- May
Posted By : Adrian Chan
The Reality of Social Media
The Merchant of Venice

The internet changes over time. That the technology has evolved is obvious. But how we use the internet is also changing. So we have two conceptual distinctions — technology and people — that we frequently conflate into one idea of the internet. This post is about teasing apart the objective and subjective dimensions of social media, to examine what’s behind the relational economy we now live in, and its particular mode of production. All commerce and much personal and social utlity implied by use of social media owes to the subjective value added to what was, previously, a mode of production of information (publishing).

I will try to demonstrate here the manner in which social acts and communication result in mediated social realities. And suggest that the relational connections and value-added associations which are the byproduct of social media use create a marketplace of content whose highest value, individually motivated subjective choices, we are only beginning to capture and mine.

Technically speaking, the internet distributes data. Data that is also stored. Data we also call information. Information being a very loose term used sometimes to refer to the contents themselves (words, numbers, it doesn’t matter) and sometimes to its social/cultural meaning (information is something meaningful, a fact). Technically speaking, information is the bitstream and lifeblood of the internet. It’s objective. But speaking in common terms, information is what we know. It’s subjective.

The world of the first, we might consider the “reality” of the online world. Information is the foundation on which a rich medium of presentation and interaction is constructed (it is a constructed world, it is a world produced and manufactured as are all media).

The world of the second we might consider the “subjectivity” of the online world. Interaction and communication, in which information is used and referenced, linked to and embedded, is now the most fascinating aspect of the online world.

In this medium nothing exists unless it is connected to something else. Unlike the real world, the online world exists only insofar as it is navigable. That is, only on the basis of a connection.

The connectedness of the real world is material, substantial, and alive. Forces of change are natural and inevitable, in short: causal. Time moves all substance; all is in motion and change is a natural “causal” chain. Connectedness is simple causality of the world becoming, in time.

The connectedness of the online world is constructed. Connections are constructed by machines and by people, according to the logic and relations that exist at the level of information, and at according to the subjective choices (tastes, preferences) of people (users).

The old model for the online world was web publishing. Separately, there were communication tools and applications (email, chat, IM etc). The current model combines the two. In the old model, connections between bits of information might be made according to the relations that made sense for those bits of information: taxonomic, categorical, by genre, topic, what have you. The online world had more objectivity in that its production reflected “industrial” methods.

The online world today reflects a much higher degree of subjective and social use — connections are made not only as a reflection of these subjective values and interests, but as a byproduct of subjective relations and activities. Put simply, people create value when they interact and communicate online, often-times including ingredients provided by the medium (we can use words, which of course pre-existed the internet; we can also use the stuff found only here).

The online world is capturing more and more subjective choices. Selections made by people for reasons of taste and preference, motivated by others (for, because of, to attract…), reflecting individual identity, group identity, community, you name it. Social media permit online activity to reveal a vast amount of social and cultural preference as well as relational interest. And much of it is recorded, stored, and indexed.

But extracting meaning from the social web is a challenging proposition, let alone undertaking. When content is created, connected, distributed, embedded, or otherwise attached to people, their talk, or their interactions (activities), its meaning becomes ambiguous. Meaning may be obtained from the user’s intentions in using content, or from the content’s semantic meaning, from the relationship between users, the group, site, community context, application context, and so on. And I’m radically over-simplifying the interpretive options here.

Counting and quantifying by-and-large has served as our means of qualifying social web content. This is perhaps now going to change somewhat, as realtime tools like Twitter (and their practices) contribute ever-increasing amounts of “information” to the internet. When information first appears, when it is news and is completely new, it is distributed. This original flow of information creates connections, establishes content relationships, facilitates indexing by search engines, and will make possible socially-validating actions (comments, tagging, bookmarking, sharing etc).

There is a bias in this first flow of news. This bias owes simply to the fact that new information must be observed before it can become part of the online reality’s facticity. Information cannot be valued until it first has been observed. So the “first hit” if you will, in traffic, is relatively meaningless and belongs to the information’s coming into existence. It is merely the appearance of news in the realtime stream.

