Inspiration from Elsewhere: Social Media and Film Theory

Summertime rolls on here, and when the weather is this good I have a hard time staying online. Months of cold fog and wind loom in the coming winter months; these days of lazy autumnal warmth beckon to be enjoyed. Panic in the markets and economic distress all around haven’t been good for job prospecting of late. So my gut instinct this past week saw me outside with books and a thinking cap.

Which has all been very inspirational, as it turns out. There are times when inspiration comes from elsewhere. I found it this week in film theory. I enjoy film theory primarily because I’m a film nut. Film is the art form of the twentieth century, and as it incorporates image, technology, dialog, story, genres, production, characters, performance, and industry, it epitomizes the artistic and creative opportunities of modern times. Like social media and web cultures, film is fascinating both as a medium and as a cultural production. It can be enjoyed as is, and when thought about.

Dipping back into the film theory of Gilles Deleuze this week, I re-discovered a number of concepts that have me very excited. They had to do with my three part model of the social media user experience, and with the construction of various narrative forms in film. The former has me thrilled because the three part model keeps popping up in a number of theories and their resonance with an approach to social media interaction design is encouraging, to say the least. The latter has me thrilled because I’ve been scratching my head of late when it comes to applications of social media in marketing and branding — and the huge variety of narrative and film forms explored in film theory offers a cornucopia of ideas for online conversational marketing.

I just want to touch on these briefly, because it may be a while before I’m able to punch out in-depth blog posts. So if you are a theory geek, or interested in how social interaction design can draw from film theory, read on. I’ll post later on how these ideas may be applied by practitioners and organizations. I know it doesn’t take a film theorist to make a good film — but it is fun to find confirmation in theory of what makes the film good.

Deleuze uses the sign system, or semiotics, developed by Charles Saunders Peirce to build a system of “images” and signs designed for film, which is unique in that it produces not only image but time. I’ve written about the difference between page and time-based social media recently — and I often return to film theory because it offers a means of understanding how time is captured in contemporary representational media. (Where social media differ, of course, is that time is captured in the medium — take twitter as the best example of a tool that organizes content chronologically — but is not experienced or consumed in a straight and continuous run of time. Time is continuous in film; discontinuous i social media. And yet in both, time is an ordering principle for the presentation of content to the user/consumer.)

Peirce’s signs are, to simplify, the firstness of the thing itself; the secondness of a thing reflected, and the thirdness of a relation. Very cool to me, as my model is based on Self, Other, and Relation. The resonance here works well for social media because the “firstness” relates to the content of a user’s direct and immediate expression of Self online; the secondness relates the reflection and orientation to another user (Other); and thirdness to the relationships and social relations captured in social activity (Relation). I had been thinking that my Self, Other, Relation approach resonated well with a view of social relations that distinguishes among monadic, dyadic, and triadic organization. Monadic being Self expression, Dyadic being interpersonal interaction, and Triadic being mediating and relationship-oriented interaction. I know this is theoretical stuff, but the three-part model keeps coming up, and I think that thinking in terms of individuals, pairs, and threesomes (or groups) makes sense as a means of grasping the nature of “social” online.

What Deleuze’s film theory brings to theory of film “genres” (a term he would disapprove of) and film forms (he calls them “images”) is also contributing to my approach to conversational marketing. I’ve been thinking of late that the key to social media branding involves first moving away from an “image branding” approach to one that is more communicative and participatory. But getting from the insight to actual applications has been a challenge. Knowing that the medium is young yet, and using film theory and history as a source of comparisons, however, has opened up possibilities for what the future may still hold. If commercial efforts are to successfully use social media at all, I don’t expect it to be by simply extending mass media branding and marketing approaches. The arrival of the talkies, and development of filmic techniques (inventions in camera work, lighting, editing, montage, and so on) as well as framing and an acute understanding of the effects of film, have all conspired to produce fascinating forms of entertainment.

I really think the current social media landscape is practically waiting for creatives to take over where the engineers have left off. Would you want television designers to be responsible for what’s on your TV? Well that’s where we are today: having built the stuff we need the content creatives now to show us what we can do with it.

So back now to summertime ideating — and to bringing concepts into the daylight.

Related:
My own research notes on the theorists Niklas Luhmann, Gilles Deleuze, and Harold Garfinkel in relation to understanding social media, and theorizing social interaction design.

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