Towards a reckless rethinking of Social Media

Those of you familiar with what I’m trying to do with Social Interaction Design know that I’m trying to avoid reading social media analogically. It’s too easy. Social media may resemble social interaction, online communities may resemble gatherings, blogging may resemble conversation, Youtube may resemble TV. But I’ll never construct a framework for the design of social software and social media on analogy alone. Some big picture brushwork is in order, if only to think aloud about the State of the Things, so to speak.

Over the course of some email exchanges with friend and colleague Evelyn Rodriguez lately, I’ve become increasingly aware of my need to address a couple critical points.

First, is that my theory of mediated social interaction and social media requires that I ground my theoretical positions in theory first, and in example, second. To get beyond impressions and observations of social media sites, I’m adapting social theories for application by design practitioners. This forces me to speak of users in the abstract, and of phenomena like folksonomies, online discussions, presentation of self in social sites like MySpace, and so much more, in abstracted terms. This is simply a theoretical necessity, and if I’m to unwrap the ways in which our use of these sites transform our relationships, bracket and displace our face and body communication, and similarly transform expressions, speech, gesture, and other modes of self expression within some thin and extended form of mediated talk, then I must lay down the basic principles by which recourse to media involve those media in transformation of individual and social practice and communication. Media, that is blogs, discussions, commenting, email, texting, youtubing—they all involve form and content, both of personal expressions and of the social practice that emerges around them.

Second, I have to qualify my accounting of the user experience. While much of what I write has the tone of a distanced observer, I’m a daily user and practitioner, and I don’t disrespect or mean to overlook the user experience. That said, I can’t build a theory on my own user experience, nor for that matter, on any one individual’s experience. I hope to arrive at a theoretical framework without neglecting the user’s participation and relation to all of this. But I mean to do that by characterizing the second order phenomena as the indirect result and product of users participating; not as a direct result of their motives and intentions. This is one reason for the pleasure I take in systems theories and social theories/psychologies. I get to describe meaningful acts without attributing them to any one user, or persona, in particular. The task of describing daily life, and its participants, through and with social technologies shouldn’t prevent me from speaking to our everyday experiences (as users) of this stuff. However, my intent in producing consistent characterizations of what’s going on require me to take an observer position. So, no insult to bloggers or designers or MySpacers intended! I may be right standing right behind you, but i’m not looking over your shoulder!

Now, social media are talk media. They may use forms of writing, of image, of sound and video, as their means of presenting their users to others, or of presenting their users’ contributions (to nobody in particular, to the whole world, or to one person in front of everyone, it matters not). I like to maintain this distinction between contributors and their contributions because I believe that there are two fundamental modes of participation in social media, and two modes of use of social media content. At their very core, social media split the world, and our presence in it, by an act of mediation. This is media theory, and precedes “social” media by many decades. The idea is simple: any use of technology (and some say, tool also) distorts our direct experience of the world, as it engages us in it also. The magnifying glass amplifies vision. The phone, hearing. The microphone/PA, speaking or singing (eegads). When our experience is modified by a technology, this modification occurs through the balance of our sensory/perceptual relation to the world (and our being in it). We pay more attention to the mode amplified (phone: talking not looking; camera: looking not talking). Social media, too, steer and direct our attention. To what? To ourselves, as, I hope to show below, through others. This may seem a tad radical, but I want to suggest that social media are in many respects me-media. My first line of defense on this would be, simply, where is everybody? The web has no people! To which you might reply “but it’s all people; all this content is there because somebody put it there!” And i might suggest that you turn the power off, look up at the person at the table sitting next to you in (you’re in a cybercafe, right?), and answer the question again. Even I’m not that foolish. We don’t think of the web as a screen and a browser, with words and pictures, and a means of navigating at our quick-bitten fingertips. As Laurie Anderson famously put it once, speaking of the cinema, we don’t go to the “projectors,” we go to the “movies.” I, too, believe that technologies like these are transparent (for the most part). And that’s precisely why I’m grounnding social interaction design in practice and not in technology. If I were to stay on the side of technology, and treat the user as a rational and goal-oriented technocrat, I would see only the user-web site interaction. And my whole project is an attempt to send UI and User Experience design through the screen, down the pipes, across the backbone of this Net, this Matrix of ours, to pop straight out of the screen at the other end till we’re looking at the inner sanctum of our other user’s speculating nut-case. I think user-device-user. And for that reason, I can use media theory only until it becomes baggage so heavy that I have to check it in and pick it up at the end of my journey.

To get back to the point, then, people are here, individually and collectively (as an audience, as well as anonymous individuals). But they are here and there by virtue of recording media, and in some cases communication and interaction tools. We encounter each other only through the content we have left online. Social media thus present users (people) through their contributions. Now, I take from sociology of interaction a distinction between person-person involvement and person-talk involvement. In the former, interlocutors are interested in each other, through their interest in the other’s interest in them. Whether this interaction is a game of desire, or of psychological acknowledgment, of recognition of the other’s and one’s own existence, or of one’s importance to the other, really doesn’t matter. Those are each voices in the same choir, and for the most part in the same key. The person to contribution angle is in some ways more interesting, and from a business person’s perspective, more apparently obvious. It describes the obvious fact that as speaking subjects we can pick up another’s utterance and reply to it. We can talk *about* something while we talk to each other. Now, it’s my belief that we’re always doing both at the same time. But this gets interesting in social media because, well, it’s hard to know which is the mode in play. I often say that social media are interesting because they produce and complexify this ambiguity, and that in any communication situation it only makes sense that interactants would address ambiguities in order to know what to do next (if only not to do something embarrassing!). But it must also be noted that human expression is fundamentally ambiguous, and that it is in fact the mutual effort at resolving the ambiguity of meanings and statements, as well as reconciling –or exacerbating– the ambiguity of intentions and motives, that undergirds all human interaction and talk. And I do think that social media are talk media (we dont paint online, don’t cook or eat or swim or sculpt online. Even filckr is successful because pictures tell a thousand words, and haven’t we all gone to a gallery with the idea of possibly meeting somebody in front of a painting, the canvas hung so vertiginously providing an ice-breaking opportunity to engage in profound raccointeur along the lines of “sublime, isn’t it?”).

