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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A Torn Page…Ghosts on the Computer Screen…Words…Images…Labyrinths

Exploring the Frontiers of Cyberspace (extracts from a longer piece)

“Poetry is liquid language" (Marcos Novak)

“As a writer of fantasy, Balzac tried to capture the world soul in a single symbol among the infinite number imaginable; but to do this he was forced to load the written word with such intensity that it would have ended by no longer referring to a world outside of its own self…. When he reached this threshold, Balzac stopped and changed his whole program: no longer intensive but extensive writing. Balzac the realist would try through writing to embrace the infinite stretch of space and time, swarming with multitudes, lives, and stories." (Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino)

Is it possible to imagine a labyrinth without a defined pattern, without a center or exit point? What if we enter that labyrinth and wander through its hallways, endlessly opening doors which lead to other doors, with windows which look out over other windows? What if there is no real core to the labyrinth and it is of unknown size? This may be an apt metaphor for virtual reality, for the vast network of ideas which now float across and between the many layers of cyberspace.

“A year ago, I was halfway convinced that cyberspaces where you can experience the sensation of hefting a brick or squeezing a lemon probably won’t be feasible for another twenty or thirty years. A month ago, I saw and felt something that shook my certainty. When I tried the first prototype of a pneumatic tactile glove in inventor Jim Hennequin’s garage in Cranfield, an hour’s drive southwest of London, I began to suspect that high-resolution tactile feedback might not be so far in the future. The age of the Feelies, as Aldous Huxley predicted, might be upon us before we know what hit us." (Howard Rheingold, Virtual Reality, New York: Touchstone, 1992, p. 322)

Sometimes the hallways of this labyrinth narrow and we hear the distant chatter of many people and are able to ‘browse’ or ‘gopher’ into their conversations. Other times, we actually encounter fellow wanderers and exchange details about geography, the time, information gained or lost during our travels. The excitement of being in the labyrinth is tempered by the fact that as we learn more and more about its structure and about surviving within its confines, we know that we have little hope of leaving. Yet, it is a nourishing experience at one level because there are so many different elements to it, all with a life of their own, all somehow connected and for the most part available to us. In fact, even though we know that the labyrinth has borders, it seems as if an infinite number of things could go on within its hallways and rooms. It is almost as if there is too much choice, too much information at every twist and turn. Yet, this disoriented, almost chaotic world has a structure. We don’t know the designers. They may have been machines, but we continue to survive in part because we have some confidence in the idea that design means purpose, and purpose must mean that our wanderings will eventually lead to a destination. (This may be no more than a metaphysical claim, but it keeps the engines of Cyberspace running at high speed.)

In order to enter a virtual labyrinth you must be ready to travel by association. In effect, your body remains at your computer. You travel by looking, by reading, by imaging and imagining. The eyes are, so to speak, the royal road into virtuality.

“Cyberspace — The electronic frontier. A completely virtual environment: the sum total of all [BBSes], computer networks, and other [virtual communities]. Unique in that it is constantly being changed, exists only virtually, can be practically infinite in “size" communication occurs instantaneously world-wide — physical location is completely irrelevant most of the time. Some include video and telephone transmissions as part of cyberspace." (A. Hawks, Future Culture — December 31, 1992)

In the labyrinth of Cyberspace, design is the logic of the system. Cyberspace reproduces itself at so many different levels at once and in so many different ways, that the effects are like an evolutionary explosion, where all of the trace elements of weakness and strength coexist. The architecture of this space is unlike any that has preceded it and we are consequently grappling with discursive strategies to try and describe the experiences of being inside it. The implication is that there is no vantage point from which you can watch either your progress or the progress of others. There isn’t a platform upon which you can stand to view your experience or the experience of your neighbours. In other words, the entire system doesn’t come into view — how could you create a picture of the Internet? Yet, you could imagine the vast web-like structure, imagine, that is, through any number of different images, a world of microelectronic switches buzzing at high speed with the thoughts and reflections of thousands of people. The more important question is what does this imagining do to our bodies, since to some degree Cyberspace is a fiction where we are narrator and character at one and the same time? What are the implications of never knowing the shape and architecture of this technological sphere which you both use and come to depend on? What changes in the communicative process when you type a feeling onto a computer screen, as opposed to speaking about it? What does that feeling look like in print? Does the computer screen offer a space where the evocative strength of a personal letter can be communicated from one person to another?

