Tie Strength and Network Analysis on Facebook

Friday, January 17th, 2014

people-linked

In October 2013, Lars Backstrom (Facebook Inc.) and Jon Kleinberg (Cornell University) released a study suggesting a new method by which to measure and classify relationship strength (or “tie strength”) between Facebook users. The novelty of this method is its focus on the principle coined as “dispersion.”

Dispersion looks at a pair of users’ mutual friends in terms of network structure and measures the level of connectivity between each of these mutual friends (i.e. how many mutual friends do the mutual friends share). The tie between two users is deemed to have “high dispersion” if the mutual friends are not well-connected with one another. Within the absolute model of “high dispersion,” the user pair serves as the only node through which the mutual friends are connected to one another. As such, the user-pair’s relationship with one another is seen as the basis for whatever mutual friendships they share.

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This measure of tie-strength classification is posited as the most accurate means of identifying romantic partnerships among users through network structure analysis. Previously, the principle of “embeddedness” has been a standard measure for assessing tie strength.

Embeddedness looks at the overlap of “social circles” between two users as a means of assessing tie strength. An analysis using embeddedness equates a high number of mutual friends with a strong user-user tie. One major critique of this logic is that large networks of mutual friendships tend to form within foci such as workplace or school. Membership in such environments may allow two people to form a high number of mutual friendships without necessarily having strong ties to one another.

We can picture how such a model might not align with the network formation surrounding a romantic relationship.  In contrast, a highly dispersed group of mutual friends can reflect how a “couple” comes to share a diverse, unconnected group of peers, by means of meeting people through one another.

This being said, the accuracy of identifying a romantic partnership by sole means of searching a user’s network for patterns of dispersion is very low. An analysis combining dispersion, embeddedness, and other data, including profile pictures, tagged photos, profile views, and event attendance is obviously superior. It is interesting, though, to see how the nature of a relationship is reflected in its surrounding network.

facebook

I believe it is important to stay “informed” (as best we can) about how our online relationships are being processed as data. These processes, and the conclusions they draw about which users are “most important” to us, directly impact the content that appears in our newsfeeds, and the people with whom we are encouraged to connect.  Even a cursory understanding of the measures by which websites such as Facebook go about curating our social lives can help us to re-evaluate our conduct, interactions, and sense of community within and without social media.

For those interested in reading the full study, see here.

On being Tamed

Monday, November 18th, 2013

The following is an excerpt from The Little Price that I constantly think of when it comes to limerence and crushing. Follow up to come on how this method of “taming” can go awry on social media.

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“Who are you?” asked the little prince, and added, “You are very pretty to look at.”

“I am a fox,” the fox said.

“Come and play with me,” proposed the little prince. “I am so unhappy.”

“I cannot play with you,” the fox said. “I am not tamed.”

“Ah! Please excuse me,” said the little prince.

But, after some thought, he added:

“What does that mean–‘tame’?”

“You do not live here,” said the fox. “What is it that you are looking for?”

“I am looking for men,” said the little prince. “What does that mean–‘tame’?”

“Men,” said the fox. “They have guns, and they hunt. It is very disturbing. They also raise chickens. These are their only interests. Are you looking for chickens?”

“No,” said the little prince. “I am looking for friends. What does that mean–‘tame’?”

“It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox. It means to establish ties.”

“‘To establish ties’?”

“Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world . . .”

“I am beginning to understand,” said the little prince. “There is a flower . . . I think that she has tamed me . . .”

“It is possible,” said the fox. “On the Earth one sees all sorts of things.”

“Oh, but this is not on the Earth!” said the little prince.

The fox seemed perplexed, and very curious.

“On another planet?”

“Yes.”

“Are there hunters on that planet?”

“No.”

“Ah, that is interesting! Are there chickens?”

“No.”

“Nothing is perfect,” sighed the fox.

But he came back to his idea.

“My life is very monotonous,” the fox said. “I hunt chickens; men hunt me. All the chickens are just alike, and all the men are just alike. And, in consequence, I am a little bored. But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the color of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat . . .”

