- September
Posted By : Adrian Chan
Social objects? Social facts.

“Language is not content to go from a first party to a second party, from one who has seen to one who has not, but necessarily goes from a second party to a third party, neither of whom has seen. It is in this sense that language is the transmission of the word as order-word, not the communication of a sign as information. Language is a map, not a tracing.” Deleuze and Guattari, Thousand Plateaus

“According to Garfinkel, social facts, that is, socially constructed, or achieved, social phenomena, and in particular an understanding of the way they are achieved as social constructions, provide the key to answering the essential sociological questions regarding the character and origin of social order and human knowledge.” editor’s intro to Ethnomethodology’s Program by Harold Garfinkel

A couple quotes from very different sources and schools of thought. Post modernism, or post structuralism, and sociology. But they share something in common: recognition that much of human experience is constructed. That its organization is a manifestation of social forces; and that these forces become meaningful to subjects by means of systems of expression that include the claims of language and speech.

We talk about social objects in user experience and interaction design disciplines. These are supposed to be contexts around which conversation occurs. Objects such as pictures and videos, about which people leave comments.

But the evolution of social tools has progressed far beyond the world of objects, and if anything, now privileges communication first, objects second. Objects become referents in the circulation of messages and posts — forms of speech preserved as textual artifacts so familiar that we forget the unique properties of digital text. Communication becomes the context in which objects appear, become personal and social, are shared and distributed.

I chose the quotes above because I believe that in social systems (online social media being social systems of a sort), one of the central questions must be the production of social facts. Social facts come into existence, if you will, as messages and communication posted, shared, and distributed on services like Facebook, twitter, blogs, and so on. We have a term for those that trend: memes.

These are little more than units of meaning with reference either to communication in the system (retweets or blog links), to real world events, to opinions (if they are quotes), and so on. There is order of a sort (it’s weak order), and organization in the circulation of these social facts.

Order and organization, because these facts are produced by users whose presence in social media is itself structured: users have followers, friends, and identities (accounts, blogs). They have habits, routines, and practices (they maintain their profiles and reputations; they revisit the same blogs, list their followers, pay attention to some users more than others, and so on. Their activity, in short, is social and not arbitrary, habitual and not random.

The medium itself is a medium of production in time. It is always reproducing itself as a system on the millions of individual actions of its members. Feeds and streams become the flow, or temporality, of this medium’s reproduction. And out of this network come social facts: communication whose relevance has risen above the noise of everyday observations and commentary.

Social facts, and not social objects, are likely the better way to approach matters of context in tools of communication. We can borrow some of the object-oriented language of social objects to describe the manner in which statements become “objective” — as tweets become “objects” when they are retweeted (they are no longer the direct expression of an author, but a reference).

Subjective expression becomes objective when it’s captured and circulated through the medium (means of production and distribution). But they are not objects — they are expressions, using language, and having an author whose intent was to make a claim by linguistic means.

The question of order remains. Networks confound conventional analyses of order. So, too, do these talk systems. The claims are not subjected to validation or legitimation by any higher authorities. There is just circulation. Volume and speed (popularity) are its most notable feature — sometimes this is bestowed upon users as a proxy for authority (experts, etc).

But the system is no more ordered than is the stock market. It’s active and reactive. Processual not architectural. Event not place. Duration not permanence.


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