Are Social Media, Social? (Part Nine)

The ties that bind connect people, families and communities but those ties remain limited and small in number however richly endowed they may appear to be within the context of discussions about social media. As I mentioned in my previous post, this is a fragile ecology that assumes among other things, that people will stay on top of their connections to each other and maintain the strength and frequency of their conversations over time.

It also means that the participatory qualities of social media can be sustained amidst the ever expanding information noise coming at individuals from many different sources. Remember, sharing information or even contributing to the production of information doesn’t mean that users will become more or less social. The assumption that social media users make is that they are being social because they are participating within various networks, but there is no way of knowing other than through some really hard edged research whether that is really the case.

One of the most fascinating aspects of social media is what I would describe as statistical overload or inflation. “There are now more Facebook users in the Arab world than newspaper readers, a survey suggests. The research by Spot On Public Relations, a Dubai-based agency, says there are more than 15 million subscribers to the social network. The total number of newspaper copies in Arabic, English and French is just under 14 million.” (viewed on May 25, 2010). I am not sure how these figures were arrived at since no methodology was listed on their website. The company is essentially marketing itself by making these statistics available. There are hundreds of sites which make similar claims. Some of the more empirical studies that actually explain their methodologies still only sample a small number of users. Large scale studies will take years to complete.

The best way to think of this is to actually count the number of blogs that you visit on a regular basis or to look at the count of your tweets. Inevitably, there will be a narrowing not only of your range of interests but of the actual number of visits or tweets that you make in any given day. The point is that statistics of use tell us very little about reading, depth of concern or even effects.

The counter to this argument goes something like this. What about all those YouTube videos that have gone viral and have been seen by millions of viewers? Or, all the Blogs that so many people have developed? Or, the seemingly endless flow of tweets?

Jakob Nielsen at who has been writing about usability for many years makes the following claim. “In most online communities, 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little, and 1% of users account for almost all the action. All large-scale, multi-user communities and online social networks that rely on users to contribute content or build services share one property: most users don't participate very much. Often, they simply lurk in the background. In contrast, a tiny minority of users usually accounts for a disproportionately large amount of the content and other system activity.” (viewed on May 25, 2010) Neilsen’s insights have to be taken seriously.

The question is why are we engaging in this inflated talk about the effects and impact of social media? Part of the answer is the sheer excitement that comes from the mental images of all these people creating, participating, and speaking to each other even if the number is smaller than we think. I see these mental images as projections, ways of looking at the world that more often than not link with our preconceptions rather than against them.

So, here is another worrying trend. When Facebook announces 500 million people using its site(s), this suggests a significant explosion of desire to create and participate in some form of communications exchange. It says nothing about the content (except that Facebook has the algorithms to mine what we write) other than through the categories Facebook has, which do tend to define the nature of what we exchange. For example, many users list hundreds of friends which becomes a telling sign of popularity and relevance. It is pretty clear that very few members of that group actually constitute the community of that individual. Yet, there is an effect in having that many friends and that effect is defined by status, activities and pictures as well as likes and dislikes.

None of this is necessarily negative. The problem with the figure 500 million is that it projects a gigantic network from which we as individuals can only draw small pieces of content. And, most of this network is of necessity virtual and detached from real encounters. This detachment is both what encourages communication and can also discourage social connections. This is why privacy is so important. It is also why the anti-Facebook movement is gathering strength. The honest desire to communicate has been supplanted by the systematic use of personal information for profit.

Part Ten Follow on me Twitter @ronburnett


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Are Social Media, Social? (Part Eight)

The Ties that Bind……the appearance of portable video in the late 1960's and early 1970's led to a variety of claims about the potential for community media. The most important claim was that video in the hands of community members would allow people in various disenfranchised communities to have a voice. This claim was always stated in contrast to mainstream media which were viewed as one-way and intent on removing the rights of citizens to speak and be heard.

Keep in mind that communities are variously defined by the ties that bind people together. Cities are really agglomerations of villages, impersonal and personal at the same time. Urban environments are as much about the circulation of information as they are about the institutions that individuals share, work in and create. Cities are also very fragile environments largely dependent upon the good will of citizens at all levels of activity. So, communities change all of the time as do the means of communications that they use. There is a constant and ever widening and profoundly interactive exchange of information going on in any urban centre. The buzz is at many levels, from the most personal and familial to the public context of debate about local, national and international issues.

In the post 9/11 world, the two way flow of information and communication has become even more central to urban life. It is not just the appearance and then massive increase in the use of mobile technologies that has altered what communities do and how they see themselves, it is the non-stop and incessant commentaries by many different people on their own lives and the lives of others and on every aspect of the news that has altered both the mental and physical landscape that we inhabit. All of this however, is very fragile. In a world increasingly defined by the extended virtual spaces that we all use, social media platforms define the ties that bind.

In my last entry, I ended with the statement that only eleven percent of internet users actively engage with Twitter on a daily basis. Take a look at [this visualization ]( and you will notice that there are 140 people or organizations that dominate Twitter usage. This doesn't mean that everyone else is not twittering, it just suggests that the community of relationships developed through twitter is not as broad as one might imagine, nor is it as local as the notion of community would suggest. This idea of an extended space lengthens and widens the reach of a small number of people while everyone else essentially maintains the village approach to their usage. The key difference to earlier historical periods is that we imagine a far greater effect to our own words than is actually possible.

