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Connections: A reflection the development of social tools

October 13th, 2010
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The story of the stirrup
Do you know the story of the stirrup? The stirrup was introduced to horsemanship alternately by the Central Asians, Chinese, or tribes in India more than 2,500 years ago. But it was not until combined with the armor-plated knight and a saddle with a backrest that it rose from toe-hold to game-changer in the murderous game that was then medieval warfare. Norman shock combat, featuring riders on horseback with couched lances, high-backed saddles, and stirrups, mounted their charge against faltering Saxons at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. England has not been the same since.

The story of the stirrup is not without debate — equestrians lay claim to the lance and archery work sans stirrup — but it is an oft-cited example of the role technology plays in social change. The stirrup not only produced a new war machine, in the mounted knight, but was a part also of an emerging social class: those who could afford the supporting needs of knighthood. Chivalry, nobility, glory in warfare, and the crusades all owe a relation to the stirrup. This simple invention was not alone responsible for these social changes, but was a notable and critical element.

I am not a technological determinist. I think culture paves the way for the use of certain technologies when it anticipates their use in that particular fashion. A similar point is often made about guns — whose introduction in some cultures was met with the unenthusiastic reception of warrior cultures for whom killing at a distance was ignoble.

In more contemporary times, technologies launched too early (the apple Newton), or out of synch with cultural practices and social needs (the video phone), serve as more recent examples of the same relationship between the social and the technical. Cultures invent needs and uses, and technologies fill them. It is unlikely that a technology, requiring the design commitments and resources that it usually does, comes along and out of the blue invents a new and popular way of doing things.

Connections

I recently was enjoying Connections, by James Burke, one of my favorite documentary series and in some circles a bit of a cult classic. In the series, Burke traces a dotted and dashed line through history, connecting inventions, discoveries, accidents, and events to trace the lineage of several modern-day technologies. Explosives, electricity, the gasoline engine, television, computing, money, and plastics all receive fascinating treatment.

Among the numerous tales of coincidence and serendipity that footnote the romp through the history of science and technology that is Connections, one recurring theme remains a narrative constant. It is the importance of relations, of the relationships that a new technology had with practices and possibilities, with needs and opportunities, problems solved and new futures created.

And in that not insignificant observation is the more emphatic point that no game-changing technique or technology (for that’s really what technology is — application of a rational technique) would have had the impact that it did were it not for its having leveraged and amplified existing relations.

Likewise, today, no social tool makes waves unless it levers and extends current practices, makes implicit connections explicit, surfaces the hidden and renders visible the latent. Relatedness is all, and online more so than “anywhere” else, for the online world has no “material” or “temporal” persistence beyond the connections and relations that weave it together.

Relations, subjective and objective
Two kinds of relations matter in the world of social technologies. Relations among data elements, digital objects, and the operations possible around them. And social relations, including those between a user and his or her social user experiences, communication with others, and social relations made visible in different ways on our many social sites and services. Objective relations and subjective relations.

It used to be that in computing, objective relations expressed a sort of subjective consensus, a choice given computing’s constraints, to operationalize and represent functions and interaction in a particular way. It might now be argued that an increasing amount of computing, that behind the social web and related businesses, at least, reflects a subjectiv-izing use of objective data relations. That the relations that matter in social web use are those that socialize the world of information, that renew and re-contextualize the static or objectively-structured world of data.

I am over-simplifying the computing industry and professions here, of course, but for the purpose of extracting the kind of truth that makes its point best beneath the arc-light of exaggeration. In social media use, individual user actions provide subjective taste and preference; communication between users supplies social relatedness; and social interaction among users animates social activiities and practices. Social uses connect the dots and dashes of a multi-threaded world of otherwise binary bits and algorithmic processes.

Social media connections
There are, in Connections, a number of connections made. They vary in their composition and so I thought it might be interesting to tease out some that bear relevance to us. In the vein of a “what if” sort of viewing — an exposition of what a BBC documentary aired in 1978 might have observed about the socializing world of today’s internet.

First of all, for a few of the big categories.

