Social Media: From Meaning to Presence

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.

(2)  Configurability/Control

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.

Works Cited

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:

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:

Adam Fish

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

11 thoughts on “Social Media: From Meaning to Presence

  1. Jenny, fascinating. I was instantly reminded of one of the interviews included in my book on Japanese consumer behavior. SK is Shindo Kazuma, who would later become head of the R&D division at Hakuhodo, Japan’s second largest advertising agency. Anyway, here is some evidence that seems to confirm your analysis.


    JLM: Today we’re going to talk about your study, ‘Showa Hit-Frequency Songs’. Before we get into the content, could we talk a bit about the word-counting method you used?

    SK: Every year we use the same method to analyse the New Year’s editions of newspapers and magazines. We look at the words in their headlines, from which we learn what has happened and what directions the world is moving in. Recently, though, we haven’t been using word counts in big studies focused on special themes.
    Before we started, a few university professors had done similar projects, but they always counted small sets of words by hand. When people count by hand a lot of subjective bias gets into the process. It was shortly before we did ‘Showa High-Frequency Songs’ that computer software that could do word counts appeared, in a program called ‘Happiness’. We decided to try it out. There are lots of programs that do this now, but then it was revolutionary.
    Our method is to count everything, to exclude subjective bias. Only after everything has been counted do we look at the results. Counting first and then thinking about the results is much better than thinking first and then counting.
    Suppose you count all the words in someone’s conversation. If a certain woman’s name appears many times, you can infer that there is a strong interest there, even if the person who is speaking is unaware of the fact. That’s what makes counting so interesting. It’s a kind of depth psychology. When we look at what people have written, we can see things that the writer wasn’t conscious of saying. We can see, era by era, how people’s unconscious feelings have changed.

    JLM: Why, then, haven’t you done any big thematic studies since 1990?

    SK: I’ve thought of doing a similar study [of song lyrics] for the Heisei era, but it wouldn’t be interesting until enough time had passed. Now that it’s been almost ten years . . . . But really, there isn’t any reason. I just stopped for a while.

    JLM: You haven’t done another study, but how do you see what’s been happening through your own eyes? How has Japanese music changed in the last nine years?

    SK: Music? What we analysed was lyrics. Now the number of totally meaningless words has increased. Melody and rhythm have become more important than the words. I said that I had just stopped for a while, but I wonder how meaningful counting words would be now. Lyrics no longer have the power they used to. Perhaps Japanese who listen to music have changed as well. Physical sensation (kankaku) has become more important. Words carry emotion but they are also intellectual . . . today’s songs have become . . . perhaps the right thing to say is more directly felt. People listen to music for the feeling alone. If we had a way to count them, elements of melody and rhythm would now be more important.

    JLM: Is that what Sekizawa calls resonance (kyôshin)?

    SK: No. That involves shared feeling (kyôkan). Have you noticed that songs are becoming higher-pitched? It would be interesting to count the notes in songs. Every year they seem to be higher. Voices are becoming more falsetto, more forced. It could be the effect of the spread of karaoke. Counting is most interesting when something seems to be changing. If it doesn’t show you what’s going on in people’s hearts, it’s not all that stimulating.

  2. Erin, yes, I am present casting. Thanks for noticing. How old, if I may ask, are your kids?

  3. Jenny, I’m here (!) Great post. This was really informative to me. I’d never have recognized “control” as an element in these forms of communication, but you are right. As for presence, I’ve stopped fighting technology in my students’ hands in the large lecture halls. Not just because I was losing the battle or tiring of the fight. I simply accept that they inhabit numerous worlds simultaneously. Even in absence, there is the (need for) notification of presence, momentarily.

  4. Thanks John! Your interchange with SK brought to mind the Sanrio stationery products of my childhood, pencil cases decorated with strings of English—“Best friends…waiting for something magic.”– not entirely a-semantic, but definitely a turn away from focus on linguistic value. While I see the connection you’re making to word usage in Japanese songs, that seems to me part of the general move towards textual (or verbal) objects rather than towards presence.

    I find the interchange here between Erin and John fascinating. It’s hard for me to read the tone (Are they being serious or sarcastic?). Still, Erin’s Zen brief comment raises questions I can’t resist that, in this tone-deaf context, I’ll have get at in parable.