From time to time, such as during the Haiti crisis, the best elements of this new and extended social world comes to the fore. However, if you take a hard look at some of the research on news blogs you will discover that the vast majority link to legacy media and get most of their information from traditional sources. Even the categories used by bloggers retain the frameworks and terminology of the mainstream media.

Part of the irony here is that in order for blogs to move beyond these constraints, they would actually have to construct organizations capable of doing research and distinguishing between what is true and what is false. At the same time, the controlled anarchy of the Web allows information to seep through that might otherwise have been hidden or restrained. The total picture however is not as diverse as social media advocates would have us believe.

Part Nine 

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Are Social Media, Social? (Part Seven)

First let me say that I have really appreciated all of the carefully thought out comments sent in by readers. The last two entries including this one directly and indirectly reference your input.

Go to this site to follow the latest local news in your area. Much like Twitter, FWIX lets you follow the local news based on your interests. This is not dissimilar to the aggregate approach taken by many blogs like the Huffington Post and The Daily Beast. The core difference is that news sites select their bloggers, while FWIX relies on entries produced by locals. A site like NowPublic which started in Vancouver but was bought out by a Denver based investment firm, also relies on public participation although there is a good deal more vetting than on other social news sites.

To what degree is the news different on these aggregate sites and what does this say about the use of media? What is the difference between traditional broadcast news and social news? Or, have we all become journalists, writers and commentators on the communities we live in and on the broader political stories that we share?

Part of what makes social media distinct is the *strength* of the ties between people and the stories and messages they exchange. The suggestion that living in a city makes you an expert on local stories depends on many factors not the least of which is what community you belong to, what your work is and where you live. There is no guarantee that being a local confers any greater depth upon a writer or observer. In fact, in some instances the opposite claim can be made. I would suggest that social news broadens the base of potential stories but that the vast majority of what is published is essentially hearsay. In general, with some exceptions, social news sites become a reflection of a small number of users and writers who effectively take on the job for the community of readers.

Digg uses submissions from readers to build a picture of the importance of some topics over others. Numbers count. In 2006 it became apparent that a small number of writers were manipulating the ratings in order to dominate not only the trends of the time, but also to promote their own blogs. An investigation showed that thirty users had taken over.

The internal picture that we have of the Internet makes it appear as if everything we do and say within its confines will have an audience. The network is so large, that news aggregation in particular gives off the impression of connectivity and currency. There is no obvious way of testing these claims other than through a quantitative analysis of visitors and some in-depth studies of usage patterns and learning experiences. Rating a story is not good enough. Feedback is essential to the lifeblood of social news but in reality only a few sites attract the traffic to make them relevant.

This is where Twitter comes in. The brilliance of this short messaging system was all too obvious during the crisis in Iran last year. It has also been very useful in other crisis situations in Africa and Asia. No claims are made to journalistic truth. Twitter entries are newsy without all the baggage of the news attached to them. Recent events in Thailand bore this out, as protesters were able to keep track of their own and the police's movements throughout Bangkok and news agencies used the Twitter entries to explain what was happening.

However, let's delve a bit more deeply into this. The following quote may articulate some of the complications here:

While the standard definition of a social network embodies the notion of all the people with whom one shares a social relationship, in reality people interact with very few of those "listed" as part of their network. One important reason behind this fact is that attention is the scarce resource in the age of the web. Users faced with many daily tasks and large number of social links default to interacting with those few that matter and that reciprocate their attention. For example, a recent study of Facebook showed that users only poke and message a small number of people while they have a large number of declared friends. And a casual search through recent calls made through any mobile phone usually reveals that a small percentage
of the contacts stored in the phone are frequently contacted by the user.
(Bernardo A. Huberman, Daniel M. Romero and Fang Wu Social Computing Lab, HP Laboratories, arXiv:0812.1045v1 [cs.CY] 4 Dec 2008)

In the same article, the authors talk about how after analyzing thousands of Twitter users they came to the conclusion that even with a large following, the central motivating factor in most tweets is to keep friends and family updated on both personal and public news. Their analysis also showed that the number of friends and family involved in the exchanges were quite small. Once again, the overall size of the network as a whole is making it appear as if more is actually going on than is possible given the daily habits of most users. As it turns out, a tiny number of Twitter personalities and sites gather in most of the usage. As with the news, over time, readers will default to a small number of acceptable sources.

A December, 2008 PEW study showed that eleven percent of Americans who are online use Twitter. The mental image we have is of something far larger going on and guess where that has come from? Broadcast media, in other words, television, and the twenty or so most visited news sites on the web which are also the most traditional.

More on this in my next posting. Follow me on Twitter @ronburnett

Part Eight 

  • 5 Innovative Websites That Could Reshape the News (


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    Are social media, social? (Part six)

    The previous sections of Are social media, social? have examined a variety of sometimes complex and often simple elements within the world of social media. Let me now turn to one of the most important issues in this growing phenomenon.

    What do we mean by social? Social is one of those words that is used in so many different ways and in so many different contexts that its meaning is now as variable as the individuals who make use of it. Of course, the literal meaning of social seems to be obvious, that is people associating with each other to form groups, alliances or associations. A secondary assumption in the use of social is descriptive and it is about people who ally with each other and have enough in common to identify themselves with a particular group.

