Improbability of Communication in Social Media

The floor in front of me is half covered with paper sketches. Blank sheets awaiting diagrams and visuals. Which is in part why they’re still there. I have arranged them into short stacks by category. In an attempt to create a series of visual presentations on conversational models relevant to social media, and to flow and talk applications like twitter, I’ve managed to isolate the elements and need a eureka moment before I can lift them off the floor and start sketching.

The waiting is the hardest part.

Apropos waiting, I want to toss out another concept: probability. Or more specifically, improbability. And to contextualize it to social media, the probability or improbability of communication.

The concept comes out of Niklas Luhmann‘s social systems theory, in which communication becomes action only when communication by one person is picked up by another. The response to a communication, be it a response to what’s said or to the person saying it (person or content), is a form of social action. Social action is how society is reproduced through individual acts and agency, and can include other kinds of interactions (symbolic exchange, money-based transactions, rituals and ceremonies that repeat the social w/o personal claims made).

In the absence of a response, communication is just expression. Online, it’s expression recorded as an artifact: a message, post, upload, or other contribution.

Luhmann claims that systems are all about making the improbability of communication probable. A more humanistic view would simply say that we bind through our use of language and interaction; that regardless of whether or not we reach agreements, we can reach an understanding of what we say to each other. And that this alone is adequate to role of communication in having meaningful personal relationships.

All of which is a rather long-winded way of saying that we use social media to connect and to feel connected.

I’ve noted in this series on “status culture” (the culture of status updates and tweets) that every update/tweet contains an appeal. It appeals to the audience the user has in mind (those s/he follows, those following him/her, or friends — as in Facebook). Appeals to response, perhaps as an @reply or dm, or Facebook status update comment. Those would be direct responses to the appeal. It may appeal to an indirect response, such as a Retweet, @name citation, or follow (yes, we get followers when we tweet, and we can think of being followed as a kind of response).

The appeal for some kind of response is how communication tries to increase the probability of the Improbable. Time-based applications like twitter dramatically increase that improbability (search will reduce it), for communication flows in time. It is not bound by a container (a Facebook page), nor is it bound by an application (e.g. anything synchronous like chat, IM, skype).

Improbability of communication becoming social action is higher on twitter because we are not in synch on twitter. Each of us is only capable of keeping up with so much of the twitter stream; limits on our time and attention are real, and ever more precious the more people we follow. My mental metaphor of late has been of twitter as a kind of highway in which cars travel in their own lane and at different speeds, and for communication to occur, two or more have to be next to each other. Yes, we can scroll back in time, but only so much. And we all know that we’re much more likely to get a response from somebody if they have just tweeted. (Link clickthroughs captured on bit.ly show exactly this — a near instantaneous peak that decays quickly).

If the improbability of communication is increased in time-based applications because we are not in synch, then that is an interesting design and system feature of time-based talk applications. For the psychological factors, those involved in user motives and behaviors, we might ask: How do we handle communication in systems that make it improbable? What’s our feeling about the ambiguity it creates, when so little of what we say is directly addressed and replied to? And what explains our dedication to something like twitter, and our attempts to thwart the improbability of connecting by tweeting more, following more, and seeking more and more followers?

For that we might need to know something about personality and how different kinds of personalities relate to online communication and interaction. A separate article on how we talk is in order for that.

I think the concept of improbability is interesting. It captures the system and market-like features of talk applications, twitter especially, very well. And it raises an important question — one that is oft overlooked by claims that everyone just needs to join the conversation. It’s not conversation and we know it. And yet it’s something we do — and which can be remarkably satisfying.

Related: reading notes on Luhmann
Slideshare presentations on psychology of users, competencies of users, and social interaction design.


This bit.ly graph of click-throughs to this post shortly after I tweeted it demonstrates what I’m talking about here: in time-based applications like twitter, the probability of communication is contingent on temporal coincidence. Communication happens “as it happens.”

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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