A request for Obi Onyeaso

@obionyeaso recently sent me this DM on twitter:

Hi Richard.I wonder if you can point me to a more detailed A-B-C introduction to understanding ‘process ‘and ‘space’.

Not the sort of thing you can answer in a tweet – so rather than email a response I have decided to share this in a post.

There is not a existing body of work I can point you to about either of these two concepts.  Unfortunately, much of the discourse within the social media space is around an assessment of the latest ‘bright shiny things’.  However, there are still people, such as Clay Shirky and Antony Mayfield, who are focussed on the bigger picture shifts and social impacts.  But, I am not aware of anyone else who has chosen to frame these shifts through the lens of institutions to processes and places to spaces.

Thus what I am saying about space and process is not new in the sense of uncovering new intelligence – it is just a way of looking at what is already out there.

Having got those caveats out of the way – lets get back to Obi’s question.

Process. The best way to understand this is to look at Wikipedia.  Wikipedia is a process.  Each entry is a never ending journey rather than a destination.  This is in contrast to the Encyclopedia Britanica which is an institution, a destination, a place.  The essence of process within social media is that the total is greater than the sum of its parts.  It is about bringing together fragments, which of themselves and in isolation, may not be especially significant but collectively do achieve significance.  As a rule, the more people who participate in a process, the better the outcome.  It is a concept that baffles many, especially those in the traditional media.  Not surprisingly, the idea that an expert, trained, journalist can none-the-less be bettered by a random group of non-experts, is provoking.   The issue of course is that none of those random individuals, in isolation, can produce anything as good as an individual journalist – but their output is not seen in isolation, it is judged as a collective or collaborative output.  As a process.

The label citizen journalist is what traditional journalists have created to try and describe this – but this only further demonstrates and perpetuates the bafflement.  Citizen journalists don’t actually exist (as I have described previously) but attaching the label journalist to people who for one reason or another become involved in the business of disseminating information that comes to be seen as newsworthy, provides a framework that has the comfort of familiarity and allows journalists to then assess the individual citizens as institutions, while ignoring their role within a process.

The processes of social media have much in common with probability theory.  They need a critical mass in terms of numbers in order to produce reliable outcomes and they are not about defining black and white outcomes.  The normal distribution curve, which sits at the heart of probability theory, also has relevance to the processes of social media.   The normal distribution curve is a way of taking any outcome and working out where it sits in relation to other outcomes.  It doesn’t say that any particular outcome is right – rather it gives an indication of how confident you can be in the rightness of the outcome.  Likewise, the processes of social media allow us to access the broad collective view.  It generates, if you like, a form social algorithm which allows us to see how information, or even opinion, is positioned in space – in much the same way as Google has built a mathematical algorithm to rank web sites.

Unfortunately, because for 600 years we have lived in a world where truth is seen to reside in institutions and places, we have been slow to understand the process-based nature of social media and devise tools which support this.  This will change.  It is why people still see the internet as chaotic or lawless.  This is because they are judging it by its extremes, in the way you would judge an institution.  They are not seeing its ability to aggregate around a median point and recognise that this median point is very ordered and structured.  Nor are they seeing that, unlike with institutionalised media or communication, it is not possible to take an extreme position and maintain that this is the view of the majority.  The process of interrogation by the crowd will ensure that any extreme position is quickly identified as such.

The beauty of the process based nature of social media is that it allows any contribution, not matter how small, irrelevant or foolish, to find its niche.  It is this micro-nonsense, so frequently derided, that gives it its strength.  It draws its strength in an opposite way to traditional media – which is a reductive process, designed to take a lot of information and pare this down to a single truth.  Social media is an expansive process.  The more contributions its gathers, the better its ability attach a rank, rating or position, to information.

Twitter is a classic example of social media as a process.  The vast majority of individual tweets are, as Twitters critics correctly say, nonsense (or as I prefer to say, of extremely niche interest).  However, Twitter has worked out a way (process) to aggregate these bits of nonsense and start to give them sense –the usage of #tags being the most significant of these.  Twitter required a certain critical mass of users to become useful.  Initially it recruited these from the geek community and for the first couple of years of its life remained a very niche space.  However, as it started to move beyond the geek community, its influence grew and continues to grow with every additional user and every tweet.  Originally people couldn’t see the difference between Twitter (or a tweet) and a Facebook update.  The content (and even the original purpose) of both was exactly the same.  However, the difference wasn’t in content, it lay in the fact that Twitter was able to turn itself into a process whereas Facebook status updates just sat in a single solitary place and haven’t got a way to connect themselves to other bits of information.

Twitter very neatly brings us to the concept of space (rather than place).  As we have seen, Twitter draws its strength from its ability to pull bits of information together.  It doesn’t do this by pulling information together in a particular place, rather it facilitates the creation of spaces to bring together relevant tweets.  It does this through processes of search and tagging.  A tag – especially a twitter tag – is the purest example of a media space that we have.  A tag doesn’t live anywhere.  It has no place and is created simply by the act of looking for it.

A space is a bit like a spotlight shining on a dark stage.  The circle of light this creates when or if we decide to switch it on, will illuminate anything that passes into it but everything else will remain in darkness and essentially invisible.  Critically, this spotlight isn’t mandated  to follow a particular actor around the stage.  The people controlling the spotlight are in control.  Iif, as an actor, you want visibility you have to step into the space, rather than expect the light to follow you around no matter where you are.

