Discovery vs creation: relating to social media

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.

Adrian Chan

Adrian Chan is a social media expert and social interaction theorist at Gravity7. You can follow him on twitter at /gravity7

15 comments on this article

  1. Pingback: Experience Branding » Social media and the self

  2. Awesome article Adrian, and a great point of view to take upon social media.

    I believe social media can deliver a much richer experience than it is doing today, but I don’t think the experience will ever be as rich as interacting in the real world. I don’t see the two as ‘competitors’. I believe they should complement each other. A perfect marriage between the two would make for a truly rich experience.

    The most interesting question here, which Peter van Waart allready stated here on his blog after reading this article, is: where does that leave social media? What do you think?

  3. From the point of view of Experience Branding (that I teach at the School for Communication, Media and Information Technology of Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences)), I agree with Adrian that most of the current technologies for social media to get a meaningful relationship with each other, fail. Indeed, we cannot build a relationship on similar preferences for objects or activities, or brands, alone. To be of meaning, a relationship should be based on shared personal values and beliefs. I haven’t researched it but I bet that most meaningful relationships in social media existed already in real life and that the online connections are just a simple representation of them. Although the long tail principle may be making it possible to revert this. I will come back to that at the end.

    However, when looking at our preferences for objects and activities, we also have to acknowledge that those preferences are based on certain human values. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu proved in his research that human values determine much more what objects and activities we prefer, than age, gender, and even our socio-economic class. Groups of people distinct themselves from other people because of a particular selection of personal values they share. Because what we value gives meaning to life, these shared values result in meaningful relationships. And then of course, since they share those values, they also share a lot of preferences for objects or activities. That make these objects and activities representations of meaning. In a similar way, also brands can be excellent examples of representations of meaning. When brand owners provide the opportunity to people to use the brand in this way, I speak of Experience Branding.

    So, if objects and activities symbolise meaning, as structuralists like Bourdieu describe, then the technology that track patterns in related objects, activities or brands, can actually relate people that potentially share values as a base for meaningful relationships. In a semantic web where meaningful entities rather than syntactic attributes are related, it should be theoretically possible in the end to generate meaningful relations between people that do not know each other. Think of text mining and interpreting technology that can ‘ understand’ texts. That would make it possible to interpret meanings in texts at web sites and blogs and create connections between them. Especially, in the long tail we would find niches (aka social groups) we share our values with.

    But then again “generate meaningful relations between people that do not know each other”? I doubt that that will work. As Adrian states, we need interpersonal interaction, whether that will will be online or off-line, whether in work or leisure. In this way, sites like eBay (to sell) or World of Warcraft (tp play) would be of much more importance for creating meaningful relations with each other than any social medium whatsoever.

    Therefore I think, we shouldn’t expect social media to do the trick. Do we telephone each other because calling brings us together? No, we call because we care for each other, or want to play of make deals with each other. We talking about media here and that is what media do: carrying our meaningful information from one person to others. It is not the media that is of meaning out of itself. Meaning is not in the media, meaning is in the people.

    This text is also posted at

  4. Hey all, thrilled to see a discussion emerging here!

    I’m not as familiar with Bourdieu as I’d like to be, but my impression of his field theory put it squarely within a constructivist discourse. In other words, there are no core “human” values, but only values belonging to a cultural field.

    You’ll never hear me make a claim based on identity. The closest I get to describing the values of users is with my personality types — and there it’s not values so much as sensitivities, tendencies, habits, and competencies.

    I do have difficulty with the idea that users (people) can have shared core values — and that they should get along or like each other based on those shared values.

    To me, this is about the interaction models most appropriate for social media — what is lost, what is substituted, displaced, etc. I believe that intentionality trumps values — and that it is through communication that we bind, or fail to bind.

    It seems to me that even if we were to share values, our understanding of our own values would differ from our understanding of the other’s values — even if they were “objectively” the same.

    Which of course is impossible. Values are subjective; conceptually they can be described by their objective attributes — but they’re experienced subjectively, handled inter-subjectively. And user-centric approaches need to spring from the user’s experience, his/her understanding of that experience, and intentions viz communicating/interacting with others….

    To Peter, then, meaning is not in the media. But nor is it just in people. Social media involve the meanings that are negotiated. It’s the production (and disruption!) of these meanings online, through social practices, that makes social media so fascinating!

