Monday, October 12, 2009

time to smack down the Wall Street Journal

(Don't worry; I snuck around the pay wall.)

As my sister Laura put it when she sent me this article on why the Wall Street Journal is five years behind the times why email is no longer the communication tool of choice, "It's trying so hard to be 'with it' and in the flow of the times... But it seems stuffy and like a 40-year-old's take on new media."

The piece is called "Why Email No Longer Rules… And what that means for the way we communicate," and it reiterates points that were interesting to tech folks a handful of years ago. (Here's a 2007 piece on the decline of email from Gawker; here's a 2007 piece on the same topic from Slate ; here's a 2006 blogpost on the issue ; and so on.)

Among the "insights" of the WSJ article are that email seems painfully slow to us now:
Why wait for a response to an email when you get a quicker answer over instant messaging? Thanks to Facebook, some questions can be answered without asking them. You don't need to ask a friend whether she has left work, if she has updated her public "status" on the site telling the world so. Email, stuck in the era of attachments, seems boring compared to services like Google Wave, currently in test phase, which allows users to share photos by dragging and dropping them from a desktop into a Wave, and to enter comments in near real time.

There is, reporter Jessica E. Vascellaro explains, a new phenomenon wherein we receive a constant stream of information, both personal and professional. There is a downside, as she points out:
That can make it harder to determine the importance of various messages. When people can more easily fire off all sorts of messages—from updates about their breakfast to questions about the evening's plans—being able to figure out which messages are truly important, or even which warrant a response, can be difficult. Information overload can lead some people to tune out messages altogether.
Additionally, the speed of communication presents problems:
While making communication more frequent, they can also make it less personal and intimate. Communicating is becoming so easy that the recipient knows how little time and thought was required of the sender. Yes, your half-dozen closest friends can read your vacation updates. But so can your 500 other "friends." And if you know all these people are reading your updates, you might say a lot less than you would otherwise.

Good lord! she exclaims. We're surrounded by this constant stream of information! How will we manage it?

It makes sense that we would compare new forms of communication--Twitter, Facebook, text messages--to older forms of written communication like email and, going back more than ten years (!), letters, memos, and personal notes. If we compare newer communication technologies to those previous modes of written communication, then Vascellaro's points ring true.

But here's where Laura got it right: Thinking of Twitter as a faster, shorter, and less consequential version of email is an old-school paradigm that ignores that other than the fact that it works primarily with printed text, Twitter (and, more broadly, microblogging in general) is not like email at all. Anyone who approaches these new platforms with an attempt to figure out what's 'important' and what's 'trivial,' what needs to be acted on and what can be ignored, is missing out entirely on the spirit of these spaces.

In fact, Twitter, Facebook, and similar participatory platforms support a convergence of multiple types of communication. Twitter, just as one example, supports a type of identity work that was not previously seen in other communication environments. Through the careful combination of tweets about personal information, 'trivial' details, and and professional interests, people are painstakingly (sometimes, especially at first, accidentally) crafting and presenting a coherent if fluid and flexible identity, which then informs the identities they present in other spaces, online and off.

What makes Twitter new is the particular combination of people and affordances. Facebook and similar social networks require people to send out friend requests that must then be accepted; it means people can control, fairly strictly, the size of their community. Twitter requires no such permission. Because I can follow almost anyone I want to, and because almost anyone who wants to can follow me, we're seeing a fascinating intermixture of near and distant connections between people. I follow my best friend, who follows me; I also follow my idol Clay Shirky, who doesn't follow me (yet); and I follow colleagues who fall all along the friendship continuum. Some of them follow me and some of them don't (yet).

Vascellaro largely focuses on the professional implications of new communication tools, and agrees that one nice feature of these tools is that information is often available instantaneously--if you need to know whether a colleague has left work yet, you might check her Facebook status. The downside, she explains, is that

a dump of personal data can also turn off the people you are trying to communicate with. If I really just want to know what time the meeting is, I may not care that you have updated your status message to point people to photos of your kids.

In fact, if you're using Facebook and Twitter just to find out the kinds of information you used to get through email and phone conversations, then the volume of information may feel overwhelming and prohibitive. But if you're only focusing on how to use these tools to do the work that email used to do, then you're kind of missing the point: Social media communication tools provide new avenues for doing deep identity work in communities that mix professional and personal relationships.

To be clear, Twitter is not email on steroids. Facebook is not like coffee circles for 500 people at a time. And blogs are not diaries with 100 or 1000 readers. Twitter is Twitter. Facebook is Facebook. And trying to parse these spaces by comparing them to previous one-to-many types of communications (like email) limits one's ability to see the full range of the affordances of these platforms.

I don't mean to hammer too hard on Vascellaro, who has written numerous interesting tech-related articles for the WSJ. But a quick look at her homepage reveals her biases (this, by the way, is another interesting aspect of an increasingly participatory culture: a public figure's digital footprint becomes a matter of public interest). Her site points to her Facebook page, the details of which are locked to the public; the ability to lock down a Facebook page, in my experience, is a feature largely leveraged by people who struggle with the notion of mixing the personal and the professional. But increasingly, the ability to engage with this mixture--even by getting it wrong sometimes--is more valued and valuable than the ability to carefully separate the two.

