Coming Full Circle

So, social networking is less and more than what is claimed. Both an adjunct to existing relationships and a conduit for the development of new connection. But, this still leaves unexamined what ways I might now, having admitted that dialogue in an online environment can occur, suggest to enhance the dialogical aspects of the environment in which a dialogic process may occur, leading then, one hopes, to greater and greater likelihood for dialogue to emerge.

The lesson from computer graphics and video games is that there’s an uncanny valley, where attempts to more closely model organic reality hits a valley where things are close enough but still uncanny to be not just fake but disturbingly so. There’s been many attempts to create technological environments which model some form of physical community space from Sierra’s INN and Apple’s eWorld online, to General Magic’s Magiccap interface for a PDA. These do create a sense of place for people, but they are all still very representational. Another feature of all of these attempts is that in many ways they failed to be widely adopted or sustained. However, even more importantly, these attempts to create a sense of physical space managed to create, even years later, a longing to return for many former users. This longing seems to me to be the kind of reaction I would expect to the loss of a dialogical environment, with qualitative time and space, and loss of the joys of dialogic engagement, such as re-humanization of self and others and connection to something larger than the self.

The lesson for social media is to create a sense of place, an imaginal landscape, if you will; that’s rich enough to have both determined, political, aspects but to still allow for users to engage each other vernacularly in the landscape.

Remix not Restriction

Social media is best when it allows users to remix their experiences and tools. The more determined the tools available the less able the user is in determining their own sense of belonging. Social media should not to become a walled garden where user information goes in but does not come out, like some kind of rat trap, but rather to create ways for information and engagement within the social media tool to be expressed and remixed elsewhere.

Loyalty not Lock-in

Although it may be paradoxical for companies to accept user loyalty to social media comes from being free to leave. It seems loyalty to an environment comes from deciding to be engaged in it, not out of necessity but from choice. This is a core lesson for any communal enterprise: the difference between commune and cult is a thin line of choice.

Another example of lock-in versus loyalty is if a service does not offer a way to connect profiles to the wider engagement a user has elsewhere. One simple way to do this is to offer the user a chance to link to their other engagements, through a simple URL or even more fully through importing personal RSS; or, further, the previous example of being able to remix engagement across tools and to not lock information in, forcing users to treat a tool as their primary aggregation point, as opposed to choosing to do so.

Real not Realistic

Engaging in the social network online requires re-humanizing between people. This means that, eventually, attempts to develop corporate channels online in social media will fail if they appear faceless, if they fail the “Turing Test”. So, it’s best to be real; a real person with a real personality.

Unlike previous generations like Usenet and e-mail, current social media, like Twitter, is pretty spam-free, but already people and companies are testing the water, trying to figure out how to utilize social technology to deliver their messages. Example of this testing include recent bout of Twitter follow-fests by Boing Boing, Uncrate, and a recent, seemingly successful, campaign by MacHeist to get people to advertize on MacHeist’s behalf to their own contacts. However, each of these has a personality to it, which appears to be human engagement, not merely a one way broadcast of commercial speech which is assumed to be heard. This re-humanizes these more formal connections, bringing them to a flat level of hierarchy.

Service not Slavery

Recent dust-ups online over the difference between a sense of belonging and the sense of being owned include the Facebook terms of use fiasco. That is only the most recent of many recent and historic occurrences like it.

In the previously mentioned example of Twitter follow-fests, notably, all of these involved exchanges of some kind, which is appreciably different than, say, an ad in the paper or a logo on a shopping bag; they are offering clear and immediate reciprocity to people for space in their communication web.

Space for Graffiti

Social media can be highly determined, but seems to be best when it offers even the smallest bit of undetermined space in which users can create persistent graffiti. This may be simply a tiny bit of space for a user bio, or even a link to some other online space, such as a blog or website. Services that offer personalization help to create a sense of re-humanizing the technology.

Ability to Enclave

Those online places that people still long for, such as stubbornly still active BBS communities or fully lost places like INN or eWorld, even after they’ve been gone for years, are those spaces that appear to have developed real community and maybe even dialogue.

