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

Communications: The Discipline and its Transformation (1)

Brief Overview — Strategic Approaches to the Study of Communications. The following list is not intended to be comprehensive, rather it articulates some of the many (too many?) debates and ideas that circulate within the study of communications. The discipline has become so broad because of a misconceived idea of multi-disciplinarity to the point where it is unclear what the boundaries are between different areas of study. Perhaps, the very notion of a discipline needs to be rethought. Or, perhaps the evolution of Communications into something far greater than the term itself can contain, suggests that the work of the next few years will be around meaning, creativity and classification. Think of it this way, the taking of digital photographs is less and less about aesthetically rich images and more about organizing large amounts of information into meaningful patterns. The software that we use to organize our images is dependent on a tagging system that is above all else semantic and is driven by language, by what we say about the photos and less by the photos themselves. The danger is that as classification becomes central and as the sheer bulk of images increases that it will be more and more difficult to frame and critique what is being produced. This is a difficult challenge to the development of disciplines because it implies a continuous and evolving fluidity that institutions in particular have a hard time containing.



Literary, Legal and Historical Inquiries into the Press —
News as Information — Growth of Print Culture



Intersection of Sociological and Institutional Analysis — Electrification —
Telegraph — Telephone — Radio — Cinema



Broadcasting — Audience Research — Social Sciences
provide main model
for analysis — Empirical Methodology



Frankfurt School — Cultural Analysis — Popular Culture as Category —
Models of Consumption and Commodity Fetishism — Intersection of Psychoanalytic,
Sociological and Anthropological approaches —
Language as Paradigm for all modes of Communication



Television — Mass Communication Studies — Relationship to Policy —
Communications and Development — Questions of Economic and Political Control — Ownership of Media — Democratic Control



Paradigms from Literary Study — Applications of Textuality — Homology
between written and visual-oral texts Structuralist claims with
respect to the Production of Meaning —
Efforts to link Media Analysis with Semiotics and Deconstruction— Intersections with Ethnographic Research — Shifts in Anthropology and Sociology



Ideology — Cultural Analysis — Marxist and
Post-Structural Models —
Reconfiguration of Institutional Analysis — Reaction to Positivist Empiricism —
Dissolution of Base-Superstructure Paradigm for the Explanation of Cultural Processes —
Links between literary analysis and
development of Communications and Media Studies



Feminist Reconfiguration of Communications and Cultural Studies Paradigm
Shift in Concerns for Audience to notions of Reading, Spectatorship —
Post-Colonial Discourses — Challenges to the hegemony
of 1st world views



Postmodernism — Redefinitions of the theory—practice dichotomy—Move
to Discourse models—Shift in Language Paradigm—Shift from Representation
to Simulation



Virtual Reality—Hyperreality—Cyberpunk—Cyberspace—Reconfiguration of Computer—C.D. Rom—Notions of Infinite Memory—Multi-Media



The above taxonomy and the way in which I have separated its historical constituents should be seen as entirely heuristic. My aim is to show the inherent intersection of concerns between the humanities and the social sciences, but also to talk about the way in which communications has colonised many different areas of research and thought over the last twenty years.

This process of boundary creation and dissolution — the inherent weakness of any attempt to lock boundaries into place — has produced an almost non-stop integration of disciplines into communications with the result that what we may need to examine at moment is a redefinition of the very notion of a field of study or a discipline. The presumptions which guided the creation and installation of disciplines in universities up until the early 1980's may be in need of serious revision.

Let me explore this a bit further. It can be argued that any attempt to define the domain of communications study runs into a classic confrontation — the vested interests of the humanities and social sciences both converge and diverge. Though the latter has taken the mantle of leadership upon itself, the most interesting research of the moment is going on in cultural studies, games, computer-human interaction, digital communities and design. But even as I say this, the disciplinary framework of cultural studies represents a challenge of its own because it is so very fluid as to definition and even more so as to direction. The question of what constitutes cultural studies finds itself in precisely the same crisis of definition as communications. Is this because of the nature of the phenomena under examination?

(End.....part one)

Geographies of Dissent (2)

There is another term that I would like to introduce into this discussion and that is, counter-publics. Daniel Brouwer in a recent issue of Critical Studies in Media Communications uses the term to describe the impact of two “zines"? on public discussion of HIV-AIDS. The term resonates for me because it has the potential to bring micro and macro into a relationship that could best be defined as a continuum and suggests that one needs to identify how various publics can contain within themselves a continuing and often conflicted and sometimes very varied set of analysis and discourses about central issues of concern to everyone. It was the availability of copy machines beginning in 1974 that really made ‘zines’ possible. There had been earlier versions, most of which were copied by hand or by using typewriters, but copy machines made it easy to produce 200 or 300 copies of a zine at very low cost. In the process, a mico-community of readers was established for an infinite number of zines. In fact, the first zine convention in Chicago in the 1970’s attracted thousands of participants. The zines that Brouwer discusses that were small to begin with grew over time to five and ten thousand subscribers. This is viral publishing at its best, but it also suggests something about how various common sets of interests manifest themselves and how communities form in response.

“One estimate reckons that these "Xeroxed, hand-written, desktop-published, sometimes printed, and even electronic" documents (as the 1995 zine convention in Hawaii puts it) have produced some 20,000 titles in the past couple of decades. And this "cottage" industry is thought to be still growing at twenty percent per year. Consequently, as never before, scattered groups of people unknown to one another, rarely living in contiguous areas, and sometimes never seeing another member, have nonetheless been able to form robust social worlds? John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid in The Social Life of Documents. Clearly, zines represent counter-publics that are political and are inheritors of 19th century forms of poster communications and the use of public speakers to bring countervailing ideas to large groups. Another way of thinking about this area is to look at the language used by many zines. Generally, their mode of address is direct. The language tends to be both declarative and personal. The result is that the zines feel like they are part of the community they are talking to and become an open ‘place’ of exchange with unpredictable results. I will return to this part of the discussion in a moment, but it should be obvious that zines were the precursors to Blogs.

As I said, the overall aggregation of various forms of protest using a variety of different media in a large number of varied contexts generates outcomes that are not necessarily the product of any centralized planning. This means that it is also difficult to gage the results. Did the active use of cell phones during the demonstrations in Seattle against the WTO contribute to greater levels of organization and preparedness on the part of the protestors and therefore on the message they were communicating? Mobile technologies were also used to “broadcast? back to a central source that then sent out news releases to counter the mainstream media and their depiction of the protests and protestors. This proved to be minimally effective in the broader social sense, but very effective when it came to maintaining and sustaining the communities that had developed in opposition to the WTO and globalization. Inadvertently, the mainstream media allowed the images of protest to appear in any form because they were hungry for information and needed to make sense of what was going on. As with many other protests in public spaces, it is not always possible for the mainstream media to control what they depict. Ultimately, the most important outcome of the demonstrations was symbolic, which in our society added real value to the message of the protestors.

To be continued...