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 ](http://informationarchitects.jp/) 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 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 

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)

From Community Media to International Networks

This blog entry proposes to briefly explore the transformation from the local context of community media to the creation of national and international information networks. This move from traditional community-based forms of media expression to digital, computer mediated communications systems foreshadows not only a shift in social processes, but a profound change in social structure. My objective will be to suggest possible approaches to research in the transitional areas that encompass what we now describe as virtual communications and for which neither our governments nor our lawmakers have developed clear policies. I believe that we need to develop a new agenda of research about exemplary community-based communications systems (of which FreeNets are excellent examples). The research has to be historical, theoretical and pragmatic in orientation. We need to account for the synergistic relationship between the history of people’s lives in communities and their use of a variety of technologies to communicate with each other and with the outside world. This research agenda should combine an intimate knowledge of the social and interpersonal processes that have made it possible for members of different communities to work together, with an analysis of the political context of participatory democracy.

I would like to propose that urban (and in many cases, rural) FreeNets and community-based networks, of which there are many in Australia, Canada, the United States and Europe, have generated a radically different public sphere, whose structure and organization presage a profound realignment of what we have traditionally understood as community and as local communications. Shifts of the kind that I am discussing here are never as dramatic as one would assume from the more general claims made about the technology itself. To translate the potential of locally-based digital forms of communications into action and to have some effect, requires the same kind of time and commitment which has always been a characteristic of earlier forms of community activism with and without the media. However, the potential for inter-connection is now so much more developed and profound that the orientation of community activism is more directly linked to the use of media and communications tools.

The effects of this change on the policy environment and the ways in which citizenship is defined in an information-oriented society, will have a significant impact on the democratic rights of individuals and communities to pursue their visions for the future. Conventional notions of advocacy, community work and planning will alter as the practices and efforts of community activists become more and more dependent upon a variety of digital and virtual tools of communication. It will be essential to both recognize and analyze the fact that community activists are making use of a variety of mediums and that each of these mediums has a set of characteristics that both influence and shape the nature of the communications process.

Community oriented digital networks developed as a response to the lack of access to traditional broadcast media provided to community members, but also because of a desire to increase the quality of communication between citizens of different communities who shared similar interests. However, the process moved far beyond its initial objectives into political engagement, as community networks became the home of activism and information exchange about social, political and cultural issues. This has implications for how we think about structuring the policy and regulatory environment. The issues of political and commercial control as well as the ability of community members to freely engage with new forms of communication and emerging technologies of information and interaction means that conventional regulatory policies will have to change. How does one respond to material that may be controversial? How does one define local and national interests in the light of community needs? What are the boundaries between regulation, freedom of expression and the priorities of the community?

Community-based networks are defined by a spirit of volunteerism and a dedication to the common good. There are similarities between radio stations on university campuses, community television channels, cooperative radio stations and computer-mediated forms of communication such as FreeNets. In Canada, electronic bulletin boards evolved out of the first thrust of Internet development in the middle of the 1980’s. FreeNets developed from bulletin boards and now a variety of web-based interfaces exist alongside previous efforts to promote grassroots participation in the community. In general, regulatory bodies in Canada have been running behind the rather fast-paced evolution of these networks. In particular, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has tended to see the use of emerging technologies for communications from the rather jaundiced eye of regulatory policies that are based on broadcasting models. Although the CRTC has recognized the fundamental redefinition of communications processes brought about by technologies such as the Internet, it remains focused on issues of globalization and Canadian content. “The advancement of communication technologies, along with the abundance of information in today’s knowledge-based society, is creating a new, integrated ‘global’ information society. While globalization offers vast opportunities for marketing cultural products, it also provides regulatory and policy challenges that demand new approaches to support domestic cultures. Achieving a successful balance between the demands of the open market, and the need to maintain and promote cultural sovereignty and national identity, reflecting Canada’s cultural diversity and linguistic duality, will be key to maximizing gains from the global information society.

Yet, the community-based use of digital forms of communications is not necessarily in competition with global interests. Nor is the orientation of these networks defined by commercial gain. The CRTC tends to bundle the entire communications infrastructure into one rather homogeneous whole. The assumption of convergence, in this case, the combination of a variety of different communications industries, obscures the urgent need for the grassroots to define its own mode and modality of interaction. The CRTC is a good example of what can go wrong with regulation in the Internet age. Its policies reflect a desire to sustain and encourage the development of Canadian content. At the same time, it has no understanding of how digital forms of communication transform content and introduce new and unpredictable political and social alignments. These cannot be defined through the use of the traditional parameters of nation and locality. Community in an information-oriented environment can mean people getting together from many different nations through common interest and common cause. It is about spontaneous linkages that create networks. Some of these networks sustain themselves over time and others disappear. The underlying policy framework for this process has to be defined by a recognition of its fluidity. We have also have to recognize that the freedom to communicate does not come without costs. In saying all of this, I am not advocating a free- for-all strategy. I am suggesting that the conditions upon which new kinds of policies can be devised are being changed on a continual basis by the activity of networking. At the most fundamental of levels, the Internet should allow if not encourage the continual development of innovative approaches to communication and policymakers will have to reflect this level of innovation in their efforts to create flexible regulations. To do this, they will have to alter their research agenda. They will have to ensure that the “freedom to communicate" is not decided upon by the telecommunications giants while at the same time encouraging more and more communities to take responsibility for what they say and how they use the networks they are building.