to media and then loops back. There is an exquisite beauty to this endless loop of information, talk, discussion, blogging, twittering and talking some more. The continuity between all of the parts is what makes communications processes so rich and engaging.

    Part Four


    Are social media, social? (Part Two)

    Okay. Lots of responses to my previous entry. Like I said at the end of the article, I am not trying to be negative. I am actually responding to the profoundly important critique of the digitally induced and digested world of communications that Jaron Lanier distills in his recent book, You Are Not a Gadget.

    Mashable, a great web site has an article entitled, 21 Essential Social Media Resources You May Have Missed. Most of what the article describes is very important. This is truly the utopian side of the highly mediated universe that we now inhabit. But, as Lanier suggests, mediation does come with risks not the least of which is a loss of identity. Who am I in the Twitterverse or even within the confines of this Blog. And, why would you want to know?

    According to Lanier, "A new generation has come of age with a reduced expectation of what a person can be, and of who each person might become." (I can't give you a page number because my Kindle doesn't show page numbers! Location 50-65 whatever that means.) The Mashable article would seem to contradict Lanier describing as it does many instances of Social Media use that have genuinely benefitted a pretty large number of people. What Lanier is getting at goes beyond these immediate examples. He talks at length about a lock-in effect that comes from the repeated use of certain modes of thought and action within the virtual confines of a computer screen.

    He is somewhat of a romantic talking about the need for mystery and asking what cannot be represented by a computer. This is an important issue. The underlying structure of the web and the social media that piggyback on that structure is pretty much the same as it was when Tim Berners-Lee transformed the old Apple Hypercard system into something far grander.

    UNIX is core to the operating systems of most computers and its command line references have not evolved that much since the 1980's. Open up the Terminal program on a Mac and take a look at it. Lanier's point is that this says something about how we use computers. Most people cannot change the underlying system that has been put in place. That is why open source programming is so exciting. But even open source is developed by very few people.

    Could we for example develop our own Twitter-like client? Could we, should we become programmers with enough savvy to create a new and less commercially oriented version of Facebook? Even the SDK for the iPhone and the iPad requires a massive time investment if you want to learn how to develop an App. Yes, you can follow a set of instructions, but no you cannot recreate the SDK to make it your own.

    Now, some would say that the use of this software is more important than its underlying language. However, imagine if you applied that same principle to speech and to creativity? This is not about tools. This is about the structure, the embedded nature of the mechanisms that allow things to happen. And, as Lanier suggests, most people have been experiencing digital technology without understanding how that structure may influence their usage of the technology.

    Part Three


    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

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