The second selection of that information is the first to reflect user interest — the second selection is not observation but action. It is confirmation of the information’s subjective value, or of its social relevance. This second selection, be it a retweet, a like, or some other act of “sharing,” transforms the news item (information) into communication, for it is now voiced not as fact but as an individual statement, or personal choice. This move transforms fact as facticity into social fact as subjective interest, and not only as individual choice but as a communicative expression.

Behind the choice of the like or retweet, in other words, is an intention taken up with an audience in mind. In this way our likes and retweets convey, indicate, suggest, solicit, and identify our interests in a social act that engenders further interaction. In the transformation of fact as news into social fact as choice, this second selection attributes new meaning (adding value to the information), as it is sent, shared, rated, saved, tagged etc. That added value is the subjective interest, and is the reason that in the world of social media, the news (facts) that matter are those that are most communicable; in short, tastes by means of which we disclose who we are, what we find interesting, and with which we identify.

Counting accrues over time, as content is validated/used in a variety of social interactions. Because connections may be counted without qualifying the type of connection or the kind of relation, a simple count is the most common way of validating information. This is a reality in which the number of connections to a piece of information is its volume or mass — it’s social reality.

More recent social web practices, however, suggest that qualifying these connections, and accounting for the variety in social relations, will be increasingly valuable if not necessary. For whom is information consumed; in front of whom is it shared or published; for whom is it told; who else chooses it? Where in the world of facts, validity is measured in terms of truth, in the world of social facts, validity is an expression of relevance. Relevance in a social sense is significance. Understanding the significance of information means understanding an act, a social relation, and the connection made with information embedded in social interactions.

The social act is far more complex, relationally, than may at first appear, and to date exceeds the capabilities of search and filtering to model and represent. For relational values attributed or attached to social fact as they are communicated across networks may belong to a number of meaning domains.

These relational values may be indicative, of personal interest. May be expressive, of personal feeling, state, or mood. May be solicitous, of recognition, validation, or some other acknowledgment. May be associative, as in similar to or related to some category of interests and tastes, values, events, and so on. May be inter-personal, as when they are intended to further interaction with a person or persons. And so on. All of these and other social actions may furnish the reasons for which we confirm and communicate, select and distribute, connect to and share, content in mediated social systems.

The social web grows by supplementing information with social significance, or what makes information socially relevant. The old world, the world of web 1.0, was a world of publishing. It was a one-column world. The new world, the social world of web 2.0, is a two-column world. What the double-entry method of book-keeping did for finance, inaugurating a system of debits and credits, and liberating capital from its exchange form, we need for the social web. Facebook is on this already, but still primitively, insofar as social content in feeds is liked and acted on within an inter-personal relational context.

But outside Facebook, the added value of so many one-click expressions or gestures is still lost in a system that captures action in a single column social model. Social needs to model communication, not just information, and for this it needs the equivalent of a two-column transactional model. Like markets run by brokerage and trading systems, the ask and the offer, the sale and purchase, need to be coupled. Only then are social expressions validated by the reciprocation, or confirmation, supplied by another (the audience). Value can then be assessed on the basis of its confirmation.

Communication is just communication as long as it remains observed only. But it calls for a yes or no, for acceptance or rejection. When that is supplied by another person, it becomes social action. Not information, but action, and what we need to capture it, measure it, relate it, and repurpose it, is the challenge facing us today.



  • I'm wondering if the two-column transactional model would resolve the issue that while the information may be received via one social media site, the action takes place is another?

    For instance, I discovered this posting on Twitter; created a series of second selections such as following the link from the Twitter client to the Web browser, reading the article, going back to the twitter client and starring the tweet, then posting a reply on another platform, Disqus. There are three measurable platforms of social action: Twitter, a browsing history and Disqus each with its own metrics. There are also several iterations of “yes or now, for acceptance or rejection,” following the link in Twitter is a “yes,” and then starring it is “yes” prime. After I post this comment, it will show up as a tweet of my own – “yes” prime, prime.

    At best, the node of action is my online presence on several platforms with multiple derivatives from the one piece of information. It's dizzying, but maybe the two-column transaction, an analogy, I'll admit, I can't grasp very well, may offer the solution.