The fox gazed at the little prince, for a long time.

“Please–tame me!” he said.

“I want to, very much,” the little prince replied. “But I have not much time. I have friends to discover, and a great many things to understand.”

“One only understands the things that one tames,” said the fox. “Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all ready made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends any more. If you want a friend, tame me . . .”

“What must I do, to tame you?” asked the little prince.

“You must be very patient,” replied the fox. “First you will sit down at a little distance from me–like that–in the grass. I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing. Words are the source of misunderstandings. But you will sit a little closer to me, every day . . .”

The next day the little prince came back.

“It would have been better to come back at the same hour,” said the fox. “If, for example, you come at four o’clock in the afternoon, then at three o’clock I shall begin to be happy. I shall feel happier and happier as the hour advances. At four o’clock, I shall already be worrying and jumping about. I shall show you how happy I am! But if you come at just any time, I shall never know at what hour my heart is to be ready to greet you . . . One must observe the proper rites . . .”

“What is a rite?” asked the little prince.

“Those also are actions too often neglected,” said the fox. “They are what make one day different from other days, one hour from other hours. There is a rite, for example, among my hunters. Every Thursday they dance with the village girls. So Thursday is a wonderful day for me! I can take a walk as far as the vineyards. But if the hunters danced at just any time, every day would be like every other day, and I should never have any vacation at all.”

So the little prince tamed the fox. And when the hour of his departure drew near–

“Ah,” said the fox, “I shall cry.”

“It is your own fault,” said the little prince. “I never wished you any sort of harm; but you wanted me to tame you . . .”

“Yes, that is so,” said the fox.

“But now you are going to cry!” said the little prince.

“Yes, that is so,” said the fox.

“Then it has done you no good at all!”

“It has done me good,” said the fox, “because of the color of the wheat fields.” And then he added:

“Go and look again at the roses. You will understand now that yours is unique in all the world. Then come back to say goodbye to me, and I will make you a present of a secret.”

The little prince went away, to look again at the roses.

“You are not at all like my rose,” he said. “As yet you are nothing. No one has tamed you, and you have tamed no one. You are like my fox when I first knew him. He was only a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But I have made him my friend, and now he is unique in all the world.”

And the roses were very much embarassed.

“You are beautiful, but you are empty,” he went on. “One could not die for you. To be sure, an ordinary passerby would think that my rose looked just like you–the rose that belongs to me. But in herself alone she is more important than all the hundreds of you other roses: because it is she that I have watered; because it is she that I have put under the glass globe; because it is she that I have sheltered behind the screen; because it is for her that I have killed the caterpillars (except the two or three that we saved to become butterflies); because it is she that I have listened to, when she grumbled, or boasted, or ever sometimes when she said nothing. Because she is my rose.

And he went back to meet the fox.

“Goodbye,” he said.

“Goodbye,” said the fox. “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.

“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”

“It is the time I have wasted for my rose–” said the little prince, so that he would be sure to remember.

“Men have forgotten this truth,” said the fox. “But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose . . .”

“I am responsible for my rose,” the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.

Living in the Ephemeral

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

e·phem·er·al [ih-fem-er-uhl]

adjective

1.lasting a very short time; shortlived; transitory: the ephemeral joys of childhod.

2.lasting but one day: an ephemeral flower.

noun

3. anything short-lived, as certain insects.

Origin: 
1570–80;  < Greek ephḗmer os ) short-lived, lasting but a day ( ep- ep- + hēmér ) day + -os  adj. suffix)+ -al1

Synonyms 

1. fleeting, evanescent, transient, momentary, brief.

Antonyms 

1. permanent.

crying

The ephemeral is a condition that, as mortal beings, we all must face throughout our lives. Seasons come and go, we fall in and out of love, our pets die, our hard drives crash, the icebergs are melting. This lack of permanence can be very difficult to experience.  Sometimes it can also work to our advantage. Other times, we don’t even notice it. However we live with the ephemeral – be it that we fight, embrace, ignore, deny, what have you – the ephemeral is ever-present, and stands as a definitive element of what it is to be human.

