Tuesday, 17 July 2012

The internet and social discourse

The internet has transformed modes of social discourse. There's a truism if ever there was one, surely. Blogging, twitter, social networks and forums are so integrated into everyone's consciousness that it seems inconceivable that they have been around for less than a generation. And repeatedly we hear how they have utterly transformed the ways humans interact, ushering in a new, interconnected age.

Well yes, but I am firmly of the view expressed in Ecclesiastes that there is nothing new under the sun. The ways human beings interact, established over millennia, can't have changed over such a short period of time, can they?

Part of the issue is that we seem poorly equipped actually to get a clear understanding of the scale on which the internet operates. It has been suggested that humans struggle to establish a meaningful concept of a number even as big as 100, so an internet with a total number of users in the billions is simply too big for us to come close to conceptualising. The same is true of distance. We have evolved to have pretty good understanding of distances up to maybe 15 miles- the distance we can see, or can easily walk in a day- but beyond that we struggle. Aeroplanes and high-speed trains don't help of course and even cars compress distances to the extent that it is hard to remember just how far it is between places. We repeat frequently that it is a small world, but no it isn't. Try walking round it.

However what the internet does allow us to do is to tune out these problematic issues of scale. The process of engaging with computers provides an illusory but comforting sense of privacy and intimacy- of things happening on a human scale. Occasionally it is disrupted of course, such as when someone with whom one is conversing on an internet forum says that it is too late to address an issue right now when in fact it is 8am and you are just wondering what to have for breakfast. The same uncomfortable jolt comes when someone shares a link on FaceBook and as you click on it you see that 37,942 others 'like' this.

Fundamentally though, the internet allows us to pretend that we are in communication with others at an entirely human scale- it is what makes it so seductive. And what happens as a result, I believe, is that we simply replicate ancient structures of social interaction through the medium of high-speed broadband. The clues are in the words we use to describe the process, many of which point us in some surprising directions.

Take the word 'blog' for instance. It covers a multitude of sins but its etymological origins, from the log a sea captain used to keep, points to one of the purposes of weblogs. They provide a record of a journey. At the time of writing it is of course impossible for a sea captain to tell what may or may not be important to record, but he (pretty much exclusively 'he' in those days) has to record it anyway. So logs can be repetitive and mundane, leavened with the occasional touch of humour and seasoned with plenty of shipboard gossip, or they can chronicle momentous, turbulent and life-changing events.

Not all blogs are like that of course. Celebrities, authors, actors and the like blog to enhance their 'platform.' Again it is interesting that a word has been chosen from another era, because the means and the motivation are actually very similar to Charles Dickens' when he took to the platform in theatres around the country to recite from his books and impress his audiences with his wit, erudition and presence. So today those who wish to be heard take to a platform of their own creation. It is much easier than in Dicken's day because you don't need to book a theatre or print show-bills. On the other hand there are so many platforms around that it becomes like Hyde Park corner on a busy bank holiday with about as much chance of establishing an audience that actually sticks around.

Another form of internet-based discourse is what used to be called chatrooms. Of course that word barely exists any more and I think it is interesting to ponder on why that it is. The reason I think is simple: the concept of chatrooms has no real world equivalent. Who builds a special room simply for people to chat in? And if they did, who would go to it? So the word chatroom has largely been replaced by the word 'forum,' and that of course has a much more august and ancient pedigree.

I have been to the forum in  Pompeii and was struck by how big, but also how open, unadorned and lacking in any focal point the Roman forum was. However it was not until I started participating in internet forums that I began to get a clear sense of what Roman forums must have been like. Initially baffling, they are in fact a demonstration of the functioning of a chaotic and noisy form of democracy. There are generally many threads of conversations going on and participants can stick with one for a while then wander off and participate in others. Some will rant and declaim and get excitable but other participants in their conversations will generally drift away, or perhaps call the harassed moderators to eject the excitable ones from the forum. Not everyone has equal status of course, and some stalk the forums sporting their imperial togas of five-figure post counts. Occasionally one of these makes an announcement, though it is rare for this to have any significant effect on the myriad conversations that proceed all around them.

Nevertheless, despite the apparent chaos, forums do generally reach vague sorts of consensus, at least over the key issues they discuss. I lived in rural India for two years and participated in a couple of village forums, called to address some issue of concern. It was utterly unlike any sort of European concept of what such meetings are like- there was no chairman, no agenda, little effort to keep the discussion to one issue and no vote at the end. I was baffled to the extent that I never even knew at the end what decision (s) had been taken, but in retrospect what those meetings were very like was internet forums.

The most interesting of all though, in terms of replicating social structures, is Twitter. For years I refused to engage in Twitter, scoffing at it as the verbal effluence of self-indulgent wankers with too much time on their hands. It won't last, I repeated sagely. It's a flash in the pan. I was wrong of course. Even kids are starting to use Twitter and that means it probably will last. But why?

Again, the clue for me is in the name. Because actually Twitter replicates social structures that pre-date the development of humanity itself. Birds such as starlings or sparrows (like many other social animals) twitter incessantly when they come together. A host of the latter or a murmuration of the former raises a din that it is hard to ignore. At first listening it comes across as a cacophony, with each participant simply making incessant noise to the extent that one wonders how any of them can bear it. Yet the twittering has a purpose of course. Some of it is self-promotion, with each participant vying to show how loud and tuneful (substitute hip and witty) they are. Some is for reassurance, so each can hear a constant stream of tweets from those around them, making them feel secure and wanted. Some, no doubt, is the transmission of gossip (if only we knew enough bird-language to follow it) with great strings of participants retweeting particularly loud or tuneful tweets they have heard. These trends can ripple through the flock so that briefly every way you turn you hear them, but generally they die away quickly into the background hubbub.

All this of course provides a backdrop that seems to instil each participant with a sense of belonging in a wide variety of different fluid and overlapping networks, all part of a vaguely glimpsed whole that is of itself too big for any participant to develop a meaningful concept of it. Some participants are particularly loud and forceful of course, and many other participants always have half an ear cocked for their particular tweets in the (to an outsider) incomprehensible cacophony of noise. Those alpha participants with a particularly strident (or tuneful) voice can have their every tweet amplified across the flock, but that does of course make them a target too, because the flock does not accept a leader.

And just occasionally the alarm is raised. When danger is at hand it only takes one participant to spot it and tweet about it and with the speed of thought suddenly the whole tone of discourse of the flock can change. Some will continue their mundane twittering as if nothing had happened but the more alert participants retweet and amplify until soon the flock is tweeting with something very like a single voice. And that can be a very impressive thing to witness.


  1. Good post, Angus. I've tweeted it. :-)

    Interesting point about Twitter replicating flock behaviour. The way news spreads on it is certainly impressive.

    Are you on Twitter, btw?

  2. I am (@angusdawalker), but as yet in a purely passive way. Watching and learning, and feeling a bit like a dunnock in a murmuration of starlings.