  • that's exactly right — check my action streams proposal here, or goog its
    coverage on RWW. Activity streams is onto the problem. technical hurdles are
    not inconsequential 😉


  • I read the blue-sky treatment on action streams, and what came to mind was Google Wave. Make no mistake, I see that action streams seems to have a broader scope, but I wonder if being able to assign a Facebook, Twitter, Blog, Foursquare, etc. posting to a particular Wave would at least have the beginnings of pooling updates and threads of discussion into an “action” which would be the Wave itself; a particular hash tag in the update, lets say. Just a thought…

  • I don't doubt that Wave could combine messaging with actions — but the
    concept for action streams is for an open and federated system. A move
    upward from messages tagged with activity meta data (activity streams) to
    messages that are themselves actionable. So imagine, if you will, a social
    networking network built on the message, instead of the page. Functionality
    is applied to messages, as determined by their type and relational

    The vision was for a social networking system built on the more current
    basic unit of interaction — the update — instead of the page. And for
    functionality to come off the page and just be wrapped around messaging as
    needed and appropriate.

    I haven't thought much about opportunities for Wave — they've got plenty of
    folks paid to do just that. And good ones, too. 😉

  • If I were to create two columns it would not be a transactional model but a relationship between transaction and transformation. A retweet or a like does not require large amounts of cognitive effort and therefore is transactional.

    As I see it (and I am an end user rather than a user experience designer) if pure effort is applied on just coming up with a transactional model then how different is the end result than that occurred to television when Newton Minnow voiced a warning to the professionals in his industry:

    Vast Wasteland

    What I like about Newton's speech is that it moves from transactional models (that which will optimize the profits of its audience) to a discussion of transaction-transformation relationship – where his speech ends with that quintessential word called “Freedom”.

    There is so much accent on the word social that I can imagine seeing a room full of new media executives not so dissimilar to the audience that Newton Minnow faced in 1961. I imagine giving a speech to these new media executives in 2021 – and I wonder what changes are required in the next coming decade to render such a speech meaningless and pointless.

    I acknowledge we are social creatures at heart but we are also explorers, otherwise my parents would never have left their social village or there would be no diaspora or desire to cross an ocean when everybody else thought the world was flat or for that matter figure out how we can get man to Mars and beyond, never mind the Moon.

    Here the word “Freedom” is my own essential search and therefore I do not mean to tread upon anyone's professional turf. The ultimate in the two column transaction-transformation relationship is a world that is both a network of communication possibilities and an emergent space where the prime niche is that of the engaged and empowered individual.

    I listen to Adrian Chan, not to become an industry insider but to get a taste of some of the thinking that is on the other side of the fence. I was only noting early this morning these terms we have that make the word “PEOPLE” insufficient – such as reader, designer, user, audience etc – but ultimately a system that supersedes a person is tyranny in the making and a person who does not understand system is impoverished and isolated.

    So the two columns of this transaction-transformation relationship are calculation and decision. It is people who make decisions but it is systems that can surpass people in automated calculation. Technology is a calculation, people are decisions – there is no conflict here because a calculation can be optimized into an advanced algorithm (and our century requires the education of quants) and a decision is an optimal experience not an optimization.

    I will master my own database so long as I have database freedoms, I will master my information so long as I have imagination and freedom to exercise information. Let us not become so occupied with the word social to forget that the word individual means WHOLE. When we think in terms of social objects and subjects we are dividing the individual and what it means to be individual. We then become an object rather than an individual and society suffers in the long-term because we have not eliminated division.

    If we purely social we would be incapable of horrendous deeds. We cannot ask the Cathars about the word social because the Catholics killed them all.


    In our time we have seen ethnic cleansing, genocide and all manners of terrible human actions because the sense of the individual was completely lost. One look at movies that depict the holocaust can provide a sense of what happens when there is focus on the word social. What did the word Nazi mean but “National Socialism”.

    What matters here is not what human beings are capable of doing for they are capable of doing a lot, but the nature of freedom. It is in the arena of freedom that social interaction design must IMHO prosper. If all we have here is one new sect or profession looking at the world from its own island of excellence, we then remain in transactional models – and where does the word model best fit but in the language of the industrial age. The word “model” or driving change or social engine are not words of an emergent future but only the words of a mass-producing past.

