- September
Posted By : Adrian Chan
Social media: Social Approximity?

We have moved beyond “generation gap” differences in technology use and moved into the “experiential gap” in terms of use and understanding. Your experience with an application such as Twitter provides an understanding that cannot be communicated by reading about it or even being told about it.

Tom Foremski recently penned on twitter in which he notes the growing experiential gap that separates those who use new social media tools from those who don’t. Those who use, get it, and those who don’t, don’t. Well, not surprisingly, this digitally dividing line is also the void that old media needs to bridge, if it, like its users, are to join the ranks of the initiated. The adoption curve sweeps like the arc of a #suspension bridge (!) plotting the line of escape from the old and tired traditional media landscape to the bright and shiny shores of the new.

As Marshall McLuhan (pictured above) insightfully observed:

“The “content” of any medium is always another medium. The content of writing is speech, just as the written word is the content of print, and print is the content of the telegraph.”

Now that bit about the telegraph may be a bit out of dot dot dash date, so simply substitute in “social media” for telegraph and you’re back in the present tense. Social media are a recontextualization of old print forms and contents within a new distribution and communication framework (social web). It’s not surprising that so many of our social practices (tools and uses) echo, if not amplify, their old media (broadcast) forebears: celebrity, self-promotion, news, anchoring, commentary, top tens, ratings, rankings, and polls (diggs, votes).

Speaking of telegraph, there was also recently a fine piece penned as well as printed by the New York Times on the ambient proximity of new conversation tools like twitter. I prefer talk tools to “micro blogs” because I think the connection is stronger between the acts (talking) than the form (writing). Blogs had sought to be conversational, yes, but clearly twitter is more a talkie than it is a bloggie. (I’ll skip the temptation to riff on silent films, inter-titling, and the arrival of the talkies, but the possibilities for extracting something out of “old content and new media” there are rife.)

This Times article artfully testified to the experiential gap, too, describing twitter with the pleasantly fuzzy phrase “ambient intimacy.” The intimacy possible over social media is at best approximate, and the proximity at best ambient. Social media can only approximate the relationships and interactions of the real. And in spite of the close contact many of us now have on a daily basis with hundreds of friends and followers, there’s an experiential gap between “being there” and simply “there.”

French sociologist Jean Baudrillard mischievously likened contemporary media to the peripheral image of thought footnoted at the base of any sideview mirror: “Caution: Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear.” Mass media, he believed, distort the real to such a degree that he warned of a new “hyper-reality.” Not only do they distort the appearance of reality, but the ambiguity suggested by “may be closer” hinted that media are also destabilizing.

To reverse McLuhan’s operational logic, we can deduce that in New Media objects may be more distant than they appear — which might describe the proximity manufactured across myriad connective webs and online social spaces. In fact, I like to liken social media some times to “social systems in failure mode.” Time is discontinuous, communication fails to communicate, relationships are unrelated, attention is unattentive, attraction is distracted, audiences are disaggregated, and so on.

But it is early days still for social media, and were we to look back to the first years of TV, we’d find naught but radio shows revisualized. The migration path from old to new media is yet writing its narrative, and that arc has many more dots to connect before its line can be fully traced. If we overuse (and do we?) mass media forms and contents in how we build and use social media today, is that so surprising? What will come next can arrive only when we have stepped up to it.

Only as cultural and social practices online mature to the point that we can see what we might build next can we stitch a tighter weave, and by warp and woof, wend our way towards a tighter experiential gap.

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