Up until recently it hasn’t been the spotlight which is in control – only the actors.  This is because the ‘rule’ of the Gutenberg world was that information was only available in places – books, newspapers, websites.  We therefore became accustomed to the idea that following or subscribing to these places and then filtering out the information that was not relevant was the way we had to do things.  The idea that it was possible to only receive information that was relevant and set criteria that screened out irrelevancy was, and still is, new.

As with processes we haven’t yet got to grips with the idea that intangible things like conversations or subjects are more important in defining relevance or influence than individual places or people.  This is despite the fact that, intuitively, we always start our search for information based around a specific subject or question.  However, this intuitive process has been disrupted by the fact that, in the Gutenberg world, we then had no alternative but to find a place which generically and on average was likely to provide the sort of information we want, along with probably a lot of surplus information.  Consequently we still attach more relevance to where something comes from rather than what it is.  This is because the world of mass communication is not set up to be able to work at the level of micro-relevance.  Our principal search engine, Google, is still a place based search tool.  However, tools that help us identify spaces are emerging.  These tools are based on allowing us to define the spaces we want to look at and detect (and connect to) all the relevant particles of information that sit in, or pass through, this space.  A good example is whostalkin.com.  This still monitors places, but it manages a much greater range of places including the places where micro-content (such as tweets) circulates.  It therefore is a much more effective space monitoring tool because it can pick-up everything that is going on seen through the lens of a specific search criteria – search criteria being the standard way of setting the boundaries of a digital space.

Obi – I hope this helps answer your question.  At one level this stuff is all a bit theoretical and incomplete.  However – if you get a grasp of it, it helps you understand what works and what won’t work in social media.  Most of the failures are occurring because people are still thinking institutions instead of processes or places instead of spaces.  My advice is to look at space and process as a form of acid test.  If something doesn’t have an inclusive process at its heart – it probably won’t work.  Likewise, if it seems to be adapted to work only within a particular place, rather than a space, it may be a ‘Gutenberg thing’ trying to survive in the post-Gutenberg world.

2 comments

  1. Obi Tabansi Onyeaso

    Thanks a lot Richard for patiently explaining the concepts,

    Now it’s a lot easier for me to explain them to others.

    Yet I must add that because of the fertility of your ideas, they raise as many questions about the emerging new world as they answer. That changes are happening are undeniable. The full effects of those changes in how we produce, approve and organize knowledge can only be guessed at. As you rightly point out, since all we have known, hitherto, is the Gutenberg-constructed universe, definite statements on a post-Gutenberg world are a tasking, perhaps even conceited, venture.

    Two points you raise that I find quite intriguing are:

    1) How institutions & Gutenberg-conditioned individuals will try to frame the historical break as a continuity, e.g., citizen journalism (and I would add web 2.0), so that they can apply familiar terms of judgment in appraising it. In a sense, this is the only way it can make sense really, like the way the label ‘ iron horse’ was used to describe the bicycle when by the first Africans who saw it. The very act of classifying the quantum leap in the language of a continuity, however chaotic, misses the point.

    2) The whole pre-eminence super-structure given to locale on the web, by which I refer to URLs. Could the trend towards space and process lead to the increasing relevance or downgrading on the emphasis on the URL/domain name/website dominance as the pathway to the web? Are we be headed for a white-label web? At least, as far as subjects of discourse go? So while eBay, Gmail or Amazon would still be relevant for its transactional uses, lots of site names/identities that seek to foster discussion or provide information would become increasing outmoded.

    These are just first impressions. I may be mistaken.

    I must confess that I am still re-reading the post. Each time a new idea leaps off the page, a new thought peeks its head out. I am still digesting.

    As I have said in the past, I really think you should explore teaching a course on the subject, as I believe it is a valid area of academic research. I urge you to give this some serious thought.

    Once again, thanks for the post.

    Obi Onyeaso

  2. richardstacy

    Obi,

    Point 1 is spot on. I often remind people that cars were first described as horseless carriages – I will now also use the iron horse example! The language changes once we reach a point where collectively, we realise that we are dealing with something that changes the game – and with social media we are not at that point yet. How we use language is always interesting – especially when you try to determine the underlying purpose. That is why citizen journalist is an interesting one – because I think its purpose is provide re-assurance to traditional journalists through the suggestion that being ‘a journalist’ is a necessary pre-condition for effective contribution in the news space.

    Your point about structure and urls is an interesting one which got me thinking. Of course in the 1.0 digital world, the url was not important – except for a home page. This is because all the subsequent information was contained within a structure with clearly defined navigation – in fact essentially the whole skill of website design lies in structure and navigation. As a result, individual urls became meaningless strings of characters.

    Now that information is becoming liberated from websites and living on its own, each bit of information becomes its own home page, and therefore requires a sensible url in order to make it more searchable / discoverable. This is why blog platforms are good for publishing information – they attach sensible urls to each post.

    However, once you progress to a medium such as Twitter which is totally separated from a place of distribution, the url once again becomes meaningless. Here is is purely the subject matter and incorporation of other ‘folksonomy’ techniques (#tags, @ and RT) that provides the context. These are all facilitators of connection rather than classification (process / space characteristics). Information is not relevant in terms of where it comes from or lives (a url based identity), relevance comes from how it is connected (the space in which it lives and how it relates to, and connects with, other information in the space).

    Keep thinking!

    R

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