We see ephemerality taking on many new forms within social media, and are together in a vague process of adjusting to its implications and effects. This piece is a sharing of some recent experiences and ideas to do with the ephemeral online.

I learned of the term Ephemeral Media quite recently, from the following tweet:

jurgenson

BlinkLink may call to mind for many the very popular Snapchat. Both applications function on the premise of providing a medium for communication that will intentionally vanish. In the “Philosophy” section of their website, Snapchat states: “There is value in the ephemeral. Great conversations are magical. That’s because they are shared, enjoyed, but not saved.” Perhaps part of the sentiment here is that there is an intimate spontaneity born within freedom from preservation.

blink link

Of course, many of us can relate to having some desire to escape the realm of documentation. And although we now know that Snapchat isn’t actually deleting our photos (didn’t we always, though?..), it is exciting to see/experience what new modes of behaviour and interaction emerge within this new setting.

Important to acknowledge, however, is that this celebration of the ephemeral that Snapchat (and the like) puts forth depends heavily upon a collectively understood anticipation of vanishment. People function within Snapchat knowing that their correspondence will disappear. From this point forward, ephemeral acquires its value.

midnight_kiss.sized

But the *fact of the matter* is: all social media, regardless of whether or not it forces vanishment, is ephemeral. We unfriend, we block people, we tweet and delete, we edit, we un-Like, we cycle through “trending” topics with accelerating pace, we de-activate our accounts, we re-activate, we put our ideas out into the interface, they quickly fall down the newsfeed, and we constantly “move on”.

As I write this list, everything feels transient. But it really doesn’t always feel this way. In my experience, it is so easy to forget about the evanescence and feel totally comfortable. Until something abruptly happens to remind me. It could be as “whatever” as someone deleting their conversational tweets from a correspondence, and being left with a half-invisible conversation, as neurotically frantic as *needing* to block an ex-boyfriend from all facets of the internet, or as heartbreaking as having your favourite Twitter account delete itself. This stuff happens and it’s like, “Didn’t I know it would eventually happen?,” but then what?

We are constantly moving on and coming to grips with the ephemeral – deciding how to respond to and cope with the ephemerality of others, being ephemeral ourselves, when it suits us. Much of this adaption currently feels very ambiguous and confusing. Something I found simultaneously funny and sad was the irony of the hashtag #EphemeralMedia: here we are, discussing its existence, all the while trying to install a measure of permanence to the discussion. I guess it’s beautiful in a way too.. the commonality of transience. At least we can talk to one another about it, regardless of how the conversations might disappear.

Towards a New Social Economy

Friday, August 23rd, 2013

poke

Online activity is continuing to expand as an increasingly significant part of our daily lives, and social media presents to us various new frameworks within which to express ourselves, interact with one another, and reflect upon our situations.  As the platforms we engage with advance in interface, increase in popularity, and grow more familiar to us, we collectively develop an array of social codes by which we regulate our behaviour and evaluate our circumstances (self-worth, interpersonal relationships, social circles, etc.). Currently, many of the popular platforms share a similar design that drives social action by allowing for subscription, expression of approval, and dissemination.  In this paper, I would like to propose that these three functions serve as the primary vessels for an emerging social economy. Within the context of Twitter, we will examine this taxonomy of functions, the behaviours it affords, and their associated symbolic values. Particular focus will be paid to the restrictions this limited selection of functions places upon us, as well as the problematic ambiguity that comes from our lack of an explicit and collective understanding of this economy.

rt

Subscription, Expression of Approval, and Dissemination

First, let us examine the concept of currency in relation to the functions of subscription, expression of approval, and dissemination (to be referred to from here on as the SAD framework). In Understanding Media, Marshal McLuhan describes currency as an information storehouse that serves as a widely-accessible language for translating a diverse collection of work and product into a comprehensive value system, within which exchange can be made efficient and consistent[1]. Twitter users possess the following initial commodities available for exchange: profile, produced content (tweets), attention, and opinions. The SAD framework helps to organize these commodities. Think of the following functions as the organizing language.

