Tuesday, January 5, 2010

on Cory Doctorow on how to say stupid things about social media

"There are plenty of things to worry about when it comes to social media," says writer Cory Doctorow in his fantastic Guardian piece, "How to say stupid things about social media." Social media environments, he continues,
are Skinner boxes designed to condition us to undervalue our privacy and to disclose personal information. They have opaque governance structures. They are walled gardens that violate the innovative spirit of the internet. But to deride them for being social, experimental and personal is to sound like a total fool.
Yet plenty of perfectly smart people who should know better say exactly the foolish kinds of things Doctorow rightly decries in his post. Mainly, lately, the stupid things have been leveled at Twitter: It's trivial. It's banal. It's too voyeuristic, or it's a weak imitation of real relationships, or--and this is the one that really gets me--I try to use it in smart, deliberate, consequential ways, even though lots of my followers don't.

Partially, people who take stances like the above fail to see that the majority of the communication on sites like Twitter falls into the category of what Doctorow calls "social grooming." He writes:
The meaning of the messages isn't "u look h4wt dude" or "wat up wiv you dawg?" That's merely the form. The meaning is: "I am thinking of you, I care about you, I hope you are well."
Doctorow compares the "banality" of conversations on Twitter and Facebook to the conversations we have with coworkers. We ask a coworker if she had a good weekend, he writes, not because we care about how her weekend went but because we care about developing bonds with the people around us.

Yes, though that's only part of the answer. In choosing to communicate via Twitter, I'm not only saying "I am thinking of you, I care about you, I hope you are well," but I am also publicly announcing: "I am thinking of him, I care about her, I hope he is well." These announcements are interspersed with my Twitter interactions with
people who are not close friends or even necessarily acquaintances--people I care about only in the most abstract sense. I follow just under 350 people, after all, and am followed by around the same number--a far higher number than I am equipped to develop deep relationships with. And lots of people follow and are followed by far greater numbers than I.

The creaming together of the personal and the professional, the public and the private, means that 'trivial' social interactions in online social networks, however much they seem to replicate those that pepper our physical interactions, actually represent a new social animal whose form we have yet to fully sketch. We're all kind of blindly feeling our way around the elephant here. We who embrace social media technologies can scoff at the person who says an elephant is like a water spout after feeling only its trunk, or the person who has felt a little more and argues it's like a moving pillar topped off by a shithole, but we would do well to remember that in this parable, everyone who tries to describe the elephant, no matter how much of it he has touched, can only describe it by comparing it to objects he has previously encountered. Twitter is similar to a lot of things, but in the end it's its own elephant, identical to nothing else we've seen before.

This is why, as Doctorow points out, people rely on personal experience and therefore read Twitter and similar networks as trivial and banal instead of deeply socially meaningful. But it's also why we need to take care to treat the social meaning as different from that which emerges through other types of (digital or physical) social interactions.


Russ Francis said...

Great Post Jen. Really interested stuff and beautifully writen as always. Were really no different from these Japanese snow monkeys.


We just do it with FB wall posts and photo tags. Although I figure that these technologies are not neutral. Whilst they certainly provide efficient tools for nurturing extended personal networks they also suck you in to a culture of tagging, posting and commenting out of fear of being accused of being a 'bad participant' umm I wonder who coined that phrase? In this respect I figure social media up the ante, change the rules of the game and risk making life more complicated don't you think? In fact I wonder if the Japanese Snow monkeys are having a better time in the blissful complexity of their non mediated way of being in the world.

Keep it close to the libenswelt


Jenna McWilliams said...

Thanks for your comment, Russ. In some ways, I want to respond that the fear of being a "bad participant" is (or should be) no greater or lesser than whatever anxieties we feel about doing our part in any social interaction--a party, a classroom, a reading group at a coffee shop. But on the other hand, we are invited and agree to attend the party, the class, the reading group, which happen at a set time, for a set number of hours or minutes. But participation in online social networks requires a different kind of time commitment--one that extends beyond any time or social delineations we might normally expect. This is probably why twitter and facebook and WoW and other types of online communities sometimes feel like such time-sucks: Because they're like parties that are always going, and it's hard to duck out of a party when everyone's laughing and kicking up their heels.


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