    The industrial age provided something that is not going away, which is the mass market, but social interaction design as far as I see it can develop an architecture about freedom which isn't captured by the word social. Freedom cannot be designed but design can liberate freedom and that is the difference between making a social calculation and an individual decision.

    Thanks for providing the cognitive juice here to enable me to think about this as a citizen of collective imagination and not as a design of things.


  • Thanks for a though-provoking piece! It's intriguing, and I suspect this is onto something, and it raises a number of questions:

    Double entry for whom? Double entry accounting is a business term; pioneered by italian merchants lending and borrowing to finance maritime trade; debits and credits line up over time. Is the actor here, the user of this accounting a merchant, a participant in some sort of ecommerce, accounting for both sides of an interaction with commercial value? Or do the actors include participants in interactions ourselves, who observe over time the outcomes of interactions.

    Accounting for what? Is this concept considering the types of transactions that marketing calls lead generation – does brand awareness lead to purchase, does nonprofit cause awareness lead to donation? is it accounting for memes, what ideas and preferences are not only transmitted but received internalized and passed on? And then how to tell? And what is an outcome; an intermittent running series of jokes and stories; the trading of links; the spread of memes; the accruing of preferences and opinions, or just the continuation or cessation of strands of interaction? And where accounting is to be made, what of silent attention; this is the most common type of interaction, but it is hard to measure in the word of streams (easier in the world of pages and page views). And even more difficult still, what about ignoring? If I see links posted about some disaster that I feel powerless to avert, and don't click on them, but worry, does this show up in the accounting?

    If such accounting is to be done, on behalf of whom is the accounting and what is to be measured?

  • Adina,

    How many questions is that? I'm looking for a sentence here that's not a
    question and there is one, at the end of the second para, but in spite of
    it's having no question mark, it's a question, too.

    I can't answer all those questions — but I can address where I was coming
    from, after which perhaps you might answer some of these questions and get
    back to us 😉

    I may not have been clear. The idea that we better represent and capture
    message-based social networking activity pops up pretty frequently in my
    posts. It stems from my inclination for communication theories, and my sense
    that a great deal of social networking activity is in fact communication. If
    I'm wrong, and social networking is just publishing (and none of us really
    cares whether we are seen/read/replied to etc), then my use of communication
    theory is wrong. We would need only to modify our concepts of media and
    writing to include some of the gestures and presentation of self and so on.

    Communication theories, while different, agree that communication can be
    accepted or rejected. That it becomes action when this yes/no is supplied by
    another person. And that this yes/no is a pretty unique and deeply human
    attribute — one that works to bind us interpersonally while also serving to
    reproduce social norms, lifeworld knowledge, and so on.

    The idea was simply to bring this to the system design, which is currently
    based on uncoupled posts. I like the anecdote of double-entry accounting,
    and in my mind it is reflected in trading systems and other transactional
    systems — of which i see no reason why status updating might be one.

    In other words, it's not accounting applied to people or to social practices
    — those will always involve levels of ambiguity that will exceed what can
    be captured in a single yes/no transaction — but accounting applied to the
    message system design. An ubertwitter of a sort.

    I think, however, that a lot of the questions you raise apply well to social
    practices, and those, too, would benefit if systems captured confirming
    actions, for some interaction rules and differentiation of linguistic types
    could then be applied.

    Hope that makes some sense!


  • That was two questions, with clarifying detail to explain each question.

    You addressed the second question, about what types of communications would be eligible for this sort of book-keeping. These are communications with binary responses. Communications with non-binary responses, such as improvisational jokes, would not be eligible.

    The first question was not addressed. On behalf of whom do you see this accounting be provided? Would this be services for brands and publishers, or also for participants in interchanges?

  • To the second question, my honest answer would be that I haven't a strong
    preference. Users, of course, but if the meta data captured were of real
    utility, then to commercial interests also. But this is all hypothetical.

  • View all of adrian chan's Presentations. social media, consultant, … Work Self employed consultant!

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