Subscription

On Twitter, subscription comes in the form of “following”. When one user follows another, they give their attention: a resource growing in scarcity and demand as the information realm continues to expand[2].  Because Twitter makes subscription information publicly available, the act of giving attention also functions as a form of symbolic currency: the “follow” is turned into a badge, worn on the profiles of both user and account followed ( the followee). The “follow badge” appears in three forms: one, it contributes to the following and follower counts (fig. 1) of user and followee, respectively; two, the followee’s name appears on the user’s following list (fig. 2); three, the user’s name appears on the followee’s followed by list (fig. 3). The first form is based in numerical value. In the second form, the user offers their profile as a surface for advertising the account of their followee. In the third form, the user offers their name as a stamp of endorsement on the followee’s profile.

following follower counts

followers list

following list

Expression of Approval

On Twitter, expression of approval comes in the form of “favoriting:” a public gesture of praise that also functions in badge-like formation. The favorite badge appears in three forms: one, it contributes to the tweet’s favorite count; two, it inscribes the user’s aviator onto the tweet as having favorited (fig.4); three, the tweet appears in the user’s publicly visible “Favorites” list (fig.5).

fave count

fave list

Dissemination

            On Twitter, dissemination comes in the form of the “retweet:” an act by which a user shares the tweet of another account on the timeline of their own profile, as well as the newsfeeds of their followers (fig.6).  Retweeting is a method by which users give the attention of their followers to someone else. It is a form of advertising more aggressive than that of the follow in that it thrusts information into the sightline of followers. In this way, we can see how the value of subscription is passed between users, and how dissemination relies upon the investment of subscription. The retweet also takes on badge-like formation in that it contributes to the tweet’s retweet count and inscribes the user’s aviator onto the tweet as having retweeted (fig.7).

RT

retweet count

Thus far, I have attempted to outline the SAD framework in a way that pertains strictly to the objective functions of Twitter’s interface. That is, we have examined the operations of the medium, itself, independent of user input. Of concern in this paper is the manner in which users generate value within this framework. More specifically, we are investigating what problems might arise from the system of currency that this framework attaches to our social interactions. The primary question we will address is: How might this platform’s framing of social value influence inter-user relationships and users’ conceptions of self-worth?   

lol trent

The Standing Reserve, Aesthleticism, and Klout

Because the SAD framework organizes user behaviour around the exchange of subscription, expressed approval, and dissemination, it is of concern that the users’ desire to acquire these resources will begin to define the manner in which they relate with one another. Of course, it can be argued that a system of currency that facilitates the exchange of said resources is beneficial to a social network. Such an argument would be on par with McLuhan’s account of currency as a tool, and we must acknowledge the role this tool plays in allowing users to efficiently connect, share and discover information. That being said, there is much more to socializing that the exchanges afforded by said system. What we are to be wary of is forgetting the interactions that fall outside of Twitter’s Interactions.

Hydropower-Models-Hydro-Dam-And-Pivot-Model

To elucidate this concern, it will be helpful to call upon Heidegger’s concepts of “enframing” and “the standing reserve”, as discussed in “The Question Concerning Technology.”[3] In this piece, he examines humankind’s technological conquest as a behaviour and mindset that encourages us to view the world as a resource. Within this perspective, he argues, we are prone to consider and taxonomize our surroundings in terms of their perceived use and profit-yielding potential. Heidegger refers to nature ordered in this fashion as “Bestand,” or “the standing reserve”[4]. He sees this “challenging” of nature as an oppressive ordering of the world, through which we are given a false sense of power or control. The control is not ours, for through adopting this orientation and setting towards the actualization of a harvest, we join the ranks of the standing reserve: “Only to the extent that man for his part is already challenged to exploit the energies of nature can this revealing that orders happen. If man is challenged, ordered, to do this, then does not man himself belong even more originally than nature within the standing reserve?”[5] Humans fall into the order of standing reserve both as a workforce and as a network of consumers. It has been interpreted that the major ramification of ordering the world in terms of “standing reserve” is the ensuing loss of dignity for both humans and nature [6]: to be seen as “standing reserve” is to have one’s value reduced to a utilitarian purpose framed by someone else, to be “made subordinate to [an] orderability”[7]. In this way, becoming caught up in the ideology of technological conquest and its afforded “conveniences” can easily blind us from our entrapment in this system and associated loss of agency. Of further concern is that our propensity to objectify that which surrounds us in nature will evolve to an objectification of our fellow humans.

