When is media social?

Broadcast is not social

You’re in a conversation with others in an open, public place. An airport, a railway station, a shopping mall. And then someone says something on the tannoy, for example about the train on platform 14 being delayed. It’s useful. It may even be useful to you. But it’s not social. The tannoy announcements make personal and local conversation difficult.

You’re in conversation with others in a constrained space. An office building. A hotel. A cinema hall or theatre. And then someone says something on the PA system. Perhaps there’s a fire in the hall, and you’re being asked to evacuate tout suite, in an orderly fashion. It’s useful. Very useful. It may save your life. It’s an urgent Public Service Announcement, something that the Public Address system was designed to deliver. It’s useful for all concerned. But it’s not social.

Something is social when there is capacity for interaction between participants. Bi-directional. I think it was Tim O’Reilly who called the Web an “architecture for participation”. Broadcast is not an architecture for participation.

For media to be social, it needs to engender participation. And by that I don’t mean reactions and likes and emojis and whatnot. We’ve had broadcast media for a very long time; the whole point of social media being different was that it was social, on a scale quite different to broadcast, enabling a very different type of conversation.

Book internet and cable internet

It’s hard to believe that Hossein Derakhshan‘s seminal The Web We Have To Save had its eighth anniversary last week. It’s an amazing post. You should read all of it. He makes a very persuasive case for the David Weinberger assertion that hyperlinks subvert hierarchies, one of my favourite quotes from Cluetrain. One of the most telling quotes from Hossein’s post is this one:

But the Stream, mobile applications, and moving images: They all show a departure from a books-internet toward a television-internet. We seem to have gone from a non-linear mode of communication — nodes and networks and links — toward a linear one, with centralization and hierarchies.

The web was not envisioned as a form of television when it was invented. But, like it or not, it is rapidly resembling TV: linear, passive, programmed and inward-looking.

Many years earlier, when I started this blog, I wrote a “kernel” focused on being connected, not channelled. Hossein did a much better job of explaining what I was trying to say.

Hyperlinks are participatory architecture. Walled-garden controls are not. If someone else decides who or what is in our individual streams, we’ve moved from book to cable. Channelled, not connected. Not what we want.

The web is agreement

One of my colleagues from many years ago, Paul Downey, used to drive the message “The web is agreement” wherever he went. I still think there aren’t enough who understand the importance of what he was saying. The architecture of participation is itself underpinned by agreements, often social, often technical, sometimes legal. Here’s one of the drawings he did on the subject, maybe fifteen years ago. (If you want to see what else he was doing then, here’s The Web Is Agreement.).

What’s important to remember is that in a participative architecture the agreement is between participants, rather than imposed upon them by someone else.

Markets are Conversations

I mentioned earlier that one of my favourite quotes from Cluetrain was about hyperlinks. A second is about markets, and comes from Doc Searls. I’m glad to see he continues to blog, and he can be found here. Without Doc’s encouragement, and without being egged on by the late Chris Locke, I wouldn’t be writing this.

Doc helped me understand a lot more about how relationships come before conversations which are the markets, and transactions nothing more than the natural outcome of those relationship-led conversations.

These are not broadcast. They’re closer to peer-to-peer. These conversations happen in small groups, probably with an upper limit of the 150 posited by Dunbar, and probably closer to George A Miller’s Magical Number Seven.

Peer-based conversations can and do happen in public spaces, much like the addas in Calcutta, something I’ve written about before. There is something wondrous about the way a small group of people can have a conversation, with others kibitzing at the edge, and how participants solidify and melt at the core of the conversation.

I thought early Twitter had that promise, with the way we could use the @ to connect with a core while still allowing for open access to the conversation in a truly participative way. That’s why I wrote this, about “capillary conversations”, and continued with this and this. (I really thought that Twitter would allow this evolution, but it was not to be).

That’s why I was fascinated with what Dave Morin and team were trying with Path. It was very much about peer-to-peer and small-group conversations, in a circle of trust.

I’ve been keeping pretty quiet on social media for almost a decade now, largely driven away by increasing levels of polarisation, divisiveness and toxicity. Civil discourse seemed to be less and less possible, and since that was what had attracted me to social media in the first place, it was no longer meaningful for me.