    Social as a term is about relationships and relationships are inevitably about boundaries. Think of it this way. Groups for better or worse mark out their identities through language and their activities. Specific groups will have specific identities, other groups will be a bit more vague in order to attract lurkers and those on the margins. All groups end up defining themselves in one way or another. Those definitions can be as simple as a name or as complex as a broad-based activity with many layers and many sub-groups.

    Identity is the key here. Any number of different identities can be expressed through social media, but a number of core assumptions remain. First, I will not be part of a group that I disagree with and second, I will not want to identify myself with a group that has beliefs that are diametrically opposed to my own. So, in this instance social comes to mean commonality.

    Commonality of thought, ideology and interests which is linked to communal, a blending of interests, concerns and outlooks. So, social as a term is about blending differences into ways of thinking and living, and blending shared concerns into language so that people in groups can understand each other. The best current example of this is the Tea Party movement in the US. The driving energy in posts and blogs among the people who share the ideology of the Tea Party is based on solidifying shared assumptions, defining the enemy and consolidating dissent within the group.

    In this process, a great deal has to be glossed over. The social space of conversation is dominated by a variety of metaphors that don't change. Keep in mind that commonality is based on a negation, that is, containing differences of opinion. And so, we see in formation, the development of ideology — a set of constraints with solid boundaries that adherents cannot diverge from, or put another way, why follow a group if you disagree with everything that they say? Of course, Tea Party has its own resonances which are symbolic and steeped in American history.

    The danger in the simple uses of the word social should be obvious. Why, you may ask should we deconstruct such a 'common' word? Well, that may become more obvious when I make some suggestions about the use of media in social media. Stay tuned.

    Part Seven 



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    Are social media, social? (Part Five)

    In the 1930’s radio was a crucial part of European and North American culture. It was a medium that anyone could listen to and many people did. It was also a medium that was used by the Nazis for example, as a propaganda vehicle. Communication’s systems are by their very nature open to abuse as well as good. Radio is now one of the most important media used in Africa for learning at a distance.

    I bring up what seems like an archaic medium, radio, to suggest that social networks have always been at the heart of the many different ways in which humans communicate with each other. In each historical instance, as a new medium has appeared, there has been an exponential increase in the size of networks and the manner in which messages and information have been exchanged.

    These increases have radiated outwards like a series of concentric circles sometimes encapsulating older forms and other times disrupting them. The fundamental desire to reach out and be understood remains the same. This is what we as humans do, even in our worst moments. We primarily use language and then layer other media not so much on top of language but within its very structure. The brilliance of working with 140 characters is that it takes us back (and may well be pushing us forward) to poetry. The psychology of engaging with an economy of words within the cacophony of messages directed towards us each moment of every day is encouraging a more precise appreciation of the power of individual words. In this sense, I am very heavily on the side of Twitter.

    At the same time, Twitter is not a revolution. Information in whatever form, depending on context, can be dangerous or benign. But information exists in a very precise fashion within a defined context. Notice that the Twitterati in general identify themselves. Twitter is somewhere in between text messages and instant messages, an interlude that connects events and experiences through the web as a hub. Early on Twitter was described as microblogging. My next post will look at blogging and what has happened to the many claims made about it when blogging first appeared.

    Part Six...

    Are social media, social? (Part Four)

    Heidi May has produced some important comments on the previous entries of Are Social Media, Social? May suggested a link to Network, A Networked Book about Network Art which is a fascinating example of the extensions that are possible when communities of interest establish a context to work together and collaborate. Heidi May also asks about the Diaspora project. Diaspora will attempt to build an open source version of Facebook. I wish them luck. This is an essential move to broaden the scope and expectations that we have about the role and usage of social networks, about privacy and most importantly about controlling the very code that governs how we relate within virtual spaces.

    A good example of some of the challenges that we face within networked environments is what happened to the famous German philosopher, Jürgen Habermas. “In January, one of the world’s leading intellectuals fell prey to an internet hoax. An anonymous prankster set up a fake Twitter feed purporting to be by ­Jürgen Habermas, professor emeritus of philosophy at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University of Frankfurt. “It irritated me because the sender’s identity was a fake,” ­Habermas told me recently. Like Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, ­Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe and former US ­secretary of state Condoleezza Rice before him, ­Habermas had been “twitterjacked”.” Stuart Jeffries Financial Times, April 30, 2010.

    As it turns out the hoax was removed but not before the individual was found and apologized. Subsequently, Habermas was interviewed and made this comment:

    “The internet generates a centrifugal force,” Habemas says. “It releases an ­anarchic wave of highly fragmented circuits of communication that ­infrequently overlap. Of course, the spontaneous and egalitarian nature of unlimited communication can have subversive effects under authoritarian regimes. But the web itself does not produce any public spheres. Its structure is not suited to focusing the attention of a dispersed public of citizens who form opinions simultaneously on the same topics and contributions which have been scrutinised and filtered by experts.”

    Habermas suggests that power resides with the State even when social networks bring people together to protest and demonstrate. The results of these engagements are contingent and don’t necessarily lead to change or to the enlargement of the public sphere.

    The question is how does the public become enlightened? What conditions will allow for and encourage rich interchanges that will drive new perceptions of power and new ideas about power relations?

