So many of the recent screeds against Twitter deplore its chaos, its triviality, its NOISE. Recently, Maureen Dowd asked, “Is there any thought that doesn’t need to be published?” She thinks that Twitter helps “destroy mystery.”
Since the debut of blogging, it has become common for the literati to deplore the triviality of social media: the burrito lunches, the cat vomit, the rain, the coffee and so on. Whole systems of search and refine, both user created and top-down engineered, have and are emerging to cut out the dross, to help you find the nuggets of gold that will prove the ROI of engaging in social media. I hear PR practitioners deploring the amount of time they have to spend trawling Twitter, looking for the 10 potentially valuable tweets out of a 1000 (work generally relegated to the interns (twinterns).
I acknowledge the sheer and increasing difficulty of following that first rule of social media (endlessly recounted in books, presentations, blogs and so forth): LISTEN (damn it). (Or else.)
And yet, I can't help but think that through our quest to reduce the noise, we are, in fact, getting rid of that which is most important to the formation of a sense of community. I have a hunch that it is exactly from the noise that community arises. That the emotional connections we are making with members of our networks (friends, followers, etc.) come from the noise, not the facts, the links shared, etc. I fear that through cutting down the noise, we are handicapping communications.
I have a lot of work to do to support this argument, work and research that will eventually form the basis of my dissertation.
In my thesis, I wrote:
While it is seductive to think that distributed, many-to-many, loosely coupled web connections foreground a new political power to the people, it is certainly not that simple or straightforward. From the point of view of so-called mass communications, for example, the dualism of command/control vs. distributed/neworked communications conceals the fact that both play the same game, just in a different way. Crucially, in both schemas, technology is used as a means to an end: power. Either in terms of concentration in the hands of a few (e.g., media conglomerates) or via collectivities of individuals that form around certain themes, the underlying goal of both of these schemas is to control the message.
In consideration of Twitter I wrote:
What is significant to me is that the so-called trivial remarks and everyday language of the observation of personal minutia is given the same status or place as directed questions, commands, persuasive attempts, factual discourse, etc. While sometimes jarring, I would argue that this inclusion of so-called trivia in fact plays an important role in the formation of the community itself. Granted, it is a rather amorphous community, with highly permeable borders and “members” which drop in and out, almost at random, yet, if you ask participants, they all confess to feeling part of a strong community, one they are emotionally attached to. I think it is this ability to witness and to attest to the passing of life – the ability to say without expecting response -- that brings in a human authenticity missing from other more constructed and tightly policed (in terms of acceptable topics of discussion) communities. Due to these traits, I think that Twitter represents a hint of what an authentic online, power-sensitive communications environment and practice would look like. (My thesis was a philosophical exploration of what a framework for authentic, power-sensitive communications might look like.)
I think that as organizations seek to nurture community, to create and sustain strong networks, they need to embrace noise, not try to limit it.
This phrase from an essay by Michel Serres (see note 1 below) on noise is very interesting. (To Serres, noise is the foundation of everything – chaos. Information rises from this noise) “Form – information that is phenomenal – arises from chaos – white noise. What is knowable and what is known are born of that unknown.” To Serres, noise is multiplicity – “possibility itself”. Furthermore, “it is not strength, it is the very opposite of power, but is its capacity. This noise is the opening...”
Noise as opening, as possibility, as capacity. This is intriguing. I think we should be careful not to be overzealous in cutting out noise, as we risk cutting out possibility.
This, of course, raises the question of how an organization can be open to the capacity of noise. I think this is one of the big questions we must think about in our quest for more authentic, power-sensitive ways of communicating.
I think a key lies in how we (as users) create meaning. I find the following from an article by William Rasch (see note 2 below) very helpful in thinking about this:
And later in the same article he wrote:
I think for organizations this means we must enable choices. How might we encourage users to focus attention on particular possibilities without shutting down choice? Luckily for us, the online system helps us do this via the link. George Landow describes hypertextuality in the following way:
Online, it is the person who is navigating information via his or her own path who creates meaning. But more than that, as a participant in social media, this person is also creating content that expresses the (contingent) meaning they have arrived at (at that moment). Wherever we look, wherever we create, at that moment, that content is the center. But we are always aware that an “infinite periphery” awaits, and we can move there with a click, a fingerswipe, etc.
Our question, therefore morphs a bit. How might we gain that center position, however briefly? How might we also increase our presence in the periphery (which may later become center)? (And let us remember, the periphery is noise, the endless possibility that waits for us from the momentary center.)
I think a possible answer lies in context. And our question changes once again. How might we create not only the content of our communications, but also the context? Or rather, as we are not creating in a vacuum here, but in relationship with others, how might we nurture, guide and sustain a rich contextual sphere around our core content?
I asked this question of content and context at the recent PRSA Digital Impact conference of which I was a co-chair. I asked it of Steve Rubel, of Edelman, phrased something like, “I am increasingly convinced PR people need to focus on creating context as well as content, what do you think?” His reply (from my memory) was that PR people should let the audience create the context, not try to do so ourselves. While I certainly agree that the audience creates context, I am not convinced that communications people need to stay away. I think we can, and must, nurture/guide/sustain this contextual sphere. (I am struggling a bit with how to say it, as create really denotes strongly authorship and ownership.)
Now, obviously, I did not convey the complexification of context that I am getting at here in my simple question...so maybe Steve will agree with where I am headed. I welcome his thoughts!
I think we need to think deeply about what this context I am speaking of really is. What is contained in it? How might noise be embraced, not excluded? And isn't context also content? How does context as well as content create meaning?
The more I muse on this the more I realize I have an enormous amount of work to do to understand the distinctions I am trying to tease out here. For those of you who made it this far in my ramblings – thanks! I am very open to hearing what you think, and I'll be back from time to time to share the development of my thoughts.
Author(s): Michel Serres and Lawrence R. Schehr
Source: SubStance, Vol. 12, No. 3, Issue 40: Determinism (1983), pp. 48-4
Published by: University of Wisconsin Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3684255
Accessed: 08/04/2009 06:4
2. Injecting Noise into the System: Hermeneutics and the Necessity of Misunderstanding
Author(s): William Rasch Source: SubStance, Vol. 21, No. 1, Issue 67 (1992), pp. 61-76
Published by: University of Wisconsin Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3685347
Accessed: 08/04/2009 06:52