Social Interaction & Networks

On Blogging & Online Conversations

Those Bloody Net­works [source unknown]

This is a reply to Chris Bate­man’s post “The Extinc­tion of Blogs”.

I remem­ber how Chris and I first ‘met’. It was on Twit­ter (I’m @qwallath, he’s @SpiralChris), and as these things go, I was plan­ning to embed the ori­ginal tweets below this para­graph, nice and easy. How­ever, since the con­ver­sa­tion happened at least a year ago, if not two, I’m hav­ing dif­fi­culties loc­at­ing them. Scrolling through my list of Twit­ter men­tions is a hellish task, and besides, they don’t seem to go back more than a few months. In other words, let’s not bother with the his­tor­ical sources.

Through the haze of memory, then, allow me to para­phrase. Chris said some­thing to the effect of “Apply­ing evol­u­tion to cul­tural phe­nom­ena is a dead-end street”. I did­n’t know or fol­low him at the time, but the tweet was retweeted by @taleoftales, who I did fol­low, so it ended up in my timeline. Since I deal with evol­u­tion­ary approaches to lan­guage (a cul­tural phe­nomenon in my book) in my research, I replied that I did­n’t agree. Since this was Twit­ter, I’m pretty sure we did­n’t end up in a very con­veni­ent con­ver­sa­tion, but at that point I did find out that Chris was writ­ing a book about the pit­falls of evol­u­tion­ary myths in sci­ence, reli­gion, and so forth; that book is the com­mend­able The Myth­o­logy of Evol­u­tion, which I dis­cussed earlier on this blog. Since then, Chris and I have had more reg­u­lar con­ver­sa­tions, often on Twit­ter, some­times over on his blog, Only a Game.

This anec­dote illus­trates a few points about the nature of online com­mu­nic­a­tion and con­ver­sa­tion. I’ve found that Twit­ter is a good place for get­ting in touch with people you don’t know yet. Retweet­ing someone to your fol­low­ers is sort of like intro­du­cing them to your friends. In other words, there is some­thing of a sur­prise factor involved, which can lead to nice dis­cov­er­ies and new acquaint­ances. At the same time, the dif­fi­culties of Twit­ter con­ver­sa­tion show that the real action (or ‘con­tent’, if you like) is usu­ally else­where; it’s in the place you link to using a tweet.** An excep­tion to this is the ‘tweet-for-tweet’s-sake’, a 140-char­ac­ter joke, anec­dote, poem, etc. These are power­ful thanks to, not de­spite, Twit­ter’s charac­ter limit.

As Chris illus­trates, things have changed in the past ten years or so when it comes to online con­ver­sa­tion. I would say it has evolved in a cer­tain way, if only to be a pest. I remem­ber roughly ten years ago, when nearly all my online con­ver­sa­tion took place on for­ums. They were gen­er­ally organ­ised around a theme (music, scene, interest), and while they the­or­et­ic­ally allowed for long art­icles and expos­i­tions, most of the con­ver­sa­tions began abruptly. Someone intro­duces a topic, other people weigh in. All the con­ver­sa­tions were neatly organ­ised by topic/thread, and it was rel­at­ively easy to look up older threads, to see the chro­no­lo­gical order of the con­ver­sa­tion, etc.

It feels almost too banal to describe a forum struc­ture, but com­par­ing it to the organ­isa­tion of most social media nowadays, the dif­fer­ence is sig­ni­fic­ant. I’m hav­ing dif­fi­culty express­ing that dif­fer­ence, but I feel that Face­book, Twit­ter, Tumblr, Google+, and the like are far more eph­em­eral, or rather, what you post on it is. Other people need to read it soon, or it’s lost in an ocean of digital shouts from other people. If you do get replies to your post, it’s a bit easier to keep track of it (noti­fic­a­tions and all), but this won’t gen­er­ally expose the post to new people. Again, the retweet/share/reblog is an excep­tion, and it may pro­long the shelf life of a post. Of course, extremely busy for­ums are a com­pet­it­ive envir­on­ment for a post as well, but for me it is telling that its main unit of organ­isa­tion seems to be the thread/conversation, rather than the indi­vidual posts that they are com­posed of.

