by Jenny Cool, USC
I sometimes joke that I’ve been working in new media so long I can’t believe we still call it that. But longitude is no laughing matter in an age of time-space compression: and the persistence of novelty no accident. Yet, there is much to be gleaned from histories of the new. At least that’s what I contend in taking up Adam’s invitation to post about my 10-year study of Cyborganic, an influential group of early web geeks—producer-consumers of new forms, social imaginaries, and practices of networked communication and techno-sociality. Cyborganic spored and faded away by 2003, yet many of the genres, imaginaries, and practices that emerged out of this milieu (San Francisco’s South of Market area in the 1990s) have since become predominant on the Internet. Cyborganic members brought Wired magazine online; led the open source Apache project; and created dozens of Internet firms and projects, from bOING bOING to Craig’s List and Twitter.
Rather than tracing the paths of particular forms (messaging to wikis and blogging to tag-clouds and aggregators), or looking at convergence and transmediation, or the popular proliferation of geek culture, as I do elsewhere, I want to talk more generally about three trends in “social media” that were significant in my mid-1990s fieldwork and have only become more pronounced since. There are interconnections among them and all are tied with the emergence of new cultural dominants (à la Fredric Jameson) and new dominants in the experience of time and space (e.g. David Harvey’s “time-space compression”). But let me leave these connections aside to identify the trends or dominants I mean.
(1) Short Form Messaging
Whether texting or tweeting, brevity is a norm and value—both pragmatic and aesthetic. In many forums, it is also a self-enforcing law, a coded constraint, for example, the 140-character limit on Twitter and 420-character limit on Facebook status updates. The short form might seem the obvious result of mobile messaging–which, after all, runs on protocols known as SMS for short message service–but it is no mere technical limitation or by-product of communicating “on the go.” It’s a feature by design, not a constraint. In the 1990s, with the proliferation of email and hypertext, digital media seemed to some “the word’s revenge on TV.” Though text remains the backbone of social media, it is remediated toward the short form and in other ways I touch on below.
Another clear trend is toward increasing configurability, or control, over interpersonal communication. Again, this might sound obvious, especially to fans of Beniger’s Control Revolution. Yet, the rise of social media is usually told as a tale of increasing access and real-time, “always on”, connectivity, whereas anyone who’s ever had voicemail or an answering machine knows that limitingaccess (via call screening and later caller-ID) is just as, if not more, significant than increasing it (via sending/receiving messages out of real-time). Filtering, screening, squelching, and otherwise using technological means to limit and control contact has been a significant aspect of networked communication since the ancient days of Usenet, BITNET, FidoNet, and BBSs. It remains so for Facebook and Twitter. Control, rather than simply access, is the name of the game when it comes to the application of technology to interpersonal communication.
(3) Presence Casting
Finally, there is the emergence of what I call presence casting, a practice I saw in and across media during my Cyborganic fieldwork, and have studied in a few contexts since. Status updates, away messages (afk), and, in some contexts, simply being logged in are all forms of presence casting. I noticed the practice in Cyborganic’s chat forum when people starting using the fields made to display a nickname and email to post, instead, short messages about their location, mood, or status. Today, millions are prompted daily by Facebook’s “What’s on your mind?” or Twitter’s “What’s Happening?” (originally “What are you doing?”). The wording doesn’t matter: the question is not so much literal as phatic (in both Malinowski’s and Jakobson’s sense). Its social task is to elicit contact or presence in the channel.
However they answer, whomever they allow to see their answers, and whomever’s answers they see, in whatever social media, all engage in particular norms and forms of presence casting. As is so often the case, these norms tend to be visible in the breech—for example, the pull to presence (interpellation) becomes apparent when one is going to be absent in a forum where one is a regular (at whatever interval is considered regular there) and feels compelled to give notice.
Mostly, though, in regular, day-to-day life, presence casting is about presence and visibility. If you don’t post something in a channel, no one will know you’re there. Whatever else one has–or doesn’t have–to say there is always the function of saying “I’m here.” It was this function, so key to social media, which a student of mine could not appreciate when she told our class she didn’t understand how others felt the need to post every insignificant detail or thought on Facebook. “I just don’t have that much news or that much to say,” she explained. Her reading of the feeds was clearly dominated by older expectations of linguistic meaning (where you have to have something to say to publish), rather than newer norms of presence and performativity (where you have to say something).
All three—the short form, configurability/control, and presence casting—are bound up with currents that flow more broadly throughout contemporary society. I was reminded of this recently by an essay on the incorporation of text in interactive art by Roberto Simanowski. In discussing the turn against interpretation and toward the materiality of signs and the performative in art and critical theory, he explains: “text moves from the “culture of meaning” to the “culture of presence.” Though Simanowski writes about art, what he says about “transforming text into image, sound, action or into a post-alphabetic object (i.e. depriving the text of its linguistic value)” has resonance with the trends I’ve described in social media. Even as text remains central, it is changed and constrained by new forms, norms, and social imaginaries of production and consumption.
Harvey, David. 1990. The Condition of Postmodernity. Cambridge, MA and Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
Jameson, Fredric.1991. Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke University Press. Two sections from Chapter 1 reproduced here: http://homepage.newschool.edu/~quigleyt/vcs/jameson/jameson.html
Simanowski, Roberto. 2010. Digital Anthropophagy: Refashioning Words as Image, Sound and Action. Leonardo 43(2): 159-163. (doi: 10.1162/leon.2010.43.2.159)
Author-archived PDF: http://dichtung-digital.mewi.unibas.ch/cv/Simanowski-Textual%20Objects.pdf