Oliver Ertzscheid’s blog recently had an interesting post (French) pointing to a couple of articles and comments on The Facebook, among which an article at the LA Times’ entitled “The Facebook Revolution“. One paragraph in there really stands out:

Boiled down, it goes like this: Humans get their information from two places — from mainstream media or some other centralized organization such as a church, and from their network of family, friends, neighbors and colleagues. We’ve already digitized the first. Almost every news organization has a website now. What Zuckerberg is trying to do with Facebook is digitize the second.

This quote very much reminds me of some of the issues discussed in the “Digital Formations” volume edited by Robert Latham and Saskia Sassen in 2005. In their introduction (available online) they coin the (unpronounceable and therefore probably doomed) term “sociodigitization” by distinguishing it from “digitization”:

The qualifier “socio” is added to distinguish from the process of content conversion, the broader process whereby activities and their histories in a social domain are drawn up into the digital codes, databases, images, and text that constitute the substance of a digital formation. As the various chapters below show, such drawing up can be a function of deliberate planning and reflexive ordering or of contingent and discrete interactions and activities. In this respect as well, sociodigitization differs from digitization: what is rendered in digital form is not only information and artifacts but also logics of social organization, interaction, and space as discussed above.

Facebook, then, is quite plainly an example for the explicit (socio-)digitization of social relations that were mediated quite differently in the past. The “network of family, friends, neighbors and colleagues” that is now recreated inside of the system has of course been relying on technical (and digital) means of communication and interaction for quite a while, and these media did play a role in shaping the relations they helped sustain. There is no need to cite McLuhan to understand that relating to distant friends and family by mail or telephone will influence the way these relations are lived and how they evolve. Being rather stable dispositifs, the specific logics of individual media (their affordances) were largely covered up by habitualization (cf. Berger & Luckmann1967, p.53); it is the high speed of software development on the Web that makes the “rendering of logics of social organization, interaction, and space” so much more visible. In that sense, what started out as media theory is quickly becoming software theory or the theory of ICT. There is, of course, a strong affiliation with Lawrence Lessig’s thoughts about computer code (now in v. 2.0) and its ability to function as both constraint and incentive, shaping human behavior in a fashion comparable to law, morals, and the market.

The important matter seems to be the understanding of how sociodigitization proceeds in the context of the current explosion of Web-based software applications that is set to (re)mediate a great number of everyday practices. While media theory in the tradition of McLuhan has strived to identify the invariant core, the ontological essence of individual media, such an endeavor seems futile when it comes to software, whose prime caracteristic is malleability. This forces us to concentrate the analysis of “system properties” (i.e. the specific and local logic of sociodigitization) on individual platforms or, at best, categories of applications. When looking at Facebook, this means analyzing the actual forms the process of digitization leads to as well as the technical and cultural methods involved. How do I build and grow my network? What are the forms of interaction the system proposes? Who controls data structure, visibility, and perpetuity? What are the possibilities for building associations and what types of public do they give rise to?

In the context of my own work, I ask myself how we can formulate the cultural, ethical, and political dimension of systems like Facebook as matters of design, and not only on a descriptive level, but on the level of design methodology and guidelines. The critical analysis of social network sites and the cultural phenomena that emerge around them is, of course, essential but shouldn’t there be more debate of how such systems should work? What would a social network look like that is explicitly build on the grounds of a political theory of democracy? Is such a think even thinkable?

Post filed under social networks, society oriented design.

One Comment

  1. Pingback: The Politics of Systems » Blog Archive » the network as database and the network as social structure

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