Social media, converging streams?

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One of my favorite books about community is a work by Nobel Prize winner Elias Canetti called Crowds and Power. It’s a beautiful and thoroughly insightful study on people assembled in different ways and for a kaleidoscopic set of reasons. I turn to the book often when thinking about how social media both separate and connect us, using it as an imaginary frontier of sorts for what mediated crowds might or could do. A piece by Tim Leberecht reminded me of Canetti this morning. Got me thinking about converging streams and how conversational media sometimes produce that effect of being together at the same time.

Which is really a matter of paying attention at the same time, more than of being together, for the medium only connects across our individual spaces and times. The Germans have a nice word for the sense of being with others: “Mitsein.” “Being with” is contrasted with contiguity, or being “next to” or adjacent to one another. We’re not in one another’s stream of consciousness when we are just next to one another; we are when we are “with” one another.

There is no “Mitsein” online, but there is a sense of something that approximates it. But it comes not through being together. It comes through talk. Talk that indicates we are here and now, paying attention. The response is its signal flare.

In a medium so perfectly suited for a kind of self-talk, or talking aloud in front of others, it might be strange that there are occasions when we get a sense of Mitsein. Approximated, of course, in the medium’s own peculiar kind of proximity, or proximate intimacy. An “approximity” perhaps. A blend of the real and the imagined, of memory and expectation.

Verbal communication, not the language of bodies sharing space as in Crowds and Power, produces this approximation online. The kind of talk that appeals for a response. The kind of talk that runs out a line with hooks.

Hooks are important for conversation. I much prefer dialog to monolog. Hooks, in the form of “and you?” strung out along the thread of a good conversation are what call me into the world of people. I listen, I pay more attention, when conversation is drawn by the two of us. I like interruptions and clipped sentences, finishing one another’s thoughts, and mutual effort of threading out a good line together.

I wonder if the brief moments of simultaneity that pass now and then across our webbed social spaces will result in stream convergence. If the community of talk media might lie not in distributing messages but in the sense of sharing time. And if the point of doing more to make streams — of messages and update and activities — more interesting is also to create more hooks by which to connect them. If streams, like people, not only want the greater flow of the river but also the shared flow of time.

Top image by Demi Brooke

Adrian Chan

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

3 comments on this article

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  2. Interesting to thing about what converging streams may mean in the flow. It calls to mind a few potential innovations for convergence.

    The first is to signal what a conversation is. At conferences, participants make up hashtags to coalesce the backchannel. Would this take hold in less formal conversations, is there any way to make the on-the-fly identification of a conversation to be not socially awkward? Many tools have subject threading – perhaps an affordance could build on the subject of a thread and allow participants to link another stream into the same thread.

    The second is an affordance to explicitly curate a stream convergence on the fly. The Friendfeed model, is to unthinkingly dump all the flow from an object type into one big stream – all of your flickr photos and last.fm movies and delicious updates into an amazon of flow. The Facebook/Youtube/Blip model is for individually-based, object-based sharing. There is a video of cats that I must share with my friends right now. But the curatorial – or “tummling” opportunity is to select items from other streams and bring them in, in the flow. For this conversation about a movie, here are related updates, now, and the thread will flow together for a moment before separating.

    This are science fiction UI ideas at the moment, I am not sure how in practice they might work, just trying to flesh out the picture.

  3. You write so elegantly Adrian. And sorry responding with a ‘Brainfart’ is simply rude.

    Here’s my considered response.

    Perhaps the approximity of an online interaction is created by the giving on oneself at the time of typing? The application of this energy is residual in the words long after their creation and available to any who would read it.

    This is the same bond that can be sustained during long term separation during past periods of war or turmoil. Partners and families had no communication save a letter sent across the seas.

    If people do not give some of themselves and focus their energy during an asynchronous online social interaction, then it will only be a time waster. Nothing will change in anyone’s life.

    I would posit that if ‘mitsein’ is missing in someone’s life, then they are likely to experience ongoing psychological distress. However, perhaps the approximity of The Net is enough to make life livable, for some.