Reply-Retweet-FavoriteTwitter-launches-promoted-Tweets-at-Ad-Age-Digital-Next

We can picture Twitter’s SAD framework as a system of enframing that positions users as a source of attention, endorsement, and publicity. When users begin to view one another by these terms, they fall into the order of standing reserve. Users can feel power and success when rich in said resources, but it is important to remember that this validation is tied to the metrics of achievement defined by Twitter’s interface.  In this way, Twitter provides a system of currency that serves to positively reinforce a user-driven harvest for attention and endorsement.

Steve_Roggenbuck-1

The industrial imagery conjured here may call to mind the somewhat recent notion of “aesthleticism,” associated with “internet personalities” who function through rapid content production and dissemination within the realm of social media, relying heavily upon audience participation. The “aesthlete” has been presented as a phenomenon of the rapidly-increasing competition for attention online. Their approach to this competition is to remain constantly present in the ever-refreshing newsfeed. Much of their status, often framed in terms of “influence,” depends upon an ability to drive engagement with their content. In his examination of the aesthlete, Brad Troemel speaks to the role social currency plays in determining status: “Notes, likes, and reblogs serve as the quantitative basis for influence in an art world where critics’ written word has been stripped of power.”[8] Oftentimes, aesthlete is a term used with negative connotations (such as valuing quantity over quality, for example), and can be seen as a reductive typecast. Whether or not we wish to believe in the existence of the aesthlete, the concept of aesthleticism can lend us insight into the patterns of behaviour emerging within social media. We can imagine aesthletic behaviour as an exaggerated example of Twitter users falling into the order of standing reserve. In this light, two problematic conditions present themselves: first, aggressive treatment of audience attention; second, metrics replacing the critic’s authority.

TeamFollowBack-LOGO

The first condition illuminates how the harvest for attention can change inter-user relationships, as well as user behaviour. The desire for and effort to acquire attention is not necessarily an inherently problematic condition. What must be examined is the end to which attention is directed, and the method by which attention is acquired. In its simplest form, attention can be seen as the act of focusing one’s mind toward a given thing. When one user gives their attention to another, it can be said that they have focused their mind toward the followee. Within the SAD framework, each user acquires their own personal collection of focused minds (i.e. the follower-base). As we have discussed, a user’s follower-base is what gives value to their act of dissemination. When a followee cares not for what their follower’s focused mind perceives, but instead sees this attention as a vessel for further dissemination, they treat the follower as a resource of follower-base, rather than as a fellow human. In this way, the follower-followee relationship loses its dignity.  Furthermore, when a user composes a tweet with the outcome of virality in mind, (s)he treats her-/himself as standing reserve.

tfb_team_follow_back_hat-r7693ff76a8e249fa84ee3ee83f34698f_v9wfy_8byvr_324

The second condition speaks to a shift in value assessment. It is not of concern here that The Critic has been stripped of his/her cultural authority. Rather, it is that users allow the metrics to define their conception of value. It might be argued that these metrics represent user input (i.e. the favorite count is not simply a number, but rather a history of expressed approval), but, again, we must acknowledge that the interface first shapes user input. Consider the following passage from “The Question Concerning Technology”: “because physics, indeed already as pure theory, sets nature up to exhibit itself as a coherence of forces calculable in advance, it orders its experiments precisely for the purpose of asking whether and how nature reports itself when set up in this way”[9]. The reasoning here is that if you frame nature with a particular formula, it will only present to you that which you have calculated for. This reasoning can be applied to the relationship between user, interface, and metrics. All user value to be demonstrated by means of metrics is rooted in the formula of the interface. Users should work to generate and conceive of value independent of such formula; to do otherwise is to forfeit autonomy and limit possibilities in expression, interaction, and self-realization. Treatment of metrics as authority is problematic, as it encourages users to function within the parameters of the interface.

