Some time ago I was thinking about an essay Michel Foucault once wrote about two competing concepts of the Self in major world religions. In this essay he compared two views of the Self: the Self that is discovered and known through some kind of religious quest and search. And the Self that is created, invented, through free will, action, choice (and so on). What if we would apply his view on today’s social media?
It’s been so long that I don’t now recall which essay it was. Foucault is known for theoretical “archaeology” of western thought. And for his work on the birth of the “Subject” (read: individual). As in, when did the subject, the sovereign person, emerge in thought and culture? And more specifically, when did the Subject become the locus of truth? (He read this through the inquisition, the practice of confessions, and so on).
It occurred to me that a similar bifurcation exists in social media. We have a lot of discovery engines and techniques. Techniques once used to find related documents and data, but now often used to find compatible or similar people. This is an approach that ascribes attributes and qualities to the identity (person, user). They might be interests, demographic data, age, gender, location, even social graph/friend relations. It’s an approach used ultimately to help us find people we might like. Based on the idea that when two things are alike, their shared likeness might lead to further relationships.
But there’s an interesting flaw in the logic. That two things are alike might be liked by one person is fine. But that the two people who like those things might like each other, makes a leap of faith. It rests on the idea that the relationship between two things can be extended to the two people who relate to those things in like ways. We don’t know that this is an extensible logic or idea. Do similar people automatically like each other? Really? If so, aren’t the similarities that would make us compatible, make us friends and friendly, just as likely to be something other than what interests us — our style or personality?
I’m reminded of the logic of dating sites — that a match is a basis for meeting. Anyone who’s tried online dating knows that the first meeting is where chemistry either seals the affair, or dissolves the whole run up into an awkward and disappointing mess.
The logic of long tail can work on objects and things because they are stable. Attributes used to describe them are values that can be shared. They belong to each thing (a movie is documentary) because the two things each share that attribute. The more attributes in common, the more alike they are (these movies are documentaries about penguins).
But is the approach extensible? Do we like each other because we share attributes?
There’s another approach taken in social media – the social graph. This version uses Granovetter’s weak link theory and suggests that the friend of a friend is the most important relationship – because it can introduce us to people who are not one, but two or thee degrees away. We get access to people who aren’t our friends but are closely linked. It’s assumed that trust is extensible from the first degree (I trust you) to the second (I trust someone you know). Not the most convincing idea, but good enough to make friend recommendations.
But in each case, we have only a system of things and attributes.
Human relationships aren’t build on similarity or identity of attributes. They’re a result of interaction, of understanding, of the things we do that move us and by which we move one another.
Our industry needs a richer understanding of the creative acts and the productive aspects of social media use. Of what is required, and what happens, when a connection becomes meaningful to the people connected through what they do, not have in common, with each other. We need to think more about drama. about stories, about conversations and pastimes. About the things and people we anticipate, expect, and wait for. About what time is like, and times are like, online — short and long times, ongoing times, choppy and interrupted times, rhythmic times and times that are over. About how all the dynamics of interaction are transformed but somehow retained and adapted to the way things work online.
Yes, discovery can be produced by searching among common attributes. But the really productive stuff comes out of social practices. Social media may be a means of production. But we are still the production of means.