At the Web 2.0 Expo held in New York in mid-November, sociologist Danah Boyd, as is her wont, made a brilliant presentation on the consequences of living in a world of flow, notably by starting to draw up a list of its limitations. Let us, in her footsteps, explore - partially, but faithfully - her "Streams of Content, Limited Attention: The Flow of Information through Social Media."
We live in flows, as Nova Spivack explained, that is, in a world where information is everywhere. "This metaphor is extremely powerful," danah boyd notes. "This idea suggests that you're living in the stream: adding to it, consuming it, redirecting it.
"Those who are most enamored with services like Twitter talk passionately about feeling as though they are living and breathing with the world around them, peripherally aware and in tune, adding content to the stream and grabbing from it when it is appropriate. Of course, this state is extremely delicate, plagued by information overload and weighed down by frustrating tools."
News sites have long been a destination, the researcher explains: accessing information was a process, producing information a task. What happens when everything changes? We move from broadcast media to networked media, which fundamentally changes the way information flows.
The media have long believed that they own our attention, but a growing number of entities are now fighting over it. With the Internet, the possibility for each and every person to create, distribute and link his and/or her own content adds in still more new actors. Internet technologies dismantle and rework the structures of distribution. At a time when obstacles to distribution are collapsing, the act of distribution becomes much less important than the act of consumption. "Power is no longer in the hands of those who control the channels of distribution, but in the hands of those who control the limited resources of attention," that is, each and all of us. The dismantling of traditional structures of distribution pushes us to construct new forms for broadcasting information. How does information circulate differently today? What has changed?
Four Mistaken Ideas About the Digital Revolution
1. Democratization? "Switching from an economy of distribution to one of attention is disruptive, but that does not inherently mean it is democratizing as one so often hears," deems Danah Boyd. "Just because we're moving into a state where anyone has ability to get information into the stream does not mean that attention will be divided equally. Opening up the structures to distribution is not democratizing when distribution is no longer the organizing function of this space."
This also does not mean the accession of a meritocracy: that which people give their attention to depends on a whole set of factors that have nothing to do with "what is best."
2. Stimulation? People consume the content that stimulates their mind and their senses. Consequently, it is not always "the best" or the most informative content that holds their attention, but that which triggers a reaction. Which is not inherently a good thing, the researcher reminds us: "Consider the comparison with food: our bodies are programmed to consume fats and sugars, because they are rare in nature. Thus, when they come around, we can't help but to grab them and eat them.... In the same way, we are biologically programmed to be attentive to things that stimulate, such as content that is violent or sexual (...). If we're not careful we're going to develop the psychological equivalent of obesity. We'll find ourselves consuming content that is least beneficial for ourselves and for society as a whole.
"Now, we're addicted to gossip for a reason. We want to know what's happening to other people because that information brings us closer to people. When we know something about someone, there's a sense of connection. But the information ecology we live in today has twisted this whole thing upside down. Just because I know the details of Angelina Jolie's life, doesn't mean that she knows I exist." That's what sociologists call parasocial relations: on Facebook, you can turn your friends into celebrities, without actually gaining the benefits of social intimacy and bonding.
Finally, although stimulation creates cognitive connections, it is possible that we suffer from too much stimulation. We don't want a disconnected numb society or a society where connections are unequal. So driving towards greater and more intense stimulations may not mean going towards the society that we want, the researcher notes.
3. Homophily? In a networked world, people connect with people like themselves: consequently, it is easy not to get access to views of people who don't think as you do.
At present, information flows in such a way as to reinforce social divides, the researcher explains. Democratic philosophy depends on shared information structures, but the combination of self-segmentation and fragmentation in the stream of network information means that we lose the common rhetorical ground that allows us to converse, the researcher goes on to say.
"Now throughout my studies of social media, I've been astonished by the people who think that XYZ - whatever site - is for people like themselves": homosexuals thinking that Friendster was a gay dating site because they only encounter other homosexuals there, teenagers who believed MySpace was a Christian community because all the profiles they've seen there contained quotations from the Bible.... "We all live in our own worlds with people who share our values, and with networked media, it's often hard to see beyond that."
Ironically, the only place where danah boyd finds that people are forced to think outside their own world proves to be Twitter, the researcher deems, through "trending topics," which sometimes lead us, on certain subjects, to tackle differences in viewpoint - but trending topics are already an advanced application that not all Twitter users access, one could counter. "We need to recognize that networks are homophilous and act accordingly. The technology does not inherently disintegrate social divisions. In fact, more often than not, it reinforces them." Only a small percentage of people are inclined to seek out opinions and ideas from cultures other than their own. These people should be particularly highly valued in society, but, as Ethan Zuckerman has said, the fact that some people tend to be xenophiles does not mean that they will be."