    The general assumption is that social networks facilitate the growth of constructive public debate. Yet, if that were true how can one explain the nature of the debates in the US around health care which were characterized by some of the most vitriolic exchanges in a generation? How do we explain the restrictive and generally anti-immigrant laws introduced by the state of Arizona? The utopian view of social networks tends to gloss over these contradictions. Yes, it is true that Twitter was banned in Iran during the popular uprising last year to prevent protestors from communicating with each other. Yes, social media can be used for good and bad. There is nothing inherent in social networks, nothing latent within their structure that prevents them being used for enhanced exchange and debate. For debates to be public however, there has to be a sense that the debates are visible to a variety of different constituencies. The challenge is that the networks are not visible to each other — mapping them produces interesting lattice-related structures but these say very little about the contents of the interactions.

    The overall effect could be described as mythic since we cannot connect to ten thousand people or know what they are saying to each other. At a minimum, the public sphere takes on a visible face through traditional forms of broadcast that can be experienced simultaneously by many different people. Twitter on the other hand, allows us to see trends but that may often not be enough to make a judgment about currency and our capacity to intervene. Is the headline structure of Twitter enough? Should it be?

    The computer screen remains the main interface and mediator between the movement of ideas from discourse to action. And, as I have discussed in previous posts, networks are abstracted instances of complex, quantitatively driven relationships. We need more research and perhaps establishing a social network to do this would help, more research on whether social media are actually driving towards increasingly fragmented forms of interaction. A question. How many of your followers have you met? How many people leave comments on your blog and what is the relationship between hits and comments? Beyond the ten or so web sites that everyone visits, how many have settled into a regular routine not unlike bulletin boards of old?

    The recent election campaign won by President Obama in which social media played a formidable role suggests that my questions may have no pertinence to his success. Consumer campaigns and boycotts made all the more practical and possible by social networks suggests the opposite of what I am saying. The potential intimacy of dialogues among strangers working together to figure out problems and meet challenges may contradict my intuition that these are variations on existing networks albeit with some dramatic enhancements.

    A final thought. We often talk about the speed with which these phenomena develop without referencing their predecessors. For example, if the Web is just an extension of bulletin boards and hypercard systems then we need to understand how that continuity has been built and upon what premises. If Twitter is an extension of daily conversation and is helping to build the public sphere then we need more research on what is being said and actually examine whether Twitters translate into action.

    Part Five 

    Are social media, social? (Part Three)

    Some non-profits are using Social Media for real results. They are raising the profiles of their charities as well as increasing the brand awareness of their work. They are connecting with a variety of communities inside and outside of their home environments. In the process, Twitter is enabling a variety of exchanges many of which would not happen without the easy access that Twitter provides. These are examples of growth and change through the movement of ideas and projects. Twitter posts remind me short telegrams and as it turns out that may well be the reason the 140 character limit works so well. Social networks facilitate new forms of interaction and often unanticipated contacts. It is in the nature of networks to create nodes, to generate relationships, and to encourage intercommunication. That is after all, one of the key definitions of networks.

    Alexandra Samuel suggests: “But here’s what’s different: you, as an audience member, can decide how social you want your social media to be. If you’re reading a newspaper or watching TV, you can talk back — shake your fist in the air! send a letter the editor! — or you can talk about (inviting friends to watch the game with you, chatting about the latest story over your morning coffee). But the opportunities for conversation and engagement don’t vary much from story to story, or content provider to content provider. On the social web, there are still lots of people who are using Twitter to have conversations, who are asking for your comments on that YouTube video, who are enabling — and participating in — wide-ranging conversations via blog and Facebook. You can engage with the people, organization and brands who want to hear from you…or you can go back to being a passive broadcastee.”

    These are crucial points, a synopsis of sorts of the foundational assumptions in the Twitterverse and the Blogosphere. At their root is an inference or even assertion about traditional media that needs to be thought about. Traditional media are always portrayed as producing passive experiences or at least not as intensely interactive as social media.

    Let’s reel back a bit. Take an iconic event like the assassination of John F. Kennedy. That was a broadcast event that everyone alive at the time experienced in a deeply personal fashion. The tears, the pain, people walking the streets of Washington and elsewhere in a daze, all of this part and parcel of a series of complex reactions as much social as private. Or 9/11, which was watched in real time within a broadcast context. People were on the phone with each other all over the world. Families watched and cried. I could go on and on. It is not the medium which induces passivity, but what we do with the experiences.

    So, Twitter and most social media are simply *extensions* of existing forms of communication. This is not in anyway to downplay their importance. It is simply to suggest that each generation seems to take ownership of their media as if history and continuity are not part of the process. Or, to put it another way, telegrams, the telegraph was as important to 19th century society as the telephone was to the middle of the 20th century.

    In part one of this essay, I linked Twitter and gossip. Gossip was fundamental to the 17th century and could lead to the building or destruction of careers. Gossip was a crucial aspect of the Dreyfus affair. Gossip has brought down movie stars and politicians. The reality is that all media are interactive and the notion of the passive viewer was an invention of marketers to simplify the complexity of communications between images and people, between people and what they watch and between advertisers and their market.

    For some reason, the marketing model of communications has won the day making it seem as if we need more and more complex forms of interaction to achieve or arrive at rich yet simple experiences. All forms of communications to varying degrees are about interaction at different levels. Every form of communication begins with conversations and radiates outwards to media and then loops back. There is an exquisite beauty to this endless loop of information, talk, discussion, blogging, twittering and talking some more. The continuity between all of the parts is what makes communications processes so rich and engaging.