Here is where it gets interesting. Social media are media of relations. They create relationships between documents, such as web pages or other linked files, between people, their comments, reviews, lists, between movies and similar movies, and so on. Nothing exists online if it isn’t linked to. There’s simply no getting to it. Now, Yahoo (directory browsing) and Google (key word search) et al provide what is, in essence, a map, a menu, a table of contents to all this otherwise invisible stuff. User generated content is now popular (don’t people remember geocities?!) because it’s getting the word out. Users, and not just publishing giants; users, and not just celebrity bloggers (of which I have Oh So Longed to be one) made this! In other words, we are moving from the web of information to the web of people. Ah, but people exist only through their contributions. And we might take an interest in their contributions, or in them, or in both, right? See how it gets interesting? It is much more unclear, in mediated interaction, which is the mode that has hooked a commentator, which is the mode in which we should communicate with another user. Where in face to face interaction we adjust our impressions, scale our interests up or down in the person or his/her speech, with such furious rapidity and precise expression that it is truly, truly, mind-blowing sometimes to consider the performance and essential feat that it is, this moment of mutual linguistically-mediated exchange. Today, for example, is Martin Luther King day. Could that man have possibly, even remotely, achieved in his I Have a Dream speech, online, say as a blog, what he did in those few precious but staggering minutes of presence atop the Lincoln memorial? Could he have lifted the hearts and moved millions of souls to finally Get It, What’s Wrong With Race Relations in America, if he had been poised, instead, at the apex of a Top Ten bookmark list of writings at NoLongerDreaming.com? Get my drift, pilgrim?

We manifest ourselves in mediated talk by indexing what we’re talking about to a number of possible references: a blog, a post, or comment, a video, something we said, something she said, our picture or your picture, a nightmare, or a dream. The art of expression online, as with the art of interpretation online, is in the knowing what’s going on, and knowing what the author has meant, so as to either proceed in a round of talk, or not. We interpret, and interpret, and interpret. And it’s my own view that, I am sad (but not in a teary-eyed way, mind you) to say that we get there, to the knowing what’s going on, through ourselves much less than through the other. Which is not to say that we miss each other entirely. No, there is light in this place, and it sure as hell shines on a lot of fine engagements. But where we want to think that the media are becoming social, it might just as well be that we are becoming asocial. Take, for example, the inner experience of blogging. Bloggers, such as myself right here and now, fall into a kind of relationship with themselves while writing. One that involves conjuring up an imagined audience, specific or not, individual or multitudinous (ah, what is must feel like to be a super blogger, throngs of cheering minions hanging on every sublime and exquisite deployment of comma and em-dash, moved to click and type and tag their profuse and effulgent praise the moment they come crashing through the door and are settled, bouncy and barely-contained, for a turn at the keyboard of their own; sigh… ;-) … )… [note to reader: i'm not sure what it means to deploy ellipses after a smiley, but i've wanted to do that for a long time, and this was the time to just go for it]. My point being, digression included, that the inner experience cannot be discounted. So, to reprise an earlier observation, I count the user into the equation, but cannot theorize from the user perspective or experience alone.

To wrap, then, as I must return to the paying events of the day, I propose a sort of logic. It goes like this. Social media offer a productive encounter of self with self mediated by mediated other. Self : (Self-image : Image of Other). From this, I suggest that we characterize the stunted but nonetheless fascinating and undeniably popular mode of interaction at YouTube as involving a variant, a new kind of communication system (and language): Self : (Video-Image : Other). What YouTube does is allows us to say more with face, but less with words. And for some, particularly those for whom communication is speed, is not self-reflection and writing, but is gestural, social, quick, that may be a more useful communication form. Videos present much more content. They’re much more tangible, and quickly interpreted. And one can say a lot about oneself by posting a video, without having to say anything. This is why YouTube is social: it offers the possibility of taking up communication with others around videos that serve as signs, almost like brands, bumper stickers, etc. But it’s a failure in many ways for the simple truth that we’re still inventing how video posts might become expressive, meaningful, reflection of who we are or what we think. They work as a means of showing, literally, (oh, pun, of type accidental) what we like. That gets us off the ground, at least, as a means of finding people we might like, or who might be like us (we learn the hard way what that difference is!). Reviews, such as yelp, are similarly a means by which review authors create a fragmented profile of themselves, by expressing who they are through what they think/have to say about places, businesses that others can relate to.

So, social media are media that in which participation is socially informed. We’ll see social media, yet, and I dare say we may one day look back on the blog years as being rich in thought, commentary, and opinion. But what the heck, it’s technology time folks, let’s go!

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