klout

The problematic authority of the metrics is further enforced by external applications geared toward calculating, scoring, and documenting “social influence,” such as Klout, Kred, and Peer Index[10]. Let us use Klout, arguably the most popularly-known services of this nature, to examine the growing authority and danger of metrics-derived user status. With the tagline, “Make Your Mark,” Klout presents itself as a platform that helps you to “Discover how you influence your networks,” “Share and grow your passions,” and “Earn recognition for your influence.”[11]The platform functions by gathering data from a user’s social media activity, such as follower count, level of activity, Klout scores of associated users, and favorite and retweet counts. Using this data in combination with its secret algorithm, Klout calculates an influence score out of 100 for each user. Klout has calculated and documented a score for all public Twitter users, regardless of their having registered with the platform. In this way, Twitter users are able to compare their scores with all fellow Twitter users, in turn, gathering a sense of how they “rank” within the grand scheme of Twitter. The simplistic packaging of a Klout score makes user-ranking efficient, accessible, and easily transferable: qualities that, again, echo McLuhan’s account of currency. The appeal of this simplicity’s afforded conveniences, coupled with the user’s ability to know the precise meaning upon which value has been founded, heightens the danger of authoritative metrics. On the topic of such metrics, famous virtual reality pioneer and web-critic Jaron Lanier has said, “People’s lives are being run by stupid algorithms more and more. The only ones who escape it are the ones who avoid playing the game at all.”[12] Yet such an avoidance may not be so simple. We see the “real world” effects of Klout’s dangerous authority, for example, in cases where employers consult the Klout scores of job candidates. Candidates, potentially unaware of the platform or their rank within it, can have their working success quickly undercut by a relatively low influence score. [13]

Klout-artists-popularity

Thus far, we have examined two main problems to be wary of within the SAD framework: one, that a “harvest for attention” mentality can degrade a user’s relationships and self-realization; and two, that treating metric-driven value-assessments as authority can restrict users from conceivng of and generating new forms of value. This being said, in the case of both issues, users still possess the ability to subvert said behaviours and mentalities. Subversion begins with awareness. Users must work toward remaining mindful of the frameworks and formulas guiding and depicting their behaviour, as well as that which exist as potential outside of these guidelines. Simultaneously, users must also work toward developing an understanding of how said frameworks are of use and benefit to them.

favo

discover me

Representative Currency and The Precession of Simulacra

McLuhan provides a poetic account of currency’s “inherent good” that can serve to remind us of the SAD framework’s purpose. He describes money as “social medium or extension of an inner wish and motive [that] creates social and spiritual values”[14]. Here, he is referencing the late 19th century sentiment of Samuel Butler, who described money as “the symbol of duty,.. the sacrament of having done for mankind that which mankind wanted”[15]. In this way, we can remind ourselves of the social depth that each of the functions outlined in the SAD framework holds. Subscription is the act of focusing one’s mind upon another, expression of approval is the act of outward praise, and dissemination is the act of sharing amongst a group. Each of these functions holds the potential for great social impact. Keeping these functions and their potential in mind makes users better able to take ownership of their behaviour within the framework.

Gold-25_1

It can happen, however, that users do not keep these functions in mind. As McLuhan notes, value is disembodied by representative forms of currency, making it easy for us to lose sight of the sentiment behind the monetary symbol: “when printed money supplanted gold the compelling aura of it disappeared”[16]. We can apply this same reasoning to the process by which the symbols of the interface supplant “in person” social gestures. Just as there are obvious benefits to using printed money in the place of gold, so too are there benefits to the symbolic exchanges within social media. Of disadvantage, though, is that users may forget the sentiment of their interactions, when extended through the less-immediate and more-ephemeral medium of the symbol.

