The Reality of Social Media

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The internet changes over time. That the technology has evolved is obvious. But how we use the internet is also changing. So we have two conceptual distinctions — technology and people — that we frequently conflate into one idea of the internet. This post is about teasing apart the objective and subjective dimensions of social media, to examine what’s behind the relational economy we now live in, and its particular mode of production. All commerce and much personal and social utility implied by use of social media owes to the subjective value added to what was, previously, a mode of production of information (publishing).

I will try to demonstrate here the manner in which social acts and communication result in mediated social realities. And suggest that the relational connections and value-added associations which are the byproduct of social media use create a marketplace of content whose highest value, individually motivated subjective choices, we are only beginning to capture and mine.

Technically speaking, the internet distributes data. Data that is also stored. Data we also call information. Information being a very loose term used sometimes to refer to the contents themselves (words, numbers, it doesn’t matter) and sometimes to its social/cultural meaning (information is something meaningful, a fact). Technically speaking, information is the bitstream and lifeblood of the internet. It’s objective. But speaking in common terms, information is what we know. It’s subjective.

The world of the first, we might consider the “reality” of the online world. Information is the foundation on which a rich medium of presentation and interaction is constructed (it is a constructed world, it is a world produced and manufactured as are all media).

The world of the second we might consider the “subjectivity” of the online world. Interaction and communication, in which information is used and referenced, linked to and embedded, is now the most fascinating aspect of the online world. In this medium nothing exists unless it is connected to something else. Unlike the real world, the online world exists only insofar as it is navigable. That is, only on the basis of a connection.

The connectedness of the real world is material, substantial, and alive. Forces of change are natural and inevitable, in short: causal. Time moves all substance; all is in motion and change is a natural “causal” chain. Connectedness is simple causality of the world becoming, in time.

The connectedness of the online world is constructed. Connections are constructed by machines and by people, according to the logic and relations that exist at the level of information, and at according to the subjective choices (tastes, preferences) of people (users).

The old model for the online world was web publishing. Separately, there were communication tools and applications (email, chat, IM etc). The current model combines the two. In the old model, connections between bits of information might be made according to the relations that made sense for those bits of information: taxonomic, categorical, by genre, topic, what have you. The online world had more objectivity in that its production reflected “industrial” methods.

The online world today reflects a much higher degree of subjective and social use — connections are made not only as a reflection of these subjective values and interests, but as a byproduct of subjective relations and activities. Put simply, people create value when they interact and communicate online, often-times including ingredients provided by the medium (we can use words, which of course pre-existed the internet; we can also use the stuff found only here).

The online world is capturing more and more subjective choices. Selections made by people for reasons of taste and preference, motivated by others (for, because of, to attract…), reflecting individual identity, group identity, community, you name it. Social media permit online activity to reveal a vast amount of social and cultural preference as well as relational interest. And much of it is recorded, stored, and indexed.

The real social life?

The real social life?

But extracting meaning from the social web is a challenging proposition, let alone undertaking. When content is created, connected, distributed, embedded, or otherwise attached to people, their talk, or their interactions (activities), its meaning becomes ambiguous. Meaning may be obtained from the user’s intentions in using content, or from the content’s semantic meaning, from the relationship between users, the group, site, community context, application context, and so on. And I’m radically over-simplifying the interpretive options here.

Counting and quantifying by-and-large has served as our means of qualifying social web content. This is perhaps now going to change somewhat, as realtime tools like Twitter (and their practices) contribute ever-increasing amounts of “information” to the internet. When information first appears, when it is news and is completely new, it is distributed. This original flow of information creates connections, establishes content relationships, facilitates indexing by search engines, and will make possible socially-validating actions (comments, tagging, bookmarking, sharing etc).

The real social media life

There is a bias in this first flow of news. This bias owes simply to the fact that new information must be observed before it can become part of the online reality’s facticity. Information cannot be valued until it first has been observed. So the “first hit” if you will, in traffic, is relatively meaningless and belongs to the information’s coming into existence. It is merely the appearance of news in the realtime stream.