    Part Four

    Are social media, social? (Part Two)

    Okay. Lots of responses to my previous entry. Like I said at the end of the article, I am not trying to be negative. I am actually responding to the profoundly important critique of the digitally induced and digested world of communications that Jaron Lanier distills in his recent book, You Are Not a Gadget.

    Mashable, a great web site has an article entitled, 21 Essential Social Media Resources You May Have Missed. Most of what the article describes is very important. This is truly the utopian side of the highly mediated universe that we now inhabit. But, as Lanier suggests, mediation does come with risks not the least of which is a loss of identity. Who am I in the Twitterverse or even within the confines of this Blog. And, why would you want to know?

    According to Lanier, "A new generation has come of age with a reduced expectation of what a person can be, and of who each person might become." (I can't give you a page number because my Kindle doesn't show page numbers! Location 50-65 whatever that means.) The Mashable article would seem to contradict Lanier describing as it does many instances of Social Media use that have genuinely benefitted a pretty large number of people. What Lanier is getting at goes beyond these immediate examples. He talks at length about a lock-in effect that comes from the repeated use of certain modes of thought and action within the virtual confines of a computer screen.

    He is somewhat of a romantic talking about the need for mystery and asking what cannot be represented by a computer. This is an important issue. The underlying structure of the web and the social media that piggyback on that structure is pretty much the same as it was when Tim Berners-Lee transformed the old Apple Hypercard system into something far grander.

    UNIX is core to the operating systems of most computers and its command line references have not evolved that much since the 1980's. Open up the Terminal program on a Mac and take a look at it. Lanier's point is that this says something about how we use computers. Most people cannot change the underlying system that has been put in place. That is why open source programming is so exciting. But even open source is developed by very few people.

    Could we for example develop our own Twitter-like client? Could we, should we become programmers with enough savvy to create a new and less commercially oriented version of Facebook? Even the SDK for the iPhone and the iPad requires a massive time investment if you want to learn how to develop an App. Yes, you can follow a set of instructions, but no you cannot recreate the SDK to make it your own.

    Now, some would say that the use of this software is more important than its underlying language. However, imagine if you applied that same principle to speech and to creativity? This is not about tools. This is about the structure, the embedded nature of the mechanisms that allow things to happen. And, as Lanier suggests, most people have been experiencing digital technology without understanding how that structure may influence their usage of the technology.

    Part Three

    Are social media, social?

    Warning: This is a long article and not necessarily suitable to a glance. (See below on glances.)

    I have been thinking a great deal about social media these days not only because of their importance, but also because of their ubiquity. There are some fundamental contradictions at work here that need more discussion. Let's take Twitter. Some people have thousands of followers. What exactly are they following? And more crucially, what does the word follow mean in this context?

    Twitter is an endless flow of news and links between friends and strangers. It allows and sometimes encourages exchanges that have varying degrees of value. Twitter is also a tool for people who don't know each other to learn about shared interests. These are valuable aspects of this tightly wrought medium that tend towards the interactivity of human conversation.

    On the other hand, Twitter like many Blogs is really a broadcast medium. Sure, followers can respond. And sometimes, comments on blog entries suggest that a "reading" has taken place. But, individual exchanges in both mediums tend to be short, anecdotal and piecemeal.

    The general argument around the value of social media is that at least people can respond to the circulation of conversations and that larger and larger circles of people can form to generate varied and often complex interactions. But, responses of the nature and shortness that characterize Twitter are more like fragments — reactions that in their totality may say important things about what we are thinking, but within the immediate context of their publication are at best, broken sentences that are declarative without the consequences that often arise during interpersonal discussions. So, on Twitter we can make claims or state what we feel with few of the direct results that might occur if we had to face our ‘followers’ in person.

    Blogs and web sites live and die because they can trace and often declare the number of ‘hits’ they receive. What exactly is a hit? Hit is actually an interesting word since its original meaning was to come upon something and to meet with…. In the 21st century, hits are about visits and the more visits you have the more likely you have an important web presence. Dig into Google Analytics and you will notice that they actually count the amount of time ‘hitters” spend on sites. The average across many sites is no more than a few seconds. Does this mean that a hit is really a glance? And what are the implications of glancing at this and that over the period of a day or a month? A glance is by definition short (like Twitter) and quickly forgotten. You don’t spend a long time glancing at someone.

    Let’s look at the term Twitter a bit more closely. It is a noun that means “tremulous excitement.” But, its real origins are related to gossiping. And, gossiping is very much about voyeurism. There is also a pejorative sense to Twitter, chattering, chattering on and on about the same thing. So, we are atwitter with excitement about social media because they seem to extend our capacity to gossip about nearly everything which may explain why Justin Bieber has been at the top of discussions within the twitterverse. I am Canadian and so is he. Enough said.

    Back to follow for a moment. To follow also means to pursue. I will for example twitter about this blog entry in an effort to increase the readership for this article. In a sense, I want you the reader, to pursue your interest in social media with enough energy to actually read this piece! To follow also means to align oneself, to be a follower. You may as a result wish to pursue me @ronburnett.

