In the end, it turns out that like a fish in water, I’ve been swimming in the dialogical environment of social media without seeing it myself. When I go back and look at my own experiences, and my longing for lost spaces online, I find clear indications in my own experience that online dialogue is real, possible and desirable. Further, this suggests that being possible, there should be ways to increase the likelihood of dialogue emerging and generally enhancing social media as dialogical information space.

Further research is clearly indicated, and I’ll get right on that once I check my e-mail and twitter some friends that I finished writing this …

Evaluation of Social Media as Emerging Dialogue

Re-humanizing Self and Others

The faceless face is ubiquitous online, but still there is clearly a sense of seeking personality in contacts. The restless search and follow of luminaries is one example of an attempt to create human connection, but also in the somewhat complete insistence on real human communication versus one-way information flow typical from organizations there is clear indication that re-humanizing is desired and needed. The radical anthropomorphizing of the mar rover via Twitter is an example of humanizing information in online social media. The distaste for following tweets that are merely pipelined from RSS or non-interactive sources is another example, although one that is somewhat fuzzy based on personal preference and immediate personal relevancy of the information, which is a kind of humanizing. And, the normalization of the human condition possible in these environments is reciprocal.


In many ways the liminality and physical unreality of social media and online environments helps to decontextualize people from preconceptions based on many of the factors usually applied to others. The effect of information overload also has the emergent effect of disabling the unrequited judgments usually imposed on others in slower paced information space. Although historically, prior generational social media like BBS and Usenet were rampantly infused with judgementalisms such as flame wars and grammar nazis, the ephemeral, passing nature of media like instant messages and Twitter disable the sense that polish is required or that mistakes are character traits. Euphemistically, the Internet isn’t thought to be authoritative even when utilized for information gathering, so people start with some sense of suspension about any information, even their own, while online. When everything is questionable, certainty is inherently suspended.

Search for Shared Meaning

The aspects of social media to mediate an environment consisting of shared intelligence offers an immediate substrate of shared experience and meaning generally uncoupled from prior constructs typical in physical spaces and in prior social contexts. Participants in social media contexts are engaged in adding value to each other’s experiences through distributed thinking and meaning making.

Framing in a Larger Context

A recent article on Slate (Manjoo, 2009) pointed out that twitter is a constant flow that plugs people into the ever changing zeitgeit of the moment. This is a connection to something larger than the self. Each instance of synchronicity or serendipity in the information exchanged through social media seems to reinforce this sense of something big going on. In fact, the sense that something is happening creates itself to some extent, as the frisson inherent in movements within a social mob are an instant positive feedback loop building something bigger than merely the additive numerical activities of the participants. While often temporary, the shared history of internet memes, like Badger Badger or the New Zealand profile blackout, are all examples of not only shared history but new and creative forms of collectivity.

Evaluation of Social Media as a Dialogic Process

Balancing Autonomy and Community

Social Media tools mediate the web of information community through facilities that both create and limit connections. There is an inside and outside to social media on many levels, and these concentric and sometimes overlapping levels of connection are defined by the meniscus which determines boundaries. While there is a digital divide, there is also the strange occurrence of having social networks crash together through some previously hidden degree of separation snapping into place. While there are invites, nudges, messages and winks; there are also blocks and ignores. The social lines within social media are both well-drawn and permeable.

Balancing Facilitation and Creativity

Functional constraints within social media services are a form of facilitation, but the clearly ludic and liminal characteristics of the environments created are a balance. People are given clear tools to filter and control their information, imaginal, place. But, people are also encouraged to explore connections both new and recovered through common interests and topics declared in profiles and in contextual folksonomic classifications within immediate communication and the ability to reconnect to underutilized contact lists, such as importing entire e-mail address books. Social media is mediated, but also liberating.

Cultivating of Dynamic Balance in Self and Others

The apparent, functional alignment within the larger circle of engagement through social media is in some ways its own reward. Within the dialogical environment, the principles mentioned above of community, autonomy, facilitation and creativity are all practiced on individual and community levels. Each participant cultivates their own practices of Isaacs’ dialogic leadership (1999), as well as, and moreover, cultivating those practices in others through both subtle and gross influences, interactions and collective thinking. Together this cultivating self and others is the fifth practice of dialogue I identify in my Thesis (2006) and add to Issacs’ model. The outcome of this cultivating is change fostered by and in the dialogic process.

Evaluation of Social Media as a Dialogical Environment

Qualitative Time & Space

The creative and generative aspects of social media induce a natural ludic atmosphere. The ‘place’ in which this engagement occurs is highly liminal, in that it is not mundane space, meatspace and is open, even within the technological constraints in which it forms, to the possibility of quality over quantity.

The asynchronous nature of communication is also a foray into kairos as opposed to chronos, being unstructured by normal time; able to flow in and out of time where a thread can pick up, as if never dropped, in seemingly magic ways. While at the same time, the immediacy of the environment in has a quality of unreal to it; such as the apparent relative immediacy of a BBS or e-mail to bridge distance and periodicity of other modes of communication, but moreover the now seeming instantaneousness of tools like instant messaging or Twitter at bridging distance, real and imaginal, between people.

Good Faith & Willingness

Although I find dysfunctional in general the an almost unnatural proclivity to to trust others, their statements and identities, online; this points to the presence of good faith by participants in the social media. The willingness to engage is also significant not only with familiar contacts but also with strangers, to the point that it seems in a social media environment unknown people are in some sense instantaneously already familiar strangers merely by being present in the environment.

The fact that trust can be broken through faked identity or malicious spoofing in the online environment merely points to the a priori, already present and existing, good faith and willingness of people to engage.

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.