  5. This really is an interesting discussion.

    I do agree with you Adrian, that Bourdieu is much more a constructivist than a structuralist. Then again, the reality we construct ourselves has this autonomy that is sometimes hard to change. That’s why I think Bourdieu’s reproduction theory is very usefull to keep in mind the relative changeability of our surrounding social world.

    I do agree that through communication we negotiate the meanings that make our lives valuable. I disagree that there are no objective values. Although I don’t want to be seen as an universalist, I don’t want to be seen as a relativist either. I do think some ‘universal’ values exist and that each of us are more or less effected by them from which a diversity of personal value patterns arise. Not that we speak out loud of them, but they do guide our actions and even our participation in the discourse. I always have thought that it is this interaction between the relative autonomic structures around us and our own intentions and actions that result in reality as we perceive it. It would be great if that is serviced by social media. I am curious to hear some good examples of that. Anyone?

  6. Peter,

    I don’t think we should lose “values” from design disciplines and social media, even if there’s an endless debate around whether values are subjective, intersubjective, or objective! Without some system of capturing value and re-presenting value, long tails wouldn’t exist, and Netflix would be a little less intelligent in its movie recommendations.

    I propose this as a compromise.

    At the end of the day, social interaction design claims a) that all social media content starts with user contributions and b) therefore we start from user centricity. C) Users make free, self-interested, and (psychologically) motivated choices d) based on what they think is going on (how the site works, what for, what other people are doing there, etc. E) What users produce takes some form of communication: symbolic, gestural, or linguistic acts, as well as actions involving media forms (videos, games, etc). So f) values can be seen in what users leave behind, as well as in aggregations of user activity (tag clouds).

    Theoretically, we can have meanings and values, both, and an interaction model that facilitates their production.

    1. Values are held by people
    2. Values do not express themselves. People express themselves.
    3. Values are assigned, through meaningful acts, to things, choices, other people
    4. Values are attributed through these acts but are separate from the motivation behind the user’s actions
    5. In content forms produced by social media, values are expressed as attributions to these content forms
    6. At which point a system can use hierarchies (ratings, rankings, other relations) and other ordering systems to render social systems

    These social value systems can serve as ways of organizing content (lists), of social navigation (tag clouds), as rankings of people (popularity), and so on.

    Would that work?

  7. Dear Adrian,

    That is an interesting approach. Although I still think that human values are of a major (albeit most of he time implicit) influence on peoples activities, we can now overcome this in your model. Yes, I would enjoy to see such a social value system in a social media platform.

    So, I am thankful for these learnings, it really helps my thinking on value and meaning in the digital age.

  8. Awesome discussion gents…who says the art of conversation is dead? 🙂

    After reading everything above, I’m surprised that the subjects ‘concerns’ (as in ‘Regard for or interest in something’) aren’t mentioned more. Concerns are much more detectable and actionable than values.

    People have many concerns that may be stable or rapidly changing. Matching concerns and offerings between people make for the best online interaction and (eventually) relationships. For instance: “I want to have fun, and that what we have, together.”
    It’s a trade, really.

  9. Pieter,

    bingo — one might frame “concerns” as values in action, or as the expression of impressions.

    I like to use the term “interests.” It’s got a long-standing position in philosophy (human interests), and it gets around “reasons,” which are to me too close to “rationality.” Reasons can be brought to bear on interests, can be used in defense of claims. Including claims to truth, or other values. But interests also capture psychologically motivated “concerns.”

    And the term has a nice kind of forward-leaning sound to it. Like “inclination.” Since our main interest is user contributions, these are all good. (It’s hard to measure/witness a user who has withdrawn her interest.)

    I have a couple slideshows here that cover the relation between interest and competencies. Look for the Psychology of Social Media, and Competencies of Users slidehows:

  10. Pieter Desmet’s paper on emotions in product design and interactions w/ products. I like the idea of evocation — meaning is according to the user’s experience, tho forms signify.

    My gut instinct is not to apply the same frameworks to the product and social worlds, however. There is a double contingency in social interaction: that one actor knows the other has a choice. Social interaction systems are built around this negotiation.

    That said, social media are designed, and use designs that evoke, interest, surprise and so on. It’s entirely possible that some users see through the design to the person at the other end; that other users take what they see at face value.

    The degree of interaction or communication would then supply some of the content of the emotional experience/exchange…

  11. So true that social interaction design is much more layered. Can’t really dig into it any deeper now, but if opportunity arises, I’m glad I have the results of this discussion in my back pack 🙂

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