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.


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