At some level this seems to be related to both the ability of the space to provide community and autonomy. For now lost place like eWorld, there’s a sense of a shared history and place that only a few still remember, making this a rare and heightened experience. In the case of still stubbornly tenacious BBS communities, such as the still active Citadel-based Slumberland, now online and available via telnet but still very much Internet-dog-years old-school BBS technology, there’s a sense of exclusivity through survival as well as the sense of shared history and place available to only a few.

There’s the famous Yogi Berra saying, “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.” And there’s got to be some sense that one can filter engagements, not just for sanity but also offering a balance between community and autonomy. There’s much to be said about being able to enclave; but, moreover, a sense of being able to be alone in a crowd, to carve out a third place.

In other words, social media needs to scaffold the clubhouse, a place in the ‘Verse, where people can both include and exclude. This allows people to construct their own vernacular path through the virtual environment, a desire line for optimal, personal information routing. This is the marginal space in which real people create what I’ve called ‘understandards’ alongside standards, are the structures, processes, and channels that are ‘understood’ by those in the system; and while these are often are kept proprietary, a form of the function I call ‘enclaving’ in information space, by those sequestering power, or as mechanisms of privilege, these structures, processes and channels can also be shared building community; as in Henry Louis Gates, Jr. saying, “Collecting data is only the first step toward wisdom, but sharing data is the first step toward community.”

Like the internet, information in a social network routes around damage; it finds increasingly optimal ways, desire lines, for the horizonal relationship. it’s technology that re-humanizes. So, social media needs to enable this kind of vernacular pathing in information space, or it becomes simply a form of damage to be routed around.

Crazy together

At various times, I’ve been asked; based in part on the theory of dialogue I developed; how dialogue appears and can be encouraged in an online environment. Most of the time, I have tried to build a bridge into online environments and ended up just raising my hands in defeat, claiming that I just did not see how it would be possible, in an environment so completely disabling to what I see as the necessities for dialogue.

That is actually something I’ve struggled with finding: a satisfactory way to have dialogue in a virtual environment, and Twitter is so very ADD it’s on my least likely list. The loss of personal, direct, and real-time communication seems to me to be such a huge barrier to the development of dialogic communication. Online is such a narrow band of communication, and tools like Twitter are more so and moreover fitful … I waffle on whether I think it’s even possible to do more than simulate a dialogical space, if at all, virtually. I tend to be pessimistic about that in general.

My thoughts generally and consistently have come down on the side that, in an online environment like Twitter, dialogue doesn’t happen; certainly not Bohmian Dialogue.

I have felt someone, even myself speaking to myself, could, and convincingly enough to sway me for a while, point to long-standing environments like The Well, or tight-knit groups like those last few BBS communities left still hanging in, where they’ve managed to create some real lasting sense of human community in spite of the environment; that there are some places online where dialogue seems to emerge … and, maybe a convincing enough simulacrum of Bohmian Dialogue could be created, enough to satisfy some “Turing Test” that real dialogue occurred.

The thing about Twitter, and other online tools, is that it seems all really just like talking to yourself out loud in a public place. If you happen to be a stand-up comedian, that might be cool and entertaining. If you happen to be Hamlet, it might even be a literary device. But if you’re not, then it seems not much different than being crazy.

And yet, there’s this persistent feeling that something is going on that isn’t the usual. Somehow, it seems that, in spite of everything social media has progressed from merely one way broadcasting, through into an exchange of dialog, and even has the feeling, to those using it, of being a dialogue:

“From a high level it seems to be inherently like the first half of the definition of Bohm dialog: “a form of free association conducted in groups, with no predefined purpose in mind” but nearly opposite in its users’ frequent lack of reserving judgement. …
I do think that twitter – at least in my own small world (admittedly heavily populated by wanna be comedians and Hamlets and by no means lacking judgment) – has progressed from broadcasting to a dialog[sic], albeit limited.  Twitter seems particularly suited to sharing an idea or question quickly beyond one’s preconceived notion of with whom that sharing might be most valuable and then subsequently receiving informal feedback or new ideas from unanticipated sources.  So maybe if twitter has any reservation of judgment it’s in the unfiltered broadcasting nature itself which sometimes effectively suspends enough control to create a “free space” of sorts.”
– Amy VanDonsel (personal communication, March 3, 2009).

