Six Theses on Connectivity and the Social Media

Six Theses on Connectivity and the Social Media (CSM). Thesis #1

 

In a highly connected world with increasing use and penetration of social media we can see a re-emergence of pre-modern phenomena that are positive and to be encouraged.

 

To make sense of this thesis we need first to consider what is ‘modern’ and what is ‘pre-modern’ and then to look at how the latter might return in some ways. This will be an indirect route so I crave the reader’s patience as we detour to reach the point.

Modernity: A Thumbnail Sketch.  Western society—and following from it much of the rest of the world—went through a massive multi-stranded transition which started arguably in the late 15th century with the commencement of colonisation of other countries on a large scale, gathering pace from there. Spain and Portugal grabbed much of Latin America and the immense wealth of the ‘New World’ enriched their regimes, accelerating as the colonisation expanded into a slave trade and massive plantations (the sugar industry in Brazil was one of the most profitable enterprises in human history.) Other European countries were in direct competition for trade and conquest. The historian Eric Hobsbawm, for example, argued that the conquest of India and the consequent ‘triangular trade’ (opium to China from India, tea from China to the UK, cheap goods from the UK to India) bankrolled the English Industrial Revolution. Another triangular trade (slaves, rum and sugar) along with the growth of tobacco consumption helped the otherwise struggling colonies on the Eastern seaboard of the (present day) US to grow its economy.

This change process—for a short hand we can call it the rise of modernity—brought a myriad of changes to the daily life of the people in those and the colonised countries. Urban living, factory work and wage labour (as opposed to corvée labour or serfdom) were all relatively new ways to organise economic and social life. The consequences were massive and most of them lie outside the scope of this brief discussion. A few, however, are germane. In particular, the sense of everyday life and social relations within it was transformed. Indeed, the rise of sociology as a discipline of study is derived in no small part from this shift. “Founding Fathers” of the discipline described and theorised this change: Tönnies argued it was a move from gemeinschaft to gesellschaft (loosely ‘community’ to ‘association’) while Durkheim saw it as a move from mechanical solidarity (a solidarity of similarity) to organic solidarity (a solidarity of interdependence based on a complex division of labour). Weber looked at the transition from traditional to legal-rational authority, described the rise of bureaucratic form and speculated about the role of religion, while Simmel wrote about money and the metropolis.

In their various ways, these and many writers since, described the character of modernity: it prized knowledge and education above traditional privilege; it organised time by centralised clocks and time zones, it separated life into different spheres, especially the private versus the public and work time versus leisure time. Ties of locality and community—ties that bound one to tradition were (in Karl Marx’s apocalyptic language) ‘burst asunder’ and people were set free in the city: free to be themselves  … or to starve under bridges ignored by their neighbours. Institutions of ‘discipline’—the school, the workhouse, the asylum, the prison, the factory—all flourished as modernity grew and the sensibilities that these generated became normal and taken-for-granted. Institutions like the school can be seen, at least in part, as producing people fit for wage labour: fit both rationally (they have skills such as literacy, etc.) and in habit (they understand clocks and time and adherence to ‘timetables’, etc.)

Mass production of goods made possible by factories was linked to mass consumption—with the good sold in large ‘stores’—and ‘handicraft’ production waned as did the idea of home production of goods. Who, today, spins their own wool or weaves cloth, who grows and grinds their own grain, who produces their own leather? Etc.

Along with mass production and consumption so came mass entertainment and mass media. As the latter entered the ‘electronic’ phase, so the dominant model of modernity was ‘the broadcast’ often linked with state control—the BBC in England, for example. The dominant mode of consuming the products was ‘sit back and be told’. Programs were broadcast at fixed times and the choice (until very recently) was to pay attention at the scheduled time or miss out.  Sit back and be told was (to a large extent is) also the underlying mode for school and university education (consider that much of university life still revolves around ‘lectures’.)

In the background to this process, forms of knowledge and reasoning that supported modernity unfolded. Science and technology developed apace in the Enlightenment, political philosophers developed theories about democracy and some—like Descartes—linked this to general theories of reason. Justice, for example, was seen to be delivered by systems that were written, universal, global and timeless in their content, displacing older methods like case based reasoning (casuistry).

Very well, you may say, but what on earth has this to do with social media? Be patient, dear reader, there really is a connection and we’re getting there.

Beyond modernity:  In recent decades there has been a good deal of talk about the re-emergence of pre-modern forms of social life. Quite a bit of this was found in post-modernism’, a school of thought that is renowned for its complex verbosity and pretension (and which now seems largely on the wane.) Mixed into the varied threads of post-modern thought was, so far one could decipher, an argument that the post-modern looked like the resurrection of the pre-modern.

Sometimes the point was simple, empirical and easy to follow. For example, in the complex changing patterns of family formation in recent years, open pre-marital cohabitation (or at very least an acknowledged sexual relationship) has become the norm. Frequently people have several such relationships before settling into one more major ‘marriage’, and increasingly commonly, formal marriage is disconnected from the (overt) commencement of sexual relations and linked instead to child bearing. Either a pregnancy, the arrival of a child or the clear commitment to start a family is seen to be the trigger for formalising a marriage (and, of course, ‘de facto’ relationships without marriage at any point are also rising.) This pattern is strongly reminiscent of village life in Europe in the centuries before modernity.