  • Identifying, locating, positioning, indexing, and categorizing. Historical examples: astrolabe, gridlines, compass, star charts, triangulation.
  • Improving the efficiency, effectiveness, application or extension of a process, method, or technique. Historical examples: plow, loom, water wheel, coal-tar, american manufacturing system
  • Inventions the revolutionize, change, transform a process, method, technique, or pastime. Historical examples: money and credit, steam power, chemistry, car
  • Methods, insights, techniques that give one an advantage over and against competitors. Historical examples: longbow, lateen rigging, gunpowder, synthetics, radar
  • Creative innovations that lead to new markets, services, production, and demand in the marketplace and more broadly, socially. Historical examples: printing, double-entry book-keeping, electricity, plastics, wireless

In each of these types of technical innovation, a number of social relations were transformed. These run from the seemingly modest — but in fact transformative impact — of the chimney on dwellings and living spaces (one hall becomes many rooms, social classes divide, intimacies are enervated) to the more obviously revolutionary such as gunpowder, electromagnetism, or the combustion engine. In some cases an invention threatened a change of world view (the telescope and proof of heliocentrism); disruption of social order (industrialism and the worker); competitive dis/advantage (marine navigation, empire, and imperialism); or global repercussions (the atom bomb). And this is but a gloss.

So what do social media amplify?
I hope that I have not strayed too far from the trail, but the force of historical references is far greater than any argument I might muster on behalf of social theoretical insights. That, and Connections is simply such a darned good program(me) that I relish the mental replay.

So, to the point I had in mind to begin with: what power to leverage and amplify social relations might social media represent? And if that’s the generic version of the question, the more particular version is aimed at the startups and social tool vendors out there: what social are you changing?

An example, first.
Foursquare awards badges (think Knights — the lineage of liege lies latent, looming largely!) and points for checkins. This creates social visibility out of individual action. It differentiates socially by means of recognizable distinctions (badges). It locates individuals and renders them available by means mobile and in realtime.

  • So it extends the position/location series arcing back long ago to maps, star readings, and the astrolabe. Does it extend the navigation series? Yes but not significantly (it’s not about going someplace with others as being or having been there).
  • By combining places with visits and short messages, does it extend the knowledge/classification/indexing series? Not so much — we still use Yelp for that.
  • It is mobile and has messaging — does it extend the signal/communication series (lighthouse; morse; wireless; phone) — it may be on the cusp of social location signaling practices (I’m here, yes, come say hi) but norms are still a check against location-based intrusion. A tweet, (meeting request) is often expected first.

And there are other social relations surfaced, rendered, connected, and amplified by Foursquare that I haven’t mentioned. We could run through Buzz, ChatRoulette, Plancast, Quora, or a host of other social tools to tease out the changes they help to introduce. And around which social practices may be forming or might form.

Chain of events
In the series Connections, each chain of events has circumstantial, if not questionable, causal relation. Author James Burke readily admits the numerous chains of connection he might have drawn otherwise: historically, socially, technically. In our universe, that is, the world of social media, we must admit that our chains are not causal, but social. That is, they are signifying chains.

Now I borrow here a bit from 20th century philosophers, and cultural semioticians in particular, but the gist of the signifying chain is quite simply that social media use means something, socially speaking. It goes without saying that nobody but nobody would check in with Foursquare if he or she were the only one doing it. In any given social media tool or application, success is begotten by the social significance with which the technology is met. The greatest power, the most paradigm-changing and transformative social impact, obtains to those services with the greatest social significance.

In Connections, there are moments in history when a certain discovery creates a myriad of possibilities. And moments when a combination of simultaneous but partially-useful discoveries produce something greater than the sum of the parts. In social media we see a similar phenomenon. The browser was game changing, as were the modem, the PC, and the internet. The iPhone, however, is more likely a device whose genius of market timing allowed it to leverage existing social web practices, (mobile) application developer community (some surely with Facebook apps on their CV), and established smart/phone audience habits.

To return to the our example, as the iPhone is helped by twitter, it also helps Foursquare. And it remains to be seen what Foursquare can do to amplify the most out of geolocal social practices. For if history is any fair measure, a host of subcultures and practices might yet take wing on the Foursquare model. (Question for Facebook Places: does the social graph enable or constrain location checkins?)

