Socially structured content

I’ve been working on a framework of socially structured content that would echo the efforts behind structured blogging. My big picture thinking was this: if the web is a medium of interaction in which the selection of information simultaneously creates navigation, online social interaction is informed by the structure of online content. A list of “members online now” produces different interactions and community habits than, say, “popular members” or “new members”… I’ve got a document in the works on this. Till it’s done, though, here’s a philosophical interlude I want to float:

One gets the sense, when pursuing a topic for a significant period of time, of sometimes finding one’s own footprints, and of having returned to a starting place, though perhaps from a different road or port of entry. I would like to venture one of these moments now. In an effort to simplify the nature of online interactions and social software content structuring, it has occurred to me that the three truth conditions proposed by Jurgen Habermas might be of value. I used these over two decades ago when studying international relations theory. According to Habermas’ theory of communicative action, we make claims to truth when we interact with one another. I’ve long suspected that these claims to truth become distorted and masked by mediated interactions (such as those we’re discussing here). It would only follow that online interactions make an issue out of them; and that interpersonal communication, group talk, and communication forms from blogging to commenting, comment tracking, etc., all involve the addressing and clarification of these truth claims. All we need to assume is that in the case of member-produced content sites, members themselves become an issue, as well as what they say (post), for reading and interpreting content will involve the intentions, style, personality, etc of their author.
Habermas’ three truth claims are facticity, sincerity, and normative authority. 1) There is the truth of what is said as it corresponds accurately to fact (it’s raining, and so if I say it’s not raining, I’m making a false claim.). 2) The sincerity of the speaker also makes a truth claim (because a person can say something true, and still not mean it, and thus make a false statement). 3) And normative authority is a truth claim (I may make a claim on you that I don’t have the authority to make, and lacking authority, my claim is false).

Social software engages users in discovering and establishing these things about other members. As well as making them clear (or not) about oneself. It would follow that in all social software, and other technologies in which the primary mode of user interaction is communicative, participation is engaged in establishing the:

  • truth of what a person says
  • the truth of their intentions (the sincerity of their self presentation)
  • and the normative rightfulness of their position

If the truth of a person’s statements, of their sincerity (to us), and their position were indeed fundamentally obscured by the lack of face to face co presence, then it would make sense that all kinds of online social phenomena be explained by the importance of establishing a communicative foundation. We would want to know if a person really looked as they do in their pictures. Whether their friends and connections can validate them and who they seem to be (and claim to be). Whether their work and professional background correspond to their claims, in fact or on paper. A review of the member’s posts and comments online might help uncover the person’s particular stylistic choices, thus whether they are genuine, honest, witty, or perhaps flirtatious, jocular and not to be taken entirely seriously. And indeed we do see that the blogging phenomenon, social software services, and social networking sites, often deal with an author’s credibility, expertise, appearance and attractiveness, social or professional network, expertise and relevance reflect concerns as to the validity of these truth claims. Social networks are meant to produce trust. Links, tags, technorati posts all build credibility. Testimonials and rankings argue for sincerity. And so on.
I don’t want to suggest that the only thing driving online interaction is the matter of truth. Certainly all manner of play and pleasure occur online also. And yet, it is possible that only when the “truth” claims have been dealt with, either through validation, or through exemption, does play occur. A site must protect privacy, maintain anonymity of members, and remove all connections to the “actual” member behind the camera before members will expose themselves: their sincerity is rendered irrelevant, and the site is organized to keep it so. And so on.

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