Deleuze & Guattari's first chapter of A Thousand Plateaus is about the rhizome. This concept has been frequently used to describe the internet, the web and so on. It is a complicated concept, and I don't intend to get into a deep discussion of it here. The wikipedia definition might be helpful, if terribly skimpy and simplified. Think if it as a map, an assemblage, with multiple entry and exit points as opposed to a tree-like structure of knowledge. It breaks with dualisms and embraces multiplicity. It is non-hierarchical and differentiation is of intensity. Connectivity is at its core: "any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be."
The book consists of "plateaus" or chapters that introduces rhizome thinking into a wide variety of different disciplines. I am finding it useful to help me think outside the dualism: command/control vs. distributed/networked communications models. Even from the brief notes here, I imagine you can see how nicely it works for thinking about the social media sphere. I want to sharing some thinking I have had about it, starting from education.
During my past few years of graduate study (first in science and technology studies, now in communications/media studies) I have been exposed to vast new worlds of knowledge. Most of the time I have felt like a frustrated idiot, as I am reading books that refer to other authors I haven't yet read, other theories I haven't had a chance to parse yet, and a universe of proper names that are only now become clear (Wolf Man, Albertine, etc.) In other words, I started in the middle and have been working my way outwards in a myriad of directions. But there is no real middle, of course, only me.
My education process matches that concept of rhizome. And, if you think about it, it has always been like that, if masked. We are taught "basic concepts" and then we build on them. But what one doesn't find out until later is that these "basic concepts" are often suspect, and should be questioned. Once you figure that out, there is no true base anymore and you are floating free. It is an exhilarating, terrifying and frustrating experience. You have to re-learn what you thought you already knew, knowing that it might change. So education becomes a never-ending process of learning how to question and how to judge.
Of course, these skills of questioning and judging are vital to navigating the online world. Because it is the same kind of experience. You start in the middle and work your way in multiple directions at once, with never a base and never an idea of what is really true. You could interpret all these social networking platforms that are arising as ways to create a base within the "plateau" of the online world (if one can call it that, I am not sure yet). As such, we need to be suspicious of them, because, as we are increasingly discovering, they are not being formed for our benefit (at least not for our benefit alone) but to provide an easy way to group people for advertisers. Capitalism at work! There is nothing fundamentally wrong about this, of course, but we have to be wary: to question and judge.
I think we need to think more about these platforms of aggregation and what they do and contrast them with the more ad-hoc networking that goes on between blogs (building a blog roll etc.) One is more pre-constructed than the other -- but of course the latter is still constructed with the help of tools that contain within them certain assumptions about power, hierarchies and other social concepts. That is inescapable. But I have choice to run ads on my blog or not vs. on my profile on Facebook, and that is a big difference.
So, I start again from (another) middle (there really isn't a middle) and follow a trace, a thought, and see where it takes me. And again. And again.
Update: I just read this post from Doc Searles, which also talks about what I am getting at here about social networking.