Realtime streams: now and then

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All social media involve a dislocation that de couples the act of communication or interaction from its artifact, which is a text or recording. This is a shame, in some respects, but one that creates possibilities that wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the medium. The medium allows us to be always here and now but visible elsewhere anytime. It has a built in “anyplace, anytime.”

This anyplace, anytime is brought into focus by each of us when we use social media. For us it’s always now. When I use twitter, I use it now. If I read your tweet, it’s now. Your now, which is now “then,” is again “now” for me. In reading your tweets I experience them in my own time, even though they were written by you in your time. On your time.

These different times become irrelevant to the medium, for each user’s activity makes them present. But the differences do have consequences for some of the medium’s particular capabilities. One of these being its way of focusing and harnessing our attention.

Media theory makes the observation that media, or mediated experiences, amplify along some axes of experience while bracketing out others. The phone: voice, and talk. Tv: the eye, and watching. Twitter: the now?

If each of us is in the now but in our own now, then the dislocation and de coupling of a tool like twitter is exacted on the time dimension. We don’t experience it that way, because we’re always “in time.” But we do experience the temporal artefacts, if you will, of the dislocation.

For we in being on twitter, now, we’re paying attention to other people, seeking attention from other people, who are not there now, or not in our “now,” even though the tool makes it seem so. There’s a temporal illusion, if one may mix metaphors ontologically. And I think this may have something to do with the residual practices that develop around attention and which contribute to the attention economy.

I am on twitter now, and for all intents and purposes you seem to be too, or rather, I’m experiencing you now (even though it’s now “past” and “then” for you). If I pay attention, by tweeting, tweeting to you, retweeting you, or even simply by reading/observing (which is paying but not giving attention), then I’m being social. I’m engaging in a social act. That social act connects us virtually, because I’m paying attention to you. And if I tweet, some part of that attention wants to close the loop with you. It wants a response.

All social action, mediated especially, intrinsically seeks a return look, a response, if not from you then some other person. It’s a tacit social principle and basic social binding mechanism, meaning that it goes without saying.

“Goes without saying.” Communication, because it has other people in mind, does a lot that goes without saying. The return is what we want from twitter — and the reason that so many new users drop it. The simplest return is the follow — and the reason so many use following strategies. But talk intrinsically begs the question, makes the appeal, and suggests the response. Talk is structured so that every linguistic statement suggests appropriate, valid, responses. That’s how language and meaning work.

The dislocation of all these attention flows, for we are all in the flow of attention, from the streams that result from them, creates a fundamental social “desire” for relocation, or connection. All these mediated forms of talk are looking for ways to make communication more probable, more successful, and more valuable.

The dimension of time is a hidden dimension but one that we know is there, and which operates at a deep level, because twitter is a tool of now. We may see the streams of others, but we experience them in the flow of our own.

Adrian Chan

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

7 comments on this article

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  2. Following this line a few steps further, how is this different from other online media, and what are some of the consequences of this difference?

    Forums and mailing lists are also asynchronous – you post in your own time, tautologically, and wait for a response. There is a big differences: threading – a topic accumulates a thread, with multiple participants, and each contribution has less burden in seeking its response. Twitter has replies, but the threading is quite tenuous; facebook and friendfeed have more visible comments, but the ratio of post to reply is still high, with more burden on the post seeking reply.

    Speaking anecdotally, there seem to be a few social patterns that arise in consequence. One is people’s use of time-based rituals to convey availability and standing topics for small talk. Another is the emergence of memes and sharing games, creating opportunities for interaction. A third is the appeal and success of Twitter for q&a, precisely because it doesn’t burden any single follower with the obligation to respond; response or the lack thereof is socially easy and karma-friendly; so questions easily call answers.

    Are there other social patterns that draw on this property of time and separation?

  3. I think the gist of my post was more on the user experience, and on attention and flow — emphasis on how we experience time, that when we use realtime media it’s always w/ an immediacy, and that in realtime media this immediacy is sometimes accompanied by a higher expectation of the oher’s presence.

    Time that is captured as history, in other words, would be a different matter, as it comes with no expectation of the other users’ attention and presence. Presence, when it’s a quality of the medium, can (for some) take on relational attriutes: expecation, anticipation, as well as waiting.

  4. Think you made some good points, but what is missing is a solution. Or, is this distortion (as you say) really a problem that needs solving?

    In any case, it was an interesting read.


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