Status culture: facebook, twitter, and what they mean

In a series of posts over on I recently made an attempt at teasing out social interaction design issues specific to lifestreaming. Lifestreaming was last year, and the year before, the sort of rich media, flow-based newcomer to interaction models. Lifestreaming looks like serial blogging, tweeted perhaps instead of blogged, and including pictures, videos, and other rich media (seesmic?). But like all information streams and flow apps, its navigation is limited. The more I thought about it, the more complicated matters became.

The reason was simple, and wasn’t really a matter of design at all. It was more a recognition that we are increasingly in the business of applying design to speech, architecture to talk, navigation not only across conversations but plumbing the depths and past of conversation and speech also.

Twitter is the culprit of the 140 character limit, but the social networks (Yahoo 360, Friendster, then of course Facebook) get much of the blame for the status update. Facebook had always been more utilitarian than its chatty and teeny kin. A swiss army knife to the crazy straws and party cups more representative of etiquette on MySpace, Tribe, Friendster, and Orkut, Facebook wisely saw that individual user activity could be made social after the fact if it were printed to a running news and activity roll.

With this, users could look active without having to make the awkward declaration of what they were doing on Facebook, all the time. Users could be seen by others without having to draw attention to themselves. Most importantly, users could seem to be talking even when they weren’t.

I find this fascinating. If there’s one nugget of social interaction that really needs to be mined and understood — for the purposes of design improvements and next generation social media — this is it for me. Not only the practice of posting status updates (and their variations), but also their supporting practices: following, reading, retweeting, commenting, and so on.

Understanding what “status culture” means seems to me central not only to grasping how our talk tools and services are changing — but also how our communication is changing.

For the next several days I hope to post on “status culture.” I will take a different angle on it with each post. The facets I have chosen include:

  • the culture of writing wide, of posting the self, of self-talk in front of others, and of saying little to nobody in particular
  • the design challenge of the user who uses it “whenever I feel like it,” of the challenges of designing social interactions for de-coupled structures and unilateralism and asymmetry in speaking and using
  • interpretations of status updating and tweeting from the linguistic and communication theoretical perspectives, including the art of speaking in the third person, of speaking to be seen, of speaking to be found, and of speaking another’s words
  • the meaning of status updates and short messaging to different kinds of users, using my social media personality types as a starting point
  • the sociology and anthropology of status updating, including of course influence, social capital, and society as side effect and special effect
  • the psychology of updates, and of the peculiar reversals, projections, passive aggressions and mistaken meanings common to living as sentenced, by sentencing, and by face
This might all seem like overkill, a reading of the 140 character phenomenon that’s too close, too analytical, too “too” to be worth the effort. But that would be to take the undertaking too literally. I think it would be fair to say that of all the social practices to emerge since the profile and the social network/graph, this not-so-little ritual has crossed the tipping point and as such indicates what is to come. Social media is leaving the page, conversation is changing, and communication is possibly becoming a symbolic culture in its own right.
Which would be to suggest that communication is no longer just for communicating, that is, reaching understanding with somebody else about something said. For if communication, in the form of short messaging in front of discontinuous audiences, is a new form of symbolic interaction, it is no longer just about the claims raised and resolved by interlocutors (speaking subjects). It is also a means of presencing the self, of self-presentation, of being visible and localizable, of expression but also projection, indication, reference, social inclusion, and much more. In short, a mode of production, not just of the self or subject, but of culture.
And in that, of course, it necessarily attracts commercial interests. Whose attempts to converse, and to be found in conversation, will likely both threaten and extend the possibilities of the form, and the viability of tools and services designed to support it.
I hope you will join me in this project.

Note; This blog post belongs to a series on “status culture.” The posts examine status updates, facebook activity feeds, news feeds, twitter, microblogging, lifestreaming, and other social media applications and features belonging to conversation media. My approach will be user-centric as always, and tackle usability and social experience issues (human factors, interaction design, interface design) at the heart of social interaction design. But we will also use anthropology, sociology, psychology, communication and media theories. Perhaps even some film theory.
The converational trend in social networking sites and applications suggests that web 2.0 is rapidly developing into a social web that embraces talk (post IM, chat, and email) in front of new kinds of publics and peer groups. User generated content supplied to search engines is increasingly produced conversationally. Social media analytics tools provide PR and social media marketing with means to track and monitor conversations. Brands are interested in joining the conversation feeds, through influencers as well as their own twitter presence.
This changing landscape not only raises interesting issues for developers and applications (such as the many twitter third party apps), but for social practices emerging around them. So we will look also at design principles for conversation-based apps, cultural and social trends, marketing trends, and other examples of new forms of talk online.
These blog posts will vary in tenor, from quick reflections on experiences to more in-depth approaches to design methodology for conversational social media.

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