    But the real intent of the word follow is to create a following. And the real intent of talking about hits is to increase the number of followers. All in all, this is about convincing people that you have something important and valuable to say which means that social media is also about advertising and marketing. This explains why businesses are justifiably interested in using social media and why governments are entering the blogosphere and the twitterverse in such great numbers.

    Here is the irony. After a while, the sheer quantity of Twitters means that the circle of glances has to narrow. Trends become more important than the actual content. Quantity rules just like Google, where the greater the number of hits, the more likely you will have a site that advertisers want to use. Remember, advertisers assume that a glance will have the impact they need to make you notice that their products exist. It is worth noting that glancing is also derived from the word slippery.

    As the circle of glances narrows, the interactions take on a fairly predictable tone with content that is for the most part, newsy and narcissistic. I am not trying to be negative here. Twitter me and find out.

    Part Two

    History's Folds

    The brilliant French philosopher, Michel Serres proposes in recent publications that one of the best ways of understanding history is to think about human events as a series of interconnected folds, a networks of networks in which events that may have taken place thousands of years ago are still connected to the present through human memory and human artifacts.

    The folds of which Serres speaks can be visualized as a series of pleated pages in which different points touch, sometimes arbitrarily and other times by design. The metaphor that Serres has developed has another purpose. In order to understand the technologies, social movements and cultural phenomena that humans have created, each point of contact among all these pleats needs to be drawn out in a detailed and narrative manner. Although Serres does not describe this method as stream of consciousness that is sometimes how it reads, to the point where the simplest of objects becomes the premise for an expansive narrative.

    For example, (adapting Serres’s method) the notion of networks needs to be understood not only as a function of technology and communications systems, but also through the efforts by nearly every culture and every generation to develop a variety of bonds using any number of different means from language to art to music to political, religious and economic institutions. This suggests that the Internet, for example, is merely a modern extension of already existing forms of communication between people. And, while that may seem obvious, many of the claims about the Internet suggest that it is a revolutionary tool with implications for the ways in which people see themselves and their surroundings. More often than not, its revolutionary character is related to obvious characteristics like speed of communications, which may in fact be no more than a supplement to profoundly traditional modes of information exchange. The intersection of the revolutionary with the traditional is essential to the success of any new and innovative technology and may be at the heart of how quickly any individual innovation is actually taken up by individuals or by society as a whole.

    My Facebook, My Self by Jessica Helfand

    "In a recent interview on the Today Show, Mark Zuckerberg — the young founder of Facebook — observed that the single most distinctive feature of his revolutionary social networking site was its capacity to let users control various degrees of privacy." [From the Design Observer.]( (Jessica Helfand is a partner, with William Drenttel, in Winterhouse, a design studio in Northwest Connecticut. She is Senior Critic at Yale, where she is an Associate Fellow in Jonathan Edwards College.)

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    A Review of Screen Media Arts: An Introduction to Concepts and Practices

    Screen Media Arts by Hart Cohen, Juan Salazar and Iqbal Barkat is a superb book designed to be used in introductory and advanced university classes that study both traditional and digital media. The book comes with a DVD which adds not only resources to the book, but moves the book beyond the conventional boundaries of text and paper. The Australian Publishers Association has short listed the book for a major award.

    The book examines areas like the relationships among photographs, images and the transformation of images into data and information. The range is broad, from Roland Barthes to Marshall McLuhan to animation, documentary cinema, narrative cinema with an excellent chapter on experimental film; in each instance there is depth and intellectual rigour. For example, Chapter Two, which deals with Narrative Forms and Screen Media Arts, introduces the typology of Valdimir Propp alongside a discussion of the linguist Roman Jakobson and the anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss.

    The interconnections here are important and often not recognized by modern day scholars in film. The efforts in the 1970's to develop a semiotics of the cinema, led in large measure by the research and writings of Christian Metz, were profoundly influenced by linguistics. [Jakobson](, whose work was in phonetics, was very interested in typologies because systems of classification make it possible to describe complex systems in a fundamentally simple way. Levi-Strauss was deeply influenced by this, and his early work builds on Jakobson's insights. Metz tries to redefine the relationships between language and film and searches for a systemic way of explaining how meaning comes to be organized in specific patterns, particularly in narrative film. However, he doesn’t adequately define the nature of the filmic system and ends up suggesting the presence of grammar-like processes that determine film’s signifying properties. Chapter Two grapples with these issues and includes a number of questions that should push students to investigate this important history in much greater detail.

    One of the key claims in the book is that 'digitisation' expands the potential for story-telling in the cinema. Although I agree that interactive tools and virtual worlds have had a transformative effect on the nature of images, I am not altogether sure that audience participation also transforms the rules of narrative. The best place to examine this claim would be through a systematic examination of YouTube which is referenced in the book more as a resource than as an object of study. Chapter 16, which deals with Social Media, engages with the plethora of media but creates an inventory rather than connecting social media more fully and richly to questions of narrative. At the same time, Chapter Four, which is one of the best chapters in the book, engages in a profound manner with the shifting space of audience concerns and interests.