Other examples were most complex. For example, there is an argument that in the post-modern, identity is built less on production (that is on ‘class’) and more on consumption and leisure. With the sale of goods and services proliferating into numerous ‘niche’ markets, consumption can thus sustain a myriad of identities and possibilities. A lovely example was a study by the British author Jeremy Seabrook who spent time with some people from southern England who spent as much of their life as possible, dressed as and talking like ‘cowboys” (and ‘cowgirls’) from some imagined Wild West. At one point when ‘Belle’ married ‘Sundance’ the guests were mildly taken aback when their real names were used as they had only even know them as Belle and Sundance….

The argument here is that the modern tendency for a few, class based, urban identities occupied by large number of people with common life experiences and norms is replaced by a wide range of ‘niched’ identities more like a patch-work of village identities that might been seen in rural Europe circa 1500.

Furthermore, some writers have argued that a re-emergence of the pre-modern is desirable. For example, in Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity, Stephen Toulmin (1990) argues strongly for casuistry and suggests s that the … “modern” focus on the written, the universal, the general and the timeless—which monopolized the modern work of most philosophers after 1630—is being broadened to include once again the oral, the particular, the local and the timely.”

So, at long last, dear reader here is the connection to CSM.

Web 2.0 and Pre-Modern Life

Some writers and some research now point to elements that reverse some of the trends and features of modernity. Looking at direct evidence, the example of mass media (of course there are many other spheres we could look at)  shows three trends that are evident and catalysed by CSM:

  1. First, there is a proliferation of many sources of information and entertainment brought in by the internet. Newspapers as conventionally understood are transforming and more and more are accessed as websites rather than—or in addition to—their paper version. TV and Radio stations are streamed as well as broadcast and both streamed and ‘live’ broadcasts can easily be recorded and time shifted.  Fewer and fewer programs are ‘watched’ at the time they are broadcast (news and sport being the main exceptions) and more often they are watched by replay at times that suit the viewer. Recently, a major online network released to its subscribers an entire mini-series at one time, explaining that this was not because people wanted it ‘all in one hit’ but so they could watch the episodes as and when it suited them. This ‘shifting’ process is also recognised and facilitated by online services (such as ABC iView in Australia) that allow people to replay material for up to two weeks after its original broadcast.

    Shifting to podcast technology is also very popular and serious commentaries exist, for example, on the idea of ‘radio beyond radio’—pointing to the different ways that ‘listeners’ engage when they are walking or jogging with ear-buds in as opposed to a sound track running in the background in the kitchen. It is claimed that one can ‘expect more’ of such listeners and consequently radio producers are changing their programs to take advantage of this difference.

    Moreover, there is an increasing range and sophistication of apps that will coordinate material in a personalised way. Apps like Feedly or Protopage allow a user to construct a home page that contains RSS feeds they wish to check out. Meanwhile, iTunes routinely saves a range of podcasts from radio sites over the English speaking world…

  2. Second, there is a shift in the level and type of activity that potential ‘audiences’ are engaged in. In particular, the data from Pew Research and others points to fewer hours of TV being consumed by young people and more time being devoted to a combination of alternatives—socialising through Facebook, making one’s own video material (see the spectacular rise of YouTube) and attending ‘events’ organised and communicated through social network connections. Linked to this, sites such as Pinterest or Storify actively encourage people to share tangible interests and hence encourage production (of things, images, ideas) as well as consumption.
  3. The credibility and utility of existing sources is being challenged by new media. For example, some research suggests that ‘news’ is increasingly being conveyed by Twitter and that following the trending topics often provides faster and more nuanced views than those that available through web based or broadcast  ‘news sites’. This trend belongs partly under other theses too but is also at least partly linked to the idea of the re-emergence of personal ‘gossip’ based communication as a primary source of knowledge.  

All of these changes are linked to what David Gauntlett, the UK based academic commentator, has called the move away from a ‘sit back and be told’ culture towards a ‘making and doing’ culture, which itself has strong echoes of an artisan mode that preceded the massification of the 19th and 20 centuries. Gauntlett explains this as enhanced by the move to Web 2.0:

In the first decade or so of the Web’s existence (from the 1990s to the early to mid 2000s), websites tended to be like separate gardens. So for example the NASA website was one garden, and my Theory.org.uk website was another garden, and a little-known poet had made her own poetry website, which was another garden. You could visit them, and each of them might be complex plots of creative and beautiful content, but basically they were separate, with a fence between each one. There’s nothing wrong with this model, as such; it works perfectly well as a platform for all kinds of individuals, groups, or organisations, big and small, to make stuff available online. But this model is what we might now call ‘Web 1.0’. By contrast, ‘Web 2.0’ is like a collective allotment. Instead of individuals tending their own gardens, they come together to work collaboratively in a shared space. (Emphasis added.)

David Gauntlett (2011) Making is Connecting: The social meaning of creativity, from DIY and knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0, Polity Press

 

It is Gauntlett who coined the “sit back and be told” phrase I used above and he emphasises in his work how a Web 2.0 world moves beyond this. The view that people increasingly want to move beyond “sit back and be told” is echoed in many places. For example, the highly successful peer conferences organised by Adrian Segar are built very much on this assumption (see http://www.conferencesthatwork.com/ ). At a common sense level, this fits too with the complaint that older folks often make about GenY—that they are well named because all they ask is “why?”—a clear violation of “sit back and be told”.

These examples only scratch the surface of a more complex topic which likely deserves a book. But the conclusion I draw seems warrantable: in some ways we do indeed see the re-emergence of older, positive ways of relating one to another that are either made possible—or constructively simulated—by CSM.  Theses 1 has some value.

In my next post, I’ll ask whether this has a darker side.

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About stephenmugford

Once a sociologist (1970-1997) then a consultant who reads a lot in psychology, cognitive science, complexity, etc and wanders along paths from one topic to another.
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