Or take, instead, Google Buzz. Buzz meant to extend the one-to-many email communication model (itself a time-condensed form of correspondence combined with one-to-many broadcast aspects). Buzz lifts the 140 off short messaging and threads responses for tighter conversationality. But socially it already can’t avoid resonating with public social media cultures and practices (high profile users). And with search just an algorithm away (to say nothing of social search), the DNA in Buzz must already be plotting its next evolutionary leap with a small step along the knowledge/indexing/categorizing series. Buzz, after all, was raised in labs more digital Gutenberg than twitter, which is more Edison.

Anticipating the social
All of the technical and social narratives told in Connections involve breakthroughs whose impact spread out like ripples, often far beyond the innovator’s original intent, and usually beyond the problem immediately solved. These secondary effects exist because things are related. Territory is related to navigation is related to exploration. Constellations organize the heavens and account for earthly events, setting expectations for the future. Credit mitigates risk which permits investment, thus begetting financiers. The curved plow and scabbard were more efficient, which led to surplus, and thus leisure time.

Technologies amplify along an axis, if not several axes, of relation. Each relational axis may be developed along a series of related and extensive tools and techniques, and corresponding social and cultural practices. Value accrues as a result in areas previously left out of administration. These amplifications may involve the extension of an existing method to new practices within a social group; may connect these new practices to new populations; may complexify and differentiate the domains of action and communication possible along a series; and so on.

Consider, for a moment, some of the series in play with social tools today.

  • Personal to social: The differentiation of personal habits and real-world separation of private and public spaces and places is extended in “worlds” (experiences) developed online. Not only Facebook and Google, but all social networking and communication tools extend the personal-social series. Here issues are of containment, separation, mobility, visibility, privacy, intimacy, mediation, image, and so on. Issues concern the increase in options for play and use of personal and social distinctions in tool design as well as its uses; and the protection, respect, and containment of normatively-regulated social practices in which lines between the private and the public are understood. Communication, intentional but as often unintentional, easily leaks between and across today’s mediated “spaces” and networks.
  • Action and its Consequences: All social actions are coupled to likely and unlikely consequences. We take these into account (consciously or not) in our actions. As tools become more complex, a greater number of actions are coupled to a greater number of consequences. Communication posted in one context but re-contextualized elsewhere (tweets, comments, shares). In some cases the consequences of an action seemingly taken in one domain (use of a webcam to stream a room-mate’s private activity?) have consequences transcending the domain in which action was initiated and taken. Inadvertent exposures result from the many audiences through which a recording may travel.
  • Associating and signifying: Signs of social status and position are a focal point of today’s massively mediated culture, and are developed with great care and precision by our image-makers. Versions of these kinds of image-based distinctions, be they signs, icons, badges, points, or some other kind of representation serve to distinguish people online, too. But insofar as they are used by an audience, not just broadcast through mass media, social signifiers online may have a wider range of ambiguity. Do they mean what they appear to mean, or what they were meant to mean by the user who earns or transacts them? With ambiguities come interpretive skills. Users today possess the ability to read the nuances of meaning not only from signs and their original context of use, but also according to friends who use them, groups they belong to, sites they use them in, and more. There is an enormous amount of design possibility in the rich field of social signifiers — from virtual currencies to leaderboards and even enterprise incentive systems.

And that’s just a canvas. Additional series could be found in social tools along axes including: finding and re-finding; discovery and exploration; search and information; trust and loyalties; personas and reputation; mobile and place/location; and so on.

Social media amplify personal and individual uses and practices; extend and connect social practices, and often produce unforeseen common wealth. But how they do so varies, and not just by tool but by insight and foresight. Socially fertile ground can dramatically enhance the impact and spread of a new tool, service, or application. It’s not just about api’s and scalability, but about social api’s and social significance. Did Gutenberg anticipate that within 40 years of his new printing press there would be eight million books in circulation? Or the Vatican foresee that the press would present a real and present threat to the very Church itself? It’s all there in history, and changes afoot today portend as remarkable a shift in communication and social and cultural practices as did the printing press more than 500 years ago.

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