The web as a social landscape

The web was not always the interactive, social place that it has become. While broad, social interactivity is getting closer to ubiquitous, (I know you’re all on facebook, for example) the implications of this all are still not obvious. But we are at a juncture where it’s still possible to pick out particularly interactive flagship interactive sites from a background of older, less interactive ones. Here’s a fragment of a list…

  • Twitter
  • Wikipedia
  • Facebook
  • blogs
  • myspace
  • manyeyes (Those of you interested in data mashups be sure to check this one out)
  • soundcloud
  • LinkedIn
  • Opensocial
  • google reader
  • Flickr
  • Youtube
  • delicious
  • friendfeed
  • Amazon.com  – their recommendation engines.
  • a particularly intersting one is Mechanical Turk – the big name in the field of paid crowdsourcing. They have been controversial, but attracted use by lots of artists, uses audio and visual, and just plain practical.

Clay Shirky is the go-to guy for pithy aphorisms about the philosophy, economics, and socialogy of the social internet, what we will call “social media”. Here’s one:

Here’s something four-year-olds know: A screen that ships without a mouse ships broken. Here’s something four-year-olds know: Media that’s targeted at you but doesn’t include you may not be worth sitting still for. Those are things that make me believe that this is a one-way change. Because four year olds, the people who are soaking most deeply in the current environment, who won’t have to go through the trauma that I have to go through of trying to unlearn a childhood spent watching Gilligan’s Island, they just assume that media includes consuming, producing and sharing.

And here is a lengthy (20 minutes long) video of him talking which we won’t have time to look at in class. I recommend watching it nonetheless, because it’s cheaper than buying his book, and about as content-rich.

It also gets us some of the most intense, and intensely polished, marketing the world has yet seen.

See also What The F**K is Social Media?

The nature of the social web itself is disputed. (For my part, I think that anything that is as rapidly colonised by commercial interests experiences this kind of definitional dispute. It puts me in mind of the way national logging figures, or national unemployment figures, are much easier to change by altering the definition of “Forest” or “unemployment” than by changing your policy. See A working definition of social media and why we couldn’t answer the question, or follow Sydney’s own Stilgherrian who has a reliably cycnical take on the entire thing. I’m sure he’ll harp on it again soon enough.

We’re not going to delve into the definitions here. For  our purpose, a critical aquaintance with the tools and constraints of social media will be enough… and perhaps some critical literacy in the area.

For one thing, consider how the purely social websites, say facebook, are extending their reach in to other domains… Have you been asked to log in to something using your facebook account recently? (Aside – if you want to do that in wordpress, there is handy plugin that will do that) Have you found your activity online popping up in facebook? What does it mean for campus social networks to be assuming the role of identity brokers?

Consider also the problems of making use of the efforts of large numbers of people on a single project… how do you know that any given person knows that they are talking about? How do you get consensus in group discussion? (consider: does this collaborative argument about abortion add anything to the debate? How about this one on climate change?) Why on earth do we participate in social media? I know some of you have read it already, but I recommend that you check out Emily Yoffe’s perspective on this: “The powerful and mysterious brain circuitry that makes us love Google, Twitter, and texting.“. How do you prevent it getting hijacked?

What else? How about the pathologies of social media – anxiety and neurosis?

The term researchers use is “co-rumination” to describe frequently or obsessively discussing the same problem. The behavior is typical among teens — Why didn’t he call? Should I break up with him? And, psychologists say, it has intensified significantly with e-mail, text messaging, instant messaging and Facebook. And in certain cases it can spin into a potentially contagious and unhealthy emotional angst, experts say.

How much connectivity is too much? Is there a connectivity addiction?

Who the crap are these people?

Who the crap are these people?

It also gives us the challenges of making sense of the masses of human interaction that are online. Every time I query google, I touch upon the creative output of millions. How do you quantify that? How do you even depict that?

Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar's classic crowd emotion visualiser

Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar's classic crowd emotion visualiser


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