The sociologist’s main concern is understanding the manner in which the individual stretches transcends his/her physical presence with relationships that stretch across time and space. “Big” sociology goes after the structures and systems that comprise “society,” the institutions in which common values are sedimented and through which they are codified and maintained, the various forms and positions of power by which certain interests and groups articulate their preferences, and so on. I’m captivated by the smaller sociological concerns, those that describe the interface of technology and individual, where the rubber of cultural practices meets the road by which we stretch out and navigate our interpersonal relationships.
Big sociology used to distinguish between the public and private spheres—the former being the zone of social integration, the latter, a space in which the individual had freedom of movement (and thought). But that distinction belied a spatial and physical bias of thinking that we can no longer maintain. Communication technologies today permit us to be present to one another without physical co-presence; they place demands on our time and attention that exceed the physical boundaries of a situated individual presence. Presence negotiation now requires that we finesse our handling of interactions and relations with and through mediation by technologies. Put in terms of primary sociological interests, technologies have become deeply embedded in the very means by which we stretch our relations across time and space.
Take blogging, for example. Among the numerous things already said about blogging, mostly by bloggers, a few misconceptions stand out.
–Blogging is writing
–Blogging is publishing
–Blogging is public
–Blogging is talk, what Erving Goffman called “an open state of talk,” and more closely resembles forms of speech than writing (though it takes the form, of course, of text). (Note, for Goffman, a monologue is a kind of talk; talk does not have to be conversation.)
–Blogging is a form of messaging, and though blogging technologies are online publishing technologies, we shouldn’t confuse the product with its means of production. As a form of messaging, blogging involves a loose and ambiguous mode of addressing (as in, a speaker addresses his statements to a listener). Audiences in other words are not as anonymous as they are for the published text, for the medium does permit commenting, quoting, and other kinds of “interaction” with the text or author.
–Blogging instantiates a hybrid public/private “space” (as much as I dislike the term) in that the blogger may compose his or her piece as if it were a private journal, or alternatively, have a specific audience (of one or many) in mind. The blog form does not presuppose an anonymous readership simply because it involves a communication/interaction tool/technology.
The sociologist could derive any number of conclusions from this, but the ones that captivate me again pertain to our relationship negotiations. To what extent do we hide “private” messages within our “public” blogs? To what extent do we feel involved in conversation when blogging (looking for our piece to be picked up, or for its comments, direct or not, on other bloggers, to be acknowledged)? What does it mean that we engage in these modes of indirect interaction? What temporal markers might characterize the blog form—from how long we expect to wait for comments or continuation, to the effect of the blog’s persistence in time on the bracketing of conversation (a blogger’s utterances long outlive the blogger’s act of uttering them). And so on….