Reflections on New Media (9)

This is the second part of my presentation at the [Refresh Conference in New Media]( at the Banff Centre

So, the resistance to the appearance of different media forms may explain why media were renamed as new media. It may explain why someone like Lev Manovich relies on the trope of the cinema to explain the many complex levels that make up media landscapes and imageworlds. New in this instance is not only an escape from history, but also suggests that history is not important.

There is another important question here. What makes a medium specific discipline a discipline in any case? Is it the practice of the creators? Is it the fact that a heritage of production and circulation has built up enough to warrant analysis? I think not. Disciplines are produced through negotiation among a variety of players crossing the boundaries of industry, academia and the state. The term New Media has been built upon this detritus, and is a convenient way in which to develop a nomenclature that designates in a part for whole kind of way, that an entire field has been created. But, what is that field? Is it the sum total of the creative work within its rather fluid boundaries? Is it the sum total of the scholarly work that has been published? Is it the existence of a major journal that both celebrates and promotes not only its own existence but also the discipline itself?

These issues of boundary making are generally driven by political as well as cultural considerations. They are often governed by curatorial priorities developed through institutions that have very specific stakes in what they are promoting. None of these activities per se may define or even explain the rise, fall and development of various disciplines. But, as a whole, once in place, disciplines close their doors both as a defensive measure, but also to preserve the history of the struggle to come into being.

I am not suggesting by any means that things have not changed. I am not saying that digital media are simply extensions of existing forms of expression. I am saying that the struggle to define the field or discipline of media studies has always been an ongoing characteristic of both artistic and scholarly work in media. The permanence of this quasi existential crisis interests me. For the most part, for example, media studies ran into a wall when cultural studies appeared as an extension of English Departments, and when Communication Studies grew into an important discipline in its own right in the late 1950’s. Why? Suddenly, everyone was studying the media, commenting about popular culture, appropriating (mushing and mixing) intellectual traditions in a variety of different and often anarchic ways. But, somehow, the discipline as such grew into further and further levels of crisis. Which intellectual model works best? Does one use structural or post-structural modes of analysis? How can we factor in the linguistic, semiotic and ethnographic elements, and also bring in the contextual, political components? So, this is where I return to vantage point.

Juxtapose the following: The film, The Polar Express by Robert Zemeckis, which bridges the gap between digital worlds and the human body and tries to humanize an entirely artificial world; The American election of 2004 which relied on the Internet both for information and misinformation; the spectacular growth of web sites, like, which extend the way humans interact, communicate and develop relationships; the growth of Blogs, which have pushed publishing from the corporate world to the individual; the growing importance of search engines and popular discussions of how to engage with a sea of information; and finally, the spectacular growth of games, game consoles and on-line gaming.

Together, these and many other elements constitute image-worlds, which like a sheath cover the planet, allowing and encouraging workers in India to become office employees of large companies in the West and Chinese workers to produce goods and manage inventories on an unimaginable scale. These image-worlds operate at micro and macro levels. They are all encompassing, a bath of sounds and pictures immersing users in the manipulation of information both for exchange and as tools of power.

Picture these image-worlds as millions of intersecting concentric circles built in pyramidal style, shaped into forms that turn metal into messages and machines into devices that operate at the nano-level. Then imagine using a cell phone/PDA to call up some information that locates humans on a particular street as was done during the crisis in Louisiana and you have processes that are difficult to understand let alone see without a clear and specific choice of vantage point.

Can I stand, so to speak above the fray? How do I escape from this process long enough to be able to look back or ahead? Does Google represent the vantage point? Since historical analysis is by its very nature retrospective and since time is at best an arbitrary metaphor for continua, am I left with a series of fragments, most of which splay off in different directions? It is an irony that the thrust of this conference has been so archeological, trying to pick up the pieces, show what has been missed, connections that have not been made, as if retrospection is suddenly adequate irrespective of politics, conflict and ethics. Most interesting from my point of view is the use of the cognitive and neurosciences, dominated as they are by positivism and empiricism. Even more to the point, and to give you a sense of how important vantage points are, take the best example of all, the computer sciences which until very recently had transformed subjectivity into that insidious term user and for whom the cybernetic dream of linking input and output has determined the shape and form of most computer programs.