    Part Two, which is made up of five chapters, deals with a variety of technical issues around production, legal constraints in filmmaking, directing and editing. These chapters will be useful for practitioners. Editing is seen through the theories of Sergei Eisenstein. The notion that the combination of a number of shots (sometimes just two) will produce an “idea” is based on Eisenstein’s overall premise that a universal visual competence governs the ways in which pictorial languages are understood and also the ways in which the specific properties of communication of a given shot are created, recognized and perceived. This fits in with Eisenstein’s emphasis which is drawn in a mechanical way from behavioural ([Pavlovian]( psychology. The Chapter on editing needed to examine this debate in greater detail and relate its presumptions back to the earlier chapters on narrative.

    The last chapter of the book explores the present and future in screen media and has some excellent examples of media that are pushing the accepted boundaries both at the level of production and with respect to narrative structures and orientation.

    Screen Media Arts stands out among the vast number of introductory texts available on the market!

    Towards a Sustainable World

    I have been rereading portions of my recently published book, How Images Think, not out of some sad state of hubris, but because I have been trying to understand why I chose the title. I should add that the title of the book has led to far more comment than much of the content, which says a great deal about the ways in which books are read and critiqued these days.

    The comments that follow were provoked in large part by a brilliant lecture given by Bruno Latour to the British Sociological Association in April of 2007. Readers of this Blog and my web site will know that I am a profound admirer of Latour’s work.

    I will provide the context for his essay in a moment. At a crucial point in his lecture he says, “objects have become things that is, issues, gatherings, assemblies of some sort.” (A Plea for Earthly Sciences, Keynote Lecture, British Sociological Association, p. 5) And, this is I now realize with hindsight, what was behind my selection of How Images Think as a title. “Things” in the broadest sense of that word operate within a world of discourse and language. Things have lost (and perhaps never had) a direct simplicity of meaning and instead have evolved into clusters with complex foundations and even more complex uses.

    Religions have always built multi-faceted rituals around icons and symbols. Churches are objects as are the stained glass windows in them. The things that surround us carry varying degrees of weight depending on what we attribute to them. Attribution is the key.
    Children who have teddy bears use attribution to give a silent, soft piece of fabric a highly charged set of meanings. A blanket can become a friend. Over time the nostalgia for that simple set of relationships becomes a characteristic of how people define their childhoods.

    The history of things is further amplified when they are saved or placed into museums. Meaning is both attributed to and drawn from things in a continuous process of negotiation, the outcome of which cannot often be determined in advance. So much depends on context and language.

    Attribution, amplification — words that describe the intense and interactive ways in which people sustain not only the social space they inhabit, but also the natural world. Latour’s presentation asks us to recognize the degree to which we have objectified things and in so doing collapsed and devalued the shared space we inhabit — nature as well as what we have built.

    Nature treated as an object of exploitation and use leads to unsustainable practices. The environmental crisis in this context is not just another challenge that humans must face. Rather, it is a sign of the disrespect that we have for the collective space that we share with both humans and non-humans. And, as the environment deteriorates further and further, the abuse eventually leads to destruction. When you begin to think of objects differently, then all of our relationships slip into the foreground and one can sensitively apply values and ethical standards to all aspects of life, not just those that seem to be the most needed or expedient or socially based.
    So, How Images Think is a title that suggests a change in the ways in which humans relate to images not simply as objects but as sites of communion and sharing. This is a collective engagement that draws upon images as objects of interaction, as provocateurs, as reflections, as windows and as sources of insight. We think, dream and communicate through images. In that sense, images are hybrids — the collective representations of human thought — things that live because of what we do to and with them.

    In that sense, we need to ask questions about the application of thought to the human and object world we inhabit. This is urgent. Our environment cannot sustain humanity's prideful ideology that the crisis that the planet is in is simply one of many challenges that must be overcome. This is for the time being our only and most important challenge.

    The Poet's Challenge to Learning

    Albert Einstein and Rabindranath Tagore

    Rabindranath Tagore's work on education and learning (He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.) is of great significance and is not as well known as it should be in the West. In keeping with the richness and diversity of Tagore's vision, I would like to comment on a superb paper (The Poet's Challenge to Schooling: Creative Freedom for the Human Soul) by Shilpa Jain and others that explores not only Tagore's philosophy but his impact on the essential spirit, if not the soul of what it means to learn and be taught.

    I would like to recount an experience, which I had some years ago during a visit to an experimental school in California, and how it affected my own expectations about teaching and learning. I was invited to a Rudolf Steiner School to examine their approach as well as to learn more about how they hoped to change the experience of learners in a positive and constructive fashion. I have many doubts about the underlying religious foundations for Steiner education, but I saw something that really affected me that is closely linked to the spirit of Tagore's perspective on education.

    My hosts took me to a small elementary school that had been built at the edge of an agricultural area. Once inside the school, I noticed that the ceilings were quite low and that the furniture was considerably smaller than I had anticipated. One classroom had a very small door built into a larger one and as I looked into the classroom, I noticed that the desks were also smaller than usual. I asked the Director of the school why this was so and she explained that they had decided to tailor the architecture to the size of the children in order to make them more comfortable with the scale of the space. This struck me as an extraordinary idea. Children see the world around them from a very different perspective. Adults can seem like giants even when they are gentle. Scale, perspective and space are crucial components of a child's world, but are often disregarded. In fact, the general architecture of schools is poor and rarely takes students and their experience as a central premise for the design process. These factors are not minor ones for learners. Why would the school system be so unaware of their importance? There are many reasons for this, but perhaps the most important is a lack of synchronicity between the higher purpose of learning and the everyday needs of learners.