    When first in graduate school, I was perplexed and often flummoxed by the volley of Q&A after academic talks. A colleague noticed my suffering and comforted me by explaining that whenever someone makes a comment or asks a question in a forum like this, what they’re really asking is, “What about me?” While I’ve found that nugget valuable to interpreting such speech events ever since, it certainly does not deprive these interchanges of their linguistic substance.

    Every utterance signals presence in the sense of participation, but not all communications are usefully viewed as phatic or presence casting. Presence casting, as I propose the term, pertains to technologically-mediated communication, Ham radio and telephony included, but my focus is networked social media.

    I don’t see John’s comment as presence casting but as interlocution that, along with Erin’s and Arianne’s, gives the confirming satisfaction of communication received and returned. I think that’s why so many comments begin with expressions of thanks.

    Erin, I wouldn’t go so far as to say “form not content,” though it certainly reads that way from a “culture of meaning” POV. Arianne’s point about divided presence and attention in the classroom brings up a host of timely challenges for “cross-cultural” understanding of these social phenomena.

  5. Thanks Dr. Cool – intriguing info! I keep wondering how I lost touch with technology … it’s moving so fast. Glad you have your finger on the pulse.

  6. Jenny, glad you found the conversation with SK useful. It’s blowing my own horn, but there’s a lot of stuff in my Japanese Consumer Behavior: From Worker Bees to Wary Shoppers (ConsumAsian Series, U. of Hawaii, 2000) that suggests that you are onto something important here that extends beyond the Internet and social media. I think, for example, of two conversations.

    In the first, I am asking a senior advertising executive, a member of the “burning” or “greying corporate warrior” generation what he thinks of young Japanese. He says that they are too shinshiteki, i.e., too gentlemanly. They live in their own bubbles and do everything they can to avoid conflict. He tells me that in his generation, “We were so eager to understand what other people were thinking that we trampled into each others hearts with our shoes on.

    In another conversation, recorded in one of the HILL newsletters translated for the book, a young man says that he never quarrels with people. It would be like pissing on a frog, i.e., a complete waste of time.

    These sorts of observations suggest a twist on the significance of phatic communication that you might want to look into. Another researcher suggests that young people are commodifying themselves. They dress up to present themselves in public like products on convenience store shelves. They want to be noticed without having to take the initiative to interact with others.
    I wonder how this relates to presence-casting.

  7. Great postings. I’ve been developing some social media apps and websites for indigenous language revitalization in young users and your “lessons” are refreshingly straightforward. I noticed some of this when working on my first ethnographic website “Vachiam Eecha,” but now when working more closely with how digital media, well, mediates, we see the word “presence” is losing its corporeal meaning which makes “presence casting” an interesting notion, thinking of both casting as fulfilling a role by an actor and casting as in casting a net or line to fish. Both are projections more so than actual being present in the Buberian sense. Very interesting! Thank you and the thread.

  8. Dear Jenny:

    What a fantastic entry! This left me reflecting on all sorts of things pertaining to linguistic anthropology, most especially how presence casting and short-form messaging could be related back to narrative studies. Also, what does this say about identity? agency? traditional ethnographic methods and the newly minted “netnography”?

    I am accustomed to thinking–ideally, admittedly–of both narrative and “identity” as whole, integrated units. But both, in the cyber realm, are becoming increasingly fractured. This is compounded, of course, by the myriad forums in which many of us participate on a daily basis–and the prevalence of online anonymity.

    While this is not the best forum for exploring these thoughts, I want to thank you for providing a useful rubric by which I getter get a handle on them. I know that a graduate student at the U. of Buffalo immediately incorporated your concept of presence casting into her dissertation work. For every one of us who take the time to comment on such insightful entries as yours, there are many more lurking in the sidelines who likewise benefit.

    Keep it up! Both of your entries to date have been a most welcomed addition to Savage Minds.

  9. I really enjoyed reading this Jenny. For me, it’s simultaneously familiarizing and defamilirizing. Defamiliarizing because you provide a new language or frame for thinking about daily activities I participate in but take for granted. Familiarizing in that I’m not a long-time or fully immersed native of this culture – and recognize myself in this student that you’ve described. Having a better understanding of the norms, I suspect I might be more willing to participate in presence casting. By the way, I love this phrase, marks how vulnerable making appearances can be.

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