The digital age or perhaps better put, the algorithmic age, makes these issues all the more urgent because if the fundamental tropes for human subjectivity can so easily be reduced to terms like user, then not to understand the origins of the research in engineering that went into the trope pose many dangers. Tor Norretranders brilliant book, The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size (1998) investigates this problem in great depth and it is clear to me that richer paradigms of computer/human interaction are needed if we are to move beyond the limitations of mechanical modes of thinking about digital technologies and their impact on human consciousness. Yet, “ user is also an outgrowth of devalued models of subjectivity within media studies itself, a confluence of the media’s own evaluation of its viewers (ie the couch potato metaphor) as well as the challenge of studying viewing itself. This is perhaps the greatest irony of the ebb and flow of analysis in media studies. At times, particularly in the early to mid-seventies with the advent and growth of feminism, subjectivity became a site of contestation with a variety of methods from psychoanalysis to sociology to linguistics used as avenues into analysis, criticism and interpretation. All of that heterogeneity is now built into the analysis of new media with varying degrees of success and often with no reference to the historical origins of the intellectual models in use. Subjectivity remains a site of contestation as a concept, explanation and framework for understanding what humans do with the technologies and objects they use.

The conflation of user with experience, the reduction of subjectivity to action and reaction, is only possible if theory and analysis put to the side the far more complex side of human thought and that is the imagination. Digital experiences are highly mediated by technology but imagination, fantasy and daydreams increase the levels of complexity and add many more levels of mediation to the rich interrelationships that humans have with their cultures. All of these levels need to be disentangled if a variety of vantage points are to be constructed. Perhaps then, media studies can begin to make some claims about a paradigm shift of enough strength to warrant the use of the term new…..

Reflections on New Media (7)

The Vancouver International Digital Festival brought practitioners/creators, programmers, engineers, artitsts, designers, and many other categories of people together around a common interest in New Media. Actually, the common interest and excitement is around creating content for new audiences. These are audiences for whom the Web, cell phones, networking, chats and so on are an integral part of their daily lives, as integral as all forms of communications have become in the early 21st century.

STOP! What does it mean to make this kind of claim?

How do we know what people know? How do we gain access to the acitivities of individuals and to their understanding of their own experiences? Even the use of "we" in these questions is presumptuous, since I am claiming to stand in for the reader. The problem here is that a particular ideology based on what appears to be "use" has overwhelmed any thinking about quality. The number of people who play videogames explains very little about the experience of playing. It would take a holistic approach involving among other things, experience, background, location, context and so on, to extrapolate anything interesting from figures like, two million people are playing a particular game online. In fact, it would take a "new" approach to ethnography to really open up some substantive discussion about the experiences individuals and communities are having with new technologies.

For example, when hundreds of thousands of people play a game together across a network, pay money, experience pain, loss and gain, how can this phenomena be investigated and thought about?

An example of why this question is so important comes out in Steven Johnson's new book, Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter where so many claims for audience and youth experience are made, that the book loses its shine because so little of the information comes from any serious ethnographic research and investigation. Not that I disagree with the fundamental premise of the book (which should be clear from its title), but that such an important point needs genuine field work which takes time and effort.

Part Eight…

Reflections on New Media (6)

The panel I chaired at the the Vancouver International Digital Festival was very interesting. Among the comments that were useful: Blogs have been overwhelmed with spam: The Blogosphere is full of people who want to talk and exchange ideas and thoughts, but often that degenerates into arguments and as one speaker put it, "crud": interactivity is a poorly thought out term and needs a great deal of work: we need many new and evolving tools that will allow people to generate content in a variety of ways that are simple and direct, in fact, as direct as using a pen to write on paper: many Blogs are places for confessional writing and this is extremely attractive but also dangerous.

I will add more to this over the coming days.

Part Seven…

Reflections on New Media (5)

VIDFEST opened today in Vancouver. Vidfest is the Vancouver International Digital Festival.

I am chairing a panel on interactivity.

Interactive Design - Reclaiming the Web for Personal Expression

Interactive design explores new forms of interactivity between audiences, users and creators. Products can range from video games to new media and from web design to sensors that transform the built environment into interactive spaces. This evolution, coupled with the increasing popularity of blogs, is changing our understanding of the Web and the ways in which we communicate. Learn from our panel how the web’s myriad forms of personal expression are important for interactive designers to understand and use for their own and their client’s projects.

Heather Armstrong, Blogger, (US)
Dr. Ron Burnett, President, Emily Carr Institute / Author, How Images Think (Can)
Marc Canter, CEO, Broadband Mechanics (US)
Rob McLaughlin, Executive Producer, CBC Radio 3 (Can)
Ross Phillips, Head of Interactive, SHOWstudio (UK)

Part Six…