Broken social (online) scenes

I’ve just gotten off a skype call with friend and colleague, and fellow sxdsalon member Thomas Vander Wal. Thomas and I pick up the virtual phone about every month or six weeks to tie up loose conversational threads. We usually manage to get into a two hour tangle, after which we have new threads to tie up, half of which are actually knots.

I enjoy talking to Thomas in part because there simply aren’t that many social media theory and concept geeks out there. Thomas’ experience and history in the field is deeper than mine, and his memory for past efforts and themes is scarily present to hand for him.

We get into conversations about conceptual models, of which there are few for social media. We compare these models to the social media sold by evangelists. The paint has now dried on the standard social media pitch — it awaits either a fresh coat, a new audience, or a new product. The social media pitch is something I will never be able to do well — it takes a level of salesmanship and enthusiasm that I neither possess, nor if I did, could convincingly embody. The conceptual model, owing to observation, reflection, and questioning, is more my style — and Thomas’.

But as conceptual builders, we recognize our models sometimes floundering on the shores of reality, breaking apart or struggling to stay afloat where the industry currents and waves of adoption churn. Concepts don’t surf.

I enjoy these conversations in spite of the fact that it is impossible to solve anything with them, for the simple reason that our mutual commitment to deeper insight, revelatory explanations, incisive observations, if I may be so bold (in a baroque sort of way), is inspired by failures. Failures of the models to map to realities. Failures of concepts to reflect actual practices. And failures of actual uses, use cases, and users to meet the predictions of models.

The theory of social interaction will never describe social media in practice perfectly. It’s an impossibility. No explanation or theory of social media can map to social media in an actual context of use — specific and particular. The generalization can never explain the particular.

But neither can a generalization be drawn from a particular.

I feel good about the year ahead. There may be some serious limitations to the value and potential for theorizing social interaction online. There are certainly real limits on how much of that theorizing can be translated into practical design guidelines. But the industry and marketplace want for better and deeper explanations. Explanations that are conceptually informed but specific to a particular (client) context. There’s a forensic dimension to this — a touch of detective work, of participatory observation and ethnography. For which we will need both social and architectural, that is user- and tool-oriented descriptions.

The reason for which I enjoy the birds nests, the gordian knots, the loose ends and aporias of conversation as mutual entanglement.

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