I think the difference between an online only loose association formed by following others might not be the same as what Bohm meant by ‘group’ and the presence of unsuspended judgement is perennially pervasive online from flame wars to grammar nazis. However, the fact that people feel that dialogue is occurring must mean something. Because, isn’t that exactly what the “Turing Test” for dialogue I suggested above is about; that in the absence of a litmus, and assuming that the term dialogue is being used in the specialized way to mean more than simple dialog, dialogue can be reasonably assumed to take place when participants say it does. When this impression is supported by others engaged in the same event, the determination becomes more and more certain.

It is fashionable to describe tools for creating, maintaining and using social networks by detailing the ways they connect us to other through the technology and the Internet. This is, of course, a matter of convenience. For, to describe the ways that these tools don’t connect us, or moreover how they disable individuals from connecting – these lists would simply be too long. Also, these lists would be off message.

The party line of social networking is that it connects people to others, bringing people closer through friend of a friend or interest-based connections that otherwise would not be connected. Advocates offer that social networking is about interactivity between people, a collective conversation or sharing that crosses thresholds of distance or division. social media also seems to me to be pretty emphatically about enabling ludic and creative activity.

Certainly, that’s part of the story. But the greater reality of social media includes some dysfunction, and while not all of this is new the point is that social media shouldn’t get a pass. There’s no assurance of good faith, security or trust. Examples abound of faked identities, such as the recent meteoric rise of the fake Dalai Lama on Twitter, the constant questions about which celebrity identities online are really who they claim, or the more sinister questions of maliciously spoofing an identity as an agent of some company or another person for social engineering and crime. Whether intentionally malicious or not this just highlights the danger. But, even on a more subtle layer, the online environment has always, even from the days of the BBS had an uneasy relationship with determining identity and conditional, variable ambivalence about anonymity. And, frankly, the original design of promiscuous and trusting mail relay on the Internet is an example of what in hindsight seems almost willful naiveté about trust.

Social media also tends not to be sustained. It’s essentially perfect for those with ADD, but not so good (except as an adjunct to other channels) at developing sustained engagement. In that regard, social media is perhaps more than anything an implementation of an unending series of elevator pitches. Social media is also ephemeral, even if captured and saved; each event in social media tends to have the look and feel of something that isn’t meant to last. Even in the old days of the BBS, very little of the massive effort put into the social space has survived in a meaningful way. In fact, like the BBS, much of modern social media, like instant messages, are designed to disappear by default. But, even if not designed to disappear, or if archival workarounds are used; social media feels like a very thin layer of history, merely moments old all over again in every moment passing; the Chauncey or Zellig of communication. Sustainability of communication is a big question when each quantum of communication is tossed away like a plastic bag to a landfill. Sure, it’s still there somewhere, but once it’s past you by are you really going to go fishing to find it again? It takes a special eye to find, like Hesse’s Siddhartha, the eternal beauty in the passing river of social media; or, like American Beauty, to see in the passing of the social media’s plastic bag a profound ephemeral beauty. I believe, in fact, this is the wabi sabi of social media; and this ephemerality is part of what consecrates social media into qualitative time and space, offering part of the underpinning that in my theory increases the likelihood of dialogic process and the emergence of dialogue.

And, here is the first hint of admission, in spite of my skepticism and misgivings about dialogue in an online environment, that it just might be possible to develop dialogue and to induce and enhance the conditions from which dialogue is likely to emerge. But I still have concerns to work out.

The information depth of most social media is rather shallow. It’s always been difficult to communicate a full range of meaning online, giving rise to things such as emoticons. However, it’s still mainly a textual medium. And let’s face it: most people aren’t very good writers. (Note to self: be sure to edit this essay extra carefully.) And, even the good writers are easily misinterpreted by those not taking time to read carefully.

While it may be true that social media technology allows for people to cross thresholds, those barriers crossed are within a narrow scope and a narrow population. The scope is generally the subset of those listening and the population is limited to the penetration of the medium; which, honestly, isn’t all that much compared to more long-standing technology. where the new technology finds a way to piggyback on previous generations, just as twitter as an enhancement of text messages for example, there’s quicker adoption to be sure; but there’s a silicon ceiling.