I’m watching Threads with interest. Right now I’m private-profile there, only following people I know and only allowing people I know to follow me. A series of partially-overlapping groups, probably resembling a small Facebook friend graph.

There are also no hashtags and no lists. Both very useful, yet both represent utilities I have no current need for. I have this fear that such tools accelerate the marketing and decelerate the conversing in this markets-are-conversations world. I have this fear that as a result, attention and engagement are seen as things to scale rather than to nurture and cultivate at lower levels. I may well be wrong. And if I am I’m happy to change my mind.

Noise-cancelling media

Tour leader speaking to her clients in Windsor this afternoon

Maybe it’s because I’m growing old. If I’m sitting on a train — since I retired, my plane travel has dropped dramatically, a good thing — I don’t really want to be listening to someone loudly berating others on a business conference call. So I try and find quiet carriages, places where phone calls are verboten. And if someone transgresses I’m quite happy to remind them of that fact. I’m into environmental noise reduction.

This afternoon, I walked past the tour leader. And I noticed she had a small microphone on. She was talking to her customers using that, and they were using earphones to listen to her. They were having a private conversation in a public space. It is possible to do so without impinging on everyone else’s space.

We like going to museums and art galleries. Some people wear earphones to listen to the commentary; others walk around ears-free, using their eyes to read the little art-explaining notices. Yet others do neither, and just soak in what they’re seeing and experiencing. It’s a matter of choice.

Choice is a wonderful thing, especially in a well-designed participatory environment. When your exercise of choice doesn’t impinge on someone else’s right to exercise their choice, it’s wondrous.

It is possible to have filters that can do this even in a public place. You learn. It’s a variant of how a mother can recognise her child’s cry in the middle of the cacophony emanating from the creche next door. We adapt ourselves to learn how to separate the signal from the noise, to recognise those who cry wolf, to know the sensationalists and bullshitters.

It becomes even more possible when, in a digital world, we have the right tools.

Right now, what I know is this. My Threads feed doesn’t have any of the topics that I would rather not see. There’s less noise. It would be even better if I had more direct control of my feed, so that it became a reverse-chronological order latest-on-top record of what the people I followed were saying. It would be even better if I could choose to include (or mute) their conversations with others, at some level of granularity.

There’s a FOAF serendipity value to be had by doing this, a bit like the blogrolls of the late 1990s and early 2000s. I could discover new “interesting” voices by inspecting the blogrolls of people I read regularly. The key there was that I could insure against the Filter Bubble that Eli Pariser warned us about. By connecting with the blogs of people who were on the blogrolls of people I read, I tended to find people interested in similar topics but often with different views on those topics. And it was only by reading those different views that I could say I learnt.

Having more direct control of my feed, the “stream” that Derakhshan spoke of, would also reduce my vulnerability to Kevin Slavin’s well-grounded concerns about algorithms. Those who’ve been reading me for a while know that I’ve always believed in subscriber-side filters and not publisher-side controls. Publisher-side filters lead to censorship by bad actors, sometimes even state actors.


This is a provisional thread. Just some things I was thinking about. They’re still thoughts that are inchoate, slowly forming. I remember Doc Searls describing blog posts as snowballs started in one place that gather mass and momentum, disintegrate and reform, only to land up somewhere very different from where they started. I think he was referring to a conversation he had with George Lakoff.

Media is social when it is participatory, peer-based, peer-mediated, and in essence personal. I used to say that social is the plural of personal when I was at Salesforce, and I haven’t changed my mind.

The world is a very different place from the one where social media emerged. Some promises were delivered and some not. When “social” was invaded by “broadcast”, things began to change. When the smart mobile device became the platform of choice, and telcos could change the book-internet to the cable-internet, things began to change further. When advertising became the underpinning business model, things began to change even further.

These are not irreversible changes.

Humans are essentially social. We will continue to build architectures of participation — even if they revert to being analogue. And if digital infrastructures can preserve the right values, we will find ways of scaling those architectures.

I remain optimistic. We shall see.

2 thoughts on “When is media social?”

  1. I have been reading and following you since a long time…please continue sharing your intensive thoughts through this blog of yours……thanks

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