    This goes to the heart of one of Tagore's concerns, which is the relationship between creativity and freedom. Schools are presently designed to teach students and are not centred on the principles of learning. The lack of a holistic viewpoint of the sort suggested by Tagore is missing. Keep in mind, that my own view of learning is that it is very ephemeral and that for the most part, schools have outlived their usefulness in their present form and need to be completely rethought. This point of view is summarized in the following quote from Jain's piece:

    "…the very act of creation is freedom, for it allows human beings to discover their full potential. They have the opportunity to live what is theirs, to make the world of their own selection, and to move it through their own movement." (Page 11 of The Poet's Challenge to Schooling: Creative Freedom for the Human Soul)

    In order for creativity to be released and for students to discover their real purpose in learning, they have to have the power to criticize and reflect upon the experiences that they are having. This is much more difficult than it appears. It is part of a double bind. If the students themselves have not learned enough to make their criticism rigourous and well-thought out, then their commentary will fall on deaf ears. On the other hand, if the environment does not facilitate the growth and the development of enough intellectual acuity, the quality of their discourse will be poor. This is not dissimilar to Tagore's commentary on the alienating experience that students have as they struggle with the banality of school and the lack of respect for nature and spirituality in the school system.

    From my own perspective as the President of a University of Art and Design, I am most interested in the history of Santiniketan, the ashram that Tagore founded which turned into a school and now is a university. My own experience has taught me that institutions are very far away from understanding their own cultures with enough depth to engage in real change. This may seem like a dramatic statement, but the reality is that even the best of leaders tire out very quickly as they encounter increasingly complex levels of resistance to sometimes urgently needed shifts. The question is, what is it about an educational institution that breeds so much resistance? The answer is not a simple one because there are also numerous institutions in which radical thinking is taking place.

    There is something fundamental about schooling that Tagore understood. In order to keep a school going the experience has to be systematized, that is, days have to be ordered and classes scheduled and marks given. Yet, it is precisely structures of this kind, which inhibit the development of open spaces and places for learning. What is unclear about Tagore’s perspective is how to ‘free’ up institutions — how to create enough of a sense of community to sustain open-ended inquiry and freshness of thinking. Tagore looked to nature as an example and in this he is quite close to the thinking of Thoreau and Rousseau. It is unclear how long that openness can be maintained without introducing some expectations both on the part of learners and teachers. In other words, there is a profound romanticism at the core of Tagore’s thinking and practice. It is a romanticism that I support, but for which there is no social, political or cultural consensus.

    Even Tagore’s use of art and music mirrors many other experiments from Steiner through to Montessori. Jain’s paper explores all the facets of Tagore’s wonderful effort to build a new way of thinking about the world and about learning, but it fails to address the fundamental issues of institutional culture and institutional change. Given the large number of people are seeking to learn and the incredible investment of time and money into institutions ostensibly devoted to learning, strategies of institutional transformation seem to me to hold the key to future change in education as a whole.

    Generation T

    I was privileged to attend and present at an amazing conference in Ottawa recently. The Millennium Scholarship Foundation, which was established by Prime Minister Jean Chretien and supports hundreds of students at post-secondary institutions in Canada hosts an annual meeting entitled, "Think Again." Approximately, 250 laureates attend. Most are in university or college and often nearing completion of their degrees.

    The Program for the meeting has the following quote from Frank Palmer, who is the founder and CEO of DDB advertising agency. "Love experiments, learn to collaborate, ask different questions, try not to criticize, sweat the small stuff, never stop learning/moving, seek better ways, bury your ego, celebrate successes, love your job or leave it and be fearless."

    I presented in a workshop entitled, "Your actions, your communities."

    Here are some of the questions that I asked:

    Communities are defined by boundaries and by similarities and differences among its members.

    How are these differences/similarities articulated?

    How do symbols work to sustain communities?

    Communities are repositories of symbols from memorials to political structures to icons, sports teams and cultural markers.

    How do we find out what a community means to its members?

    Are the feelings of commonality strong enough to overcome difference and what are the boundaries of commonality?

    As boundaries become less viable, symbols become more and more important.

    As the definition of community changes, its symbolic elements take on greater meaning.

    As the nation-state shifts from a broad-based coalition to a multiplicity of tribes, each tribe looks to icons and images for clarity and meaning.

    The world, as Thomas Friedman has suggested may be flat, but the fissures and cracks have created fault lines that have led to more and more difference, real and imaginary.

    Between January 2000 and the completion of its mandate in 2009, the foundation will have distributed approximately one million awards to students across Canada


    “Community suggests a place and a space of commonality — sharing. Community also suggests difference — characteristics which distinguish one group from another, one individual from another. As Anthony Cohen has put it, community expresses a “relational idea that allows social groups to define and create boundaries between themselves and others.

    Community, the profound sense of attachment that we have to place and to people, is as much about geography as it is about imagination. The maps we draw produce borders that we cross with our minds even as we defend the more closed and shadowy concepts of nation, province or locality.


    Gehry and MIT


    Frank Gehry's building at MIT is a wonder to behold. The building is home to the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems (LIDS) and the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. Its striking design - featuring tilting towers, many-angled walls and whimsical shapes - challenges much of the conventional wisdom of laboratory and campus building.