4. Power? When we think about centralized sources of information distribution, it is easy to understand the organization of power. But network structures of consumption are also configured by power. Power consists of being able to command attention, influence others' attention and otherwise traffic in information.
"We give power to people when we give them our attention and people gain power when they bridge different worlds and determine what information can and will flow across the network," of which they are one of the nodes.
For in a networked culture, there is also power in being the person spreading the content. In the broadcast model, those who controlled the channels of distribution often made higher profits than creators. One assumption was that if we were to get rid of that organization of distribution, the power would revert to the creators. This is not what is happening. Those who get access to people's attention are a very few and privileged population. A new type of "information broker" is emerging. In the distribution model of networked attention, there's still a form of distribution that does not go directly through the creators, but through other intermediaries....
How to Make This Work?
"To be relevant today requires understanding context, popularity and reputation. In a broadcast era, we can assume that the disseminator organized information because they were the destination. In a networked era, there won't be destinations, but rather a network of content and people ... When we consume information through social networks, people collide, social gossip alongside productive content, news inside status updates. Right now, it's one big mess. But the key is not going to be to create distinct destinations, organized topics, but to find ways to surface content in whatever context it resides."
Making content work in a networked era is going to consist of living in streams, consuming and producing alongside ones' 'clients.' "Consuming to understand, producing to be relevant."
This means we still need technological innovations, the researcher suggests. For example, tools that allow people to contextualize relevant content more easily regardless of where they are or what they're doing and tools that allow people to explore and manipulate content so as not to be overwhelmed with information overload. "This is not simply about aggregating or curating content to create personalized destination sites - frankly, I don't think that this will work for many people. Instead, the tools that consumers need are those that allow them to get into the flow, that allow them to live inside the information structures, whatever they are, whatever they're doing. The tools that allow them to easily grab what they need and stay peripherally aware without feeling overwhelmed."
Finally, in this new context, "we need to rethink our business plans," danah boyd concludes. "I doubt that this cultural shift will be paid for in better advertising models. Advertising is based on capturing attention, typically by interrupting the broadcast message or being inserted into the content itself.... Trying to reach information flow is not about being interrupted.... When information being shared is social in nature, advertising is fundamentally a disruption. (...) Figuring out how to monetize sociality is also a problem, and not one new to the Internet. Think about how we monetize sociality in physical spaces. Typically, it involves second-order consumption of calories: venues provide a space for social interactions to occur and we expect people to consume" something other than our sociality as a way to pay rent: restaurants, bars, cafés; these all survive on this model.... "But we have yet to find the digital equivalent of alcohol for the Internet," the researcher concludes.
Inattention? Illustration by Example
In an ironic but altogether illustrative manner, during this public presentation for the Web 2.0 conference, danah boyd was heckled by the participants whose Tweets were projected on the big screen behind the presenter. The participants carped on the speed of danah boyd's delivery: stressed by her presentation, she was even more so when she heard the laughter in the room, triggered by the derisive remarks posted on the Tweet wall which the speaker could not see.
This event unleashed vast commentary on the utility of turning backchannel discussions to frontchannel. A rather traumatic experience for the speaker, because she rapidly lost contact with the participants as she subsequently explained in her blog. "The Twitter stream had become the center of attention, not the speaker. (...). It was not a way for the audience to communicate to the speaker, but for the audience to communicate with itself." "The backchannel offered ... an irresistible opportunity to literally - and publicly - talk behind the speaker's back," Joe McCarthy explains.
Making the Twitter conversations thread visible during a public speech is not so easy, notes Scott Berkun, who has written a book about public speaking. The projection of the Twitter stream may be benign in certain contexts, but necessitates knowing the objective it is supposed to fulfill and that that objective be shared by all. Jeremiah Owyang had written some advice on the subject subsequent to the SXSW 2008 conference where Facebook President Mark Zuckerberg had been confronted with the same kind of problem, (see also Olivia Mitchell Page's book on the issue). However, as far as Joe McCarthy is concerned, the relationship remains unequal between the lecturer and the audience. An inequality that should not give the public the right to be impolite or take the speaker down in flames. But on-line lynching by the crowd on Twitter (dubbed Tweckle by Marc Parry) is difficult to parry. If the practice of having a Tweet wall comes into general use, we see that that would necessitate some rules: a good behavior charter and the presence of an active moderator to try to counter-balance the crowd effects, as well as the possibility of unplugging the Tweet wall, if necessary.
