Thursday, March 21, 2013

Why "Tweet" and "Like" are primitive social actions

Social technologies are not mature. They are a primitive multi-layered bunch of technologies, that are clumsily integrating with each other, while also integrating with and changing our individual and collective thinking and communication habits and skills. They will probably change the very nature of what it means to communicate. And someday, we will forget that they are a technology altogether ...

Born out of need

Language is a very deep and very old technology of which the source code has been forgotten. Much has been written about it (for instance here); my own take is that language evolved out of the need of primitive tribes to better master their environment. Whether language has it roots on our ancestors mimicking natural sounds or an existing predisposition is difficult to say. What is more interesting is that language probably appeared out of the need to better coordinate collective action, before it also became a media for codifying and transmitting ideas. I do not know if the fact that tribes grew in size had something to do with it, but I'd like to think so. Hypothesis one: language first appeared to coordinate physical action between humans.

Because it is a very old technology, language had time to very closely integrate with our other communication habits (gestures, stares, breathing rythmes, tension, ...) that it now complements so well. It so closely articulated with our thought processes, that it is now difficult to render any intimate feeling or thinking activity if it is not through language. Language has helped us to better express our feelings and thoughts and has allowed us to develop more complex and deeper thoughts and ideas. Hypothesis two: language changed us as a species.

Rather similarly, social technologies (in the 21st century sense) ancestors appeared out of the need (or possibility) to allow participation of distant people in a collective research or thought process. Remember arpanet or the first email systems ... But primitive social technologies (like email), did not need that much time to very closely integrate to our existing communication (and even social) habits. Life without email would be difficult to imagine even today in some corporate communities ...

A technology reinvented by technology

Language evolved with other technologies like writing or printing for instance, that very deeply impacted it, helping to codify it, prompting for rules (grammar), and also probably deeply altering it as well as our own language skills: our ability for story-telling today differs from our ability some hundred years ago, because both the tools that we rely on (books) and the aim of story-telling have strongly evolved (Nicholas Carr beautifully describes all this in The Shallows). And language itself integrates now with these other technologies (I am not sure that it was always the case) in such a way that sometimes we forget that reading, writing, speaking are very different activities, that demand very different skills. Hypothesis three: language as a technology was enriched by other technologies.

In a very similar way, social technologies were transformed by other technologies, like computing technologies (computation and storage capabilities of hardware) or mobile technologies. Changing the capability of browsers so that they now allow for conversations is a lot like inventing writing and developing mobile technologies is also a lot like printing: both technologies have transformed interaction in scope and depth.

What comes next

This whole post was prompted by a conversation started by Mike Fealty in G+. The post was a conversation on the value of physical versus virtual teaching, more precisely lecturing. And my own position is that it is not as much these different values as of today than how virtual social technologies will transform the whole lecturing experience that is important.

In that respect precisely, it is good to acknowledge that social technologies are rather primitive, and mainly their social dimension (versus the technological one). What I mean is that, even though technology in itself is evolving rapidly and giving us incredible user experiences, how we share, write, think, relate to others, how we have conversations, discussions, arguments, is still done in a very "physical" way.

This is where social actions will come into play (I hope). Social actions (linking, tweeting) were all the rage a couple of years ago, but most of it was just translating "like" to other contexts ("Pin-it" or "+1"). I am not saying that these social actions have no value, or that there is no difference between them. Actually there is, and I know there have been some conversations about the difference between Like and +1 (to me, it is a cultural difference ...).

But the point is that the vocabulary and the grammar that we need to really collaborate virtually are yet to be invented. It will be a lot of fun ... and it might actually bring some surprises. If I go back to my hypotheses, then the future will look something like this:

  • Social technologies appeared to coordinate intellectual action ...
  • They are being enriched and transformed by other technologies ...
  • They will contribute to changing us as a species, not only culturally, but in our ability to think, relate and live virtually collectively
Or don't you think so ?

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