A look at Vascellaro's Twitter feed is even more telling. Her first several hundred tweets mimicked the style of Facebook status updates:

Eventually, she switched to a broadcast approach, mainly tweeting about interesting articles or linking to her own writing at the WSJ. These forms of participation are, just to be clear, perfectly legitimate. But other people do it better, and I imagine they get more out of the Twitter experience.

"Better" in this case, means "with deeper engagement in the collective meaning-making process supported by the affordances of Twitter."

[insert contemplative pause]

Truly, I've been sitting here considering whether an examination of Vascellaro's social networking practices are germain to a critique of her article. She links to her Facebook page (locked to outsiders) and her Twitter feed on her home page, and I believe that there is much to be learned about a technology reporter's biases through an examination of her use of those technologies. But I wonder how I would feel if someone picked apart my use of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms. At the very least, I might be engaging in an ad hominem attack. But then I think, if a school reporter critiques public schools, we should try to find out where she sends her kids. If a tech reporter smacks down Apple products, we should find out what kind of products she uses at work and at home.

Am I being a crudwad for examining Vascellaro's digital footprint? Is it relevant to the issues she identifies in her piece? I would love for people to weigh in on this. In fact, I think I'll try to get Vascellaro herself to weigh in.


Melissa said...

This is interesting to me, and the reason is this: What you are suggesting is that meaningful identity creation is king. Okay, obviously you have been saying that for ages...with this blog.

But I mean to say that it is interesting to think of social networking--which is more often than not considered to be a personal/free-time thing--AND working in synthesis. So, checking someone's fb status, for instance, to see if they've left work yet--pointing back, I believe, to a piece you posted some time ago about social networking sites being prohibited at work--is a bit of a no no. So it's clear that what is happening is public and private life are being melded by the affordances of a participatory culture.

So, in creating your identity, an act that is in constant flux, is something that becomes a part of work. And your workplace is no longer just your workplace--it's something that is a part of you. But not everyone wants to be defined by their occupation. And not everyone should be.

This melding of public and private life is, not only in terms of academia but all of society, is this social revolution of which you speak. It is a cultural shift towards valuing the creation of identity at large, thereby acting as a turning point for the kinds of jobs available to us and the kinds of jobs we end up choosing in the first place.

However, I wonder if it's really like a return to our roots. Patriotism. Pursuit of happiness. Liberty. And so on til we reach Capitalism. With individual liberty and a focus on self gain at the root of capitalism, using new technologies to further create self is highly patriotic.

But the whole point I was trying to make is just that it's interesting to think of using spaces like Twitter and Facebook while at work as perfectly legitimate acts. Because not all of it is frivolous, though I'm sure there's a line somewhere. Also, I'm applying this to the workspace of, say, someone who works in a cubicle, and so it's not EXACTLY applicable to what you're speaking of, but...just interesting to think about.

Jo Jordan said...

Well you may have made an enemy - I don't know either of you.

But you write very insightfully about social media and I am going to subscribe.

I interested more in how you think we create collective meaning. Tantalizing.

Anonymous said...

this seems like a rather silly blog post.

upon reading and reflection i am not quite sure what you are trying to say.

with many many followers this vacellaro seems to UNDERSTAND how to use twitter.

I would point out that with just 290 followers and 261 following, perhaps you could take a page from her in social media identity promotion... if that is indeed what you believe one should be after

Jenna McWilliams said...

Interesting point--though I wonder if it's useful to think about social media use as a practice of self-promotion. In fact, building a Twitter presence seems to be less about getting tons of followers and more about carefully cultivating a presence through complex decisions about which users to follow, how to engage given the potential audience (of dozens, hundreds or thousands, depending on your taste and level of celebrity), and how to manage the complex interaction of personal and professional contacts.

Josh said...

The Wall Street Journal is what it is. They're writing for a particular audience and that audience is not the readership of Slashdot. In any case, them being so wrong does not make us right by comparison, if, like them, we have unexamined assumptions creeping into our work.

For instance, "collective meaning-making process" and "identity work" seem like particularly empty phrases to me. Why is twitter identity work? Couldn't it, like other aspects of technoculture, be more about the production/imposition of new subjectivities rather than a free flux of identity (an oxymoron)? I'm thinking here about the work Jodi Dean has done on "publicity" (in Publicity's Secret) and the constellation of academic influences behind her ideas (investigations of subjectivity and freedom in Zizek, Habermas, Frankfurt school, etc). Or as Trebor Schulz wrote about the inquiry behind the upcoming digital labor conference at the New School:

"How does this invisible interaction labor affect our bodies? What were key steps in the history of interaction design that managed to mobilize and structure the social participation of bodies and psyches in order to capture value?"

I that those are some interesting questions in light of Melissa's perceptive "Yay capitalism" comment above.


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