Time for a brain dump. I have just completed reading work coming from Mor Naaman, Jeffrey Boase and Chih-Hui Lai at Rutgers, slated for CSCW 2010, on the content of messages in what they’ve decided to call “social awareness streams.”
And right there I have an issue. I’m lumping it together with the term “weak ties” which found prominence in the 1940s (well before the internet was considered in social theory) and the found a new audience a few years back with its adaptation to online networks.
Today, referring to the activity on microblogging sites as either of these is probably very limited, based on myriad case studies of individuals and their very real connections and friendship strength, found through CMC. They are neither “weak” (as in traditional notions of acquaintances who can be called upon when needed), nor simply an “awareness” of others in a network. They are also not built in a heirarchical organization – they are horizontal. In fact, Castells’ emphatic assertions that when we talk about communication we are actually discussing realms of power and influence, means that “communication” isn’t a term to be thrown about lightly.
My theory of the strength of these relationships is discovered through a realm of CMC that is primarily representated in phatic communion. The relationships exist as communities within what I call the latent sphere of the networked society. (In this sense, I use the networked society as defined by Manuel Castells.)
If Vincent Miller is correct, and Twitter is nothing more than a celebrated phatic technology-a technology which exists purely to support phatic communion, then the very real relationships being discovered today through its use are far more tangible than those discovered through discussing the weather in real life. And the fact that Twitter has existed and morphed in so many ways over these short years I respectfully suggest dispels any notion that it fulfills the “social awareness streams” suggested by the researchers at Rutgers. It, in fact, provides people with real connections, in the most concrete form – in fact (hold on to your hat) in a way that potentially surpasses that experienced in real life.
These people will regularly never have met in real life, until at least having met online first. Homophily still exists – we still form communities on this phatic network. (Just look at the hashtags to find the communities and topic areas that draw people together. And that’s before Twitter added the List function. And then also, what about all the third party tools that operate solely on allowing you to classify your ‘groups’ of people in that space, such as Tweetdeck…) But these communities are not just asking simple stuff like what the weather is like, or just passing the time of day. The depth of feeling is not just as acquaintances. This depth of connection to people we never before would have connected with, and in fact to many we would never approach in real life (such as the homeless), has never before been realised by any other form of media. It’s new. It’s potentially both scary and exciting.
Even though Twitter is accepted by the mainstream middle class to such an extent it no longer receives explanations in newspapers (and in fact is used as the basis for reporting by lazy journalists), it still has not reached critical mass. But it will happen.
I believe the mommyblogger community is leading the way in demonstrating the case study proof of my assertions. We have seen real connections, and real support – people reaching out in very real ways to support each other, typically in times of great need – within this community. This latent sphere bubbles up and is electrically tangible. Like Flubber (it’s highly viscuous, highly volatile, and has a great sense of rhythm) or the slime in Ghostbusters. (Sorry, but you’ll understand my meaning :)) It’s not just “aware”.
So imagine the future – where more communities realise that potential. And then take it that step further, where the brands you love most are able to be part of that space. You know the old saying that if mums ruled the world, there’d be no more war? Here we are in a global networked society, with mums leading the way. Who can tell what comes next?