The reality is that social networking means people don’t need to be close to others, and makes it far too easy to not become entangled in the messy business of actual social connections in human contexts.

The reality is that activity in a social network really does not rely on interactivity, but rather far too often simple linear streams of information that fail to become interdependent without extra personal effort. In other words, social networking merely creates more work to maintain a social net.

The intermittent reward of any response offers the illusion that all output is being received. highly addictive to a social animal, but for the most part it is an illusion of being valued; except for those already being listened to because of fame or notoriety. But, all communication is lossy, to be sure; so how much finger pointing can really be done at social media.

Another thing is that at some point this loss, or ambiguity, becomes part of the art of it all. It is after all the restrictions placed on communication from which poetry comes. And sometimes the best part of art is in the parts not shown, which allow the viewer to derive their own meaning; and like theatre, meaning derived in social media is a feedback loop in a fully functioning communication system.

So, this very bursty and lossy immediacy amplifies the mundane. Communication become both hyper-real, as in theatre’s portrayal of only important bits of reality, but at the same time ephemeral and fuzzy. This is the mirrored room in the fun-house which distorts and heightens reality temporary, and thus appears to be more valuable when remembered in comparison to other events. Brevity can be a fuzziness to which the receiver can in-fill their own meaning easier, thus, like fortunetelling, the receiver creates patterns in order to justify their participation, a rationalization. Like good art, it’s what isn’t said that allows the viewer to invest in or engage with that art to create their own meaning which can then be shared.

The simpler the tool, the more likely that people will create their own vernacular, their own method of engagement which both derives and adds value for themselves and others; and thus users build their own loyalty. That’s, for example, the brilliance of the twinned constraints and possibility on a service like Twitter: it’s the users that developed verbal modality to create features, like RT and OH. It’s also true for #hashtags as folksonomy. The dilemma is how to support these developments without losing the simplicity which fostered them in the first place.

Like poetry, it is the limitations of the form which give rise to the most artistic expressions; so to for social networks, the simple mechanisms, like Twitter or a text-based BBS, that offer the people using them to create their own rich community, and sense of place. it seems exactly the attempt to determine this community for users that precludes the users from the robust relationships formed along with the development of the language and metaphor.

Those engaged in the use of social media are in a collective, perhaps loosely gathered around a project determined by the constraints of the media and technology. But, natheless, this is a de facto collective engaged in something together. Even if the apparent alignment of activity is wildly fractionalized, the scope of all activities possible is itself carried within a narrow band, a bottleneck, through which everything passes; creating functional alignment.

The phenomenon of collectives, such as a jury, to deliberate with more intelligence than merely the sum of the individuals is an example of what can be leveraged in social media; Groupthink is also a danger, but the authority of social pressure may simple not be enough to dampen the rise of social media as a tool for collectively thinking.

The social notwork is also not community, which would be to mistake the monk’s finger for the moon, but it is a personal girl or boy scout assigned to help us with our knotwork homework. The homework is to find meaning by creating knots, patterns; and, as social animals engaged in a collective project, this means a social constructed and shared meaning.

While not appearing at first blush to be dialogue, social media is asynchronous and immediate; and this exact recipe has always been the killer app of social networks, from at least the time of nailing theses to a door, if not earlier, to the relatively recent emergence of tools like the BBS, email, the once ubiquitous “NT” (meaning “No Text” in the message itself) subject line as a proto-Twitter, and now Twitter.

“Don’t drink, Don’t smoke, What do you do? … Must be something inside.”

So social media may be a little like being crazy, but maybe there’s a way to use it without losing it. First off, be joining a collective one may be losing, in a sense, one’s own mind; but, gaining collective intelligence. One also gains synergy, synchronicity, serendipity of a widely spread lazyweb, a turked crowd-sourced search, and distributed self-declared expert system. In this sense the broader the diversity of user, the more relevant and synergistic the media becomes.

As the social texture becomes greater through diversity, this offers a way to extend existing relationships into another medium, and reciprocally the opportunity to develop new extended relationship. More of who one knows are available, and more of those one doesn’t yet know are linked indirectly as well to the stream of one’s communication.