Of course, this phenomenon is not new, psychoanalyst Yann Leroux, who has studied this episode, notes: "This backchannel is not created by the surrounding Internet. A public is always a moving mass, sometimes conquered by the speaker, sometimes totally or partly escaping him. Laughter, murmurs, asides, exits and entrances are signs that speakers learn to interpret to feel whether their public is really with them or in one of those backchannels. (...) With ambient Wi-Fi, and web services on cell phones, conference publics have begun to find one another on-line, thus creating a site where they may post and share what, up until now, had no other locale than the individual psyche. (...) Even moments of boredom become a source of sharable information, increasing everyone's feeling of being connected, of receiving and giving information that is always valid, of being of and in information. Each person is submerged in a stream of information, and is himself a stream of information, mingling with other innumerable streams, each of equal value. All information becomes "social":"going to a conference, being there, getting bored, or not, has the same value."
Joe McCarthy also recalls that the phenomenon exists in other digital channels besides Twitter. Thus does Elizabeth Bernstein, writing for The Wall Street Journal, evoke how people use email, blogs or Facebook to publicly humiliate their ex-spouses. The disinhibiting factor of distance, which may take benign or toxic forms, is capable of transforming Internet users into an aggressive crowd. The English version of Wikipedia enumerates several disinhibiting factors, such as:
* Dissociative anonymity ("You don't know me")
* Invisibility ("You can't see me")
* Asynchronicity ("See you later")
* Solipsistic Introjection ("It's all just in my head")
* Dissociative Imagination ("It's only a game")
* Authority Minimization ("We're equals")
But on-line tools, when used in physical spaces, transform these factors, hybridize them, as Adriana de Souza e Silva explains. In physical meetings, the four first components of the list above do not apply. So, in the case of the Twitter wall, digital backchannels allow implicit and explicit assertions generating new forms of authority other than that of the speaker, all the more so in that, frequently at conferences, the public is far from an amateur recipient of the speakers' statements. The projection of a Twitter stream acts as a powerful disinhibitory device, all the more so as Twitter, through the power of RT, facilitates expressiveness and sheeplike behaviors. It facilitates the expression of immediate emotion, while the speaker's comments are often on another level, more reflective or demonstrative. As Ronald S. Burt writes in his article, "Bandwidth and Echo: Trust, Information, and Gossip in Social Networks" negative comments and gossip are more conducive to connecting a group, an auditorium, than positive comments. TwitterBashing gives importance to a handful of people, not unlike the student who shows off the reflection of sunlight from his watch onto the table to amuse the class. TwitterWall subverts the asymmetry of public communication, psychoanalyst Yann Leroux explains: "In its conscious aspects, the speaker is no longer the sole source of attention. The public's attention is divided between what it receives from the speaker and what is posted on the backchannel. The more active one is, the more the public's attention may be detached from the speaker. In fact, we have a tendency to devote attention to any source of movement and that tendency will be all the more actualized when what happens on the backchannel satisfies the group's imaginative expectations. On the speaker's side, talking to a forest of heads bent over their screens is a difficult situation: Are they listening? Are they taking notes? Or are they reading their emails, playing a video game, or tweeting how bored they are?"
It is difficult to get the public to reflect on its own practices, as, danah boyd's speech nonetheless - ironically - proposed. With TwitterWall, a new option is offered to a heretofore passive public: that of becoming wholly active! The projection of a TwitterWall forces the public to pay attention to that backchannel, to be distracted from the speaker's statements. The Twitter stream adds another layer of content that the speaker cannot always control - especially when she doesn't see it. danah boyd's experience may remind us that while that expressiveness necessitates respecting certain rules of courtesy, it may be difficult to make them apply.
By being projected in the auditorium, one observes that the Tweet stream transforms itself because it changes addressees: from some (or many) aficionados, it suddenly addresses the whole audience and solicits their reactivity. Unlike danah boyd, I don't think it's necessary to move to curb the public's expressiveness. On the other hand, it is clearly necessary to introduce the elements of moderation and good practice to limit the black sheep, so that lectures don't become occasions where speakers have to respond to the insults and jokes of a handful of participants. As danah boyd so thoroughly emphasized in the heart of her comments, that which stimulates us is not always what is most difficult. Nothing is easier than to subvert with a wall of Tweet or to make a class of students who only need a bit of distraction to do so, to laugh.... By offering the same audience to everyone, we distribute the power of attention to all - even to trolls. Is that what we really expect from our tools?