I should actu­ally be com­par­ing social media to blogs, since that is what Chris’ post revolved around, but I could­n’t help drag­ging in for­ums, since I did­n’t start blog­ging long after I has star­ted writ­ing on for­ums. Any­way, blogs are still a very rel­ev­ant medium, in my opin­ion. They can occupy a sort of sweet spot between the pop­ular­ity of magazine art­icles, the ser­i­ous­ness of a sci­entific paper, the pri­vacy of a diary, and the famili­ar­ity of a con­ver­sa­tion over tea or cof­fee. This alone makes them unique. How­ever, as Chris indic­ated, the func­tion of a blog as a con­ver­sa­tion medium seems to be on the decline. Since I came late to the blog­ging party, I can’t really speak from per­sonal exper­i­ence, but I do agree that for some reason, con­ver­sa­tion and inter­activ­ity is shift­ing away from “vis­it­ing someone’s page and respond­ing” to “see­ing everything in one place (i.e. a social net­work­ing site) and reply­ing there, if at all”.

This shift towards reli­ance on social media for new things to read on the inter­net has made it harder for indi­vidual blog posts to get noticed, even if they are expli­citly shared on a net­work­ing site, since they have to com­pete with so many other posts. In addi­tion, because blog posts are gen­er­ally longer, they are more likely to be releg­ated to the per­il­ous read-it-later pile. How many of those ever end up actu­ally read?Incid­ent­ally, if you’ve made it this far, thanks for read­ing!

Speak­ing from my own exper­i­ence, I think there is a good reason for that, and that is con­veni­ence, surely one of the most power­ful selec­tion cri­teria in human cul­tural evol­u­tion (sorry). I’m the kind of per­son that likes to stay in touch with many dif­fer­ent kinds of people and for some reason many of those people have grav­it­ated towards dif­fer­ent online pres­ences. If I want to keep in touch with all of them, I need: Face­book, Twit­ter, Tumblr, Live­journal, RSS, Google+ (though per­haps this one is redund­ant), and old-fash­ioned e-mail — there may be more. Obvi­ously, going through each of these indi­vidu­ally is pretty much undo­able if you also want to get some­thing of your own done dur­ing the day. Ideally, RSS would be able to tie all of these chan­nels together into one con­veni­ent col­lec­tion of things to read. How­ever, some of the social media prob­ably hap­pen too fast (i.e. the post­ing fre­quency might be too high) to really make RSS con­veni­ent, and cru­cially, Twit­ter does­n’t seem to have an RSS con­nec­tion at all any­more.

For the moment, then, we will have to jury-rig solu­tions. RSS works fine for keep­ing track of the ‘slower’ media. I gen­er­ally use it whenever pos­sible, as long as there are no more than ~10 posts a day per account I am fol­low­ing. Of course, most indi­vidual blogs only post a few art­icles a week or less, so RSS is per­fect for mak­ing sure you aren’t miss­ing any of those. Still, the big­ger your RSS col­lec­tion gets, the more likely it is for com­pet­i­tion to set in there as well. Maybe there just is no way of hav­ing your cake and eat­ing it?

As a final thought, per­haps it will be use­ful to take a more his­tor­ical per­spect­ive, and com­pare our plight to that of the pro­lific let­ter writer. Broadly speak­ing, a (say, 19th cen­tury) let­ter writer has two net­works: the local one, rely­ing on face-to-face con­tact, and the paper one, rely­ing on back-and-forth let­ter writ­ing. The easi­est way to make con­tact is to hang out in the local pub and see what con­ver­sa­tions emerge over a tank­ard or two with the people who hap­pen te be there. You won’t have time or oppor­tun­ity to develop longer con­ver­sa­tions with every­one though, and of course if someone does­n’t live near you, face-to-face isn’t an option at all. Both longer face-to-face and longer paper con­ver­sa­tion require selec­tion on your part; they force you to ask your­self the admit­tedly harsh ques­tion: who among all these people is worth a lar­ger invest­ment of my time? You can only spend so much time each day writ­ing let­ters, and if you want to main­tain deeper con­ver­sa­tions with some people, you will have to be short with oth­ers, or even push them aside for a while.

The advent of social net­work­ing sites has mainly made it easier to main­tain short, super­fi­cial con­ver­sa­tions with many dif­fer­ent people, and the require­ment of face-to-face com­mu­nic­a­tion is gone. Twit­ter and Face­book are the vir­tual pub, if you will. They can lead to some won­der­ful acquaint­ances, and these have the poten­tial to develop into deeper friend­ships. But again, if we want to main­tain more in-depth con­ver­sa­tions with some people, we will have to make a con­scious effort, and alloc­ate our time and atten­tion accord­ingly. New tech­no­lo­gies haven’t changed that basic prin­ciple.