The second selection of that information is the first to reflect user interest — the second selection is not observation but action. It is confirmation of the information’s subjective value, or of its social relevance. This second selection, be it a retweet, a like, or some other act of “sharing,” transforms the news item (information) into communication, for it is now voiced not as fact but as an individual statement, or personal choice. This move transforms fact as facticity into social fact as subjective interest, and not only as individual choice but as a communicative expression.

Behind the choice of the like or retweet, in other words, is an intention taken up with an audience in mind. In this way our likes and retweets convey, indicate, suggest, solicit, and identify our interests in a social act that engenders further interaction. In the transformation of fact as news into social fact as choice, this second selection attributes new meaning (adding value to the information), as it is sent, shared, rated, saved, tagged etc. That added value is the subjective interest, and is the reason that in the world of social media, the news (facts) that matter are those that are most communicable; in short, tastes by means of which we disclose who we are, what we find interesting, and with which we identify.

Counting accrues over time, as content is validated/used in a variety of social interactions. Because connections may be counted without qualifying the type of connection or the kind of relation, a simple count is the most common way of validating information. This is a reality in which the number of connections to a piece of information is its volume or mass — it’s social reality.

More recent social web practices, however, suggest that qualifying these connections, and accounting for the variety in social relations, will be increasingly valuable if not necessary. For whom is information consumed; in front of whom is it shared or published; for whom is it told; who else chooses it? Where in the world of facts, validity is measured in terms of truth, in the world of social facts, validity is an expression of relevance. Relevance in a social sense is significance. Understanding the significance of information means understanding an act, a social relation, and the connection made with information embedded in social interactions.

The social act is far more complex, relationally, than may at first appear, and to date exceeds the capabilities of search and filtering to model and represent. For relational values attributed or attached to social fact as they are communicated across networks may belong to a number of meaning domains.

These relational values may be indicative, of personal interest. May be expressive, of personal feeling, state, or mood. May be solicitous, of recognition, validation, or some other acknowledgment. May be associative, as in similar to or related to some category of interests and tastes, values, events, and so on. May be inter-personal, as when they are intended to further interaction with a person or persons. And so on. All of these and other social actions may furnish the reasons for which we confirm and communicate, select and distribute, connect to and share, content in mediated social systems.

The social web grows by supplementing information with social significance, or what makes information socially relevant. The old world, the world of web 1.0, was a world of publishing. It was a one-column world. The new world, the social world of web 2.0, is a two-column world. What the double-entry method of book-keeping did for finance, inaugurating a system of debits and credits, and liberating capital from its exchange form, we need for the social web. Facebook is on this already, but still primitively, insofar as social content in feeds is liked and acted on within an inter-personal relational context.

But outside Facebook, the added value of so many one-click expressions or gestures is still lost in a system that captures action in a single column social model. Social needs to model communication, not just information, and for this it needs the equivalent of a two-column transactional model. Like markets run by brokerage and trading systems, the ask and the offer, the sale and purchase, need to be coupled. Only then are social expressions validated by the reciprocation, or confirmation, supplied by another (the audience). Value can then be assessed on the basis of its confirmation.

Communication is just communication as long as it remains observed only. But it calls for a yes or no, for acceptance or rejection. When that is supplied by another person, it becomes social action. Not information, but action, and what we need to capture it, measure it, relate it, and repurpose it, is the challenge facing us today.

Photo by malias

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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  3. Adrian, nice post. Pulling apart the actions from the material is an interesting take. Here’s a few thoughts that came to mind while reading, in no particular order..

    We migt think of your second type of information as ‘knowledge’ ? I’m reminded here of work by John Seely Brown that distinguishes between the two (information & knowledge) in much the same way you do – the latter is highly social, while the former is not.

    This might also lead us to a few different ways to understand the social web as ‘equipment’ in the sense that we work on it as a thing, and through it with actions as a medium. The same is true for all technology of course, but lets focus on the social web here for now ;-)

    Secondly, the ambiguity you describe can be thought of as the thing that makes any meaning possible. I’m thinking here of the work by wenger around communities of practice, particularly the part about ambiguity not beng the absence of meaning, but rather, one requirement for it to be created at all.

    Whatever the take on this medium, it’s an interesting vein to mine, particularly when we take it back to the studio and try to think about making stuff. Thanks again ;-)

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