The step beyond forgetting the sentiment behind the symbol is that users begin to mistake the symbol for the sentiment. This line of thinking is in tandem with Baudrillard`s notions around “the precession of simulacra,” as presented in Simulacra and Simulation. Here, he declares that we have oversaturated our world with symbolic representation and simulacra, and have consequently lost touch of reality. He proposes a taxonomy of signs broken into four stages, each successive stage being further-distanced from reality: first, the faithful image/copy, where the sign reflects a profound reality; second, perversion of reality, where the sign does not faithfully reveal reality to us; third, masking the absence of a profound reality, where the sign claims to represent something real, but rather stands as a simulation with no original; and fourth, pure simulation, where the sign merely reflects other signs[17].

following4

Let us examine how the symbolic currency within Twitter can slip from faithful image to pure simulation, using the example of subscription. Taken on an individual basis, the symbolism of the follow can function as a faithful image: the individual follow can hold the weight of one user wanting to hear from and/or connect with another user. In group formation, however, the symbolism of following begins to take on a life of its own. Recall, for instance, the badge-like manifestation of the follower and following counts that comes from Twitter’s public display of follower and following data. This particular circumstance encourages users to compare their counts against one another. The danger of such a comparison begins with a tendency to reduce the follower as an individual into the follower as a tally notch. Following this reduction is the fetishization of the tally.  To give an example: a common form this fetishization takes on is that of the follower:following ratio. This ratio stands as a symbol of a user’s status, expressed in the terms of attention given relative to attention received. The sleek packaging of the ratio can nullify the detailed context of the account’s social dynamics and presence. In this way, the ratio functions as a perversion of reality. As users grow further entrenched in this metrics-driven system of evaluating experience within Twitter, the ratio grows more and more hollow, approaching the nature of a sign which masks the absence of a profound reality. For if users are turning their attention increasingly toward the metrics of their content, a ratio built upon attention shared between users turns increasingly meaningless.  We will omit the fourth stage of simulation (in which the sign merely reflects other signs) from this analysis, as it is arguably too hyperbolic and defeatist to contribute further productive significance.

Dualism

Baudrillard’s rhetoric around loss of reality has made it difficult for scholars to apply his thinking toward principles of currency[18].  Such is a rhetoric we wish to avoid in this piece, especially in light of the dualistic thinking that surrounds distinctions between “The Real World” and “Virtual Reality.” Nathan Jurgenson terms this ideology “digital dualism,” and critiques it for positing the physical world as “real,” and the digital world as “virtual.”[19] Many studies of social media are rooted in this mode of thinking, treating the online as separate from and lesser than the physical. Jurgenson proposes an alternative view of “augmented reality,” in which “digital and material realities dialectically co-construct each other.”[20] This piece has been conducted with said approach in mind, and reference to Baudrillard is not meant to be taken as a reinstated distinction between real and virtual.

Rather than having to do with “loss of reality,” the concern we are highlighting with the precession of simulacra aligns with our previous examination of the authoritative metric.  To refresh, the danger of relying upon metrics to measure user value is that it encourages users to function within the parameters of the interface, rather than work to generate and conceive of value independent of or in subversion to this formula. Klout furthers this danger by providing an attractively simple influence score, the algorithm for which users are unable to know. In this case, the value of “influence” is obscured for users by means of an external party’s ambiguous quantification. With the precession of simulacra, users perpetuate obscurity of their own accord. In both cases, obscurity functions by first abstracting the metric from the value upon which has been founded (recall the inherent functions of the SAD framework), distancing the user from the sentiment of their interactions.

Losing touch of this sentiment can motivate the user in three main directions: one, further subservience to the metrics; two, disengagement or departure from the network; or three, motivation to produce new meaning or value. The first direction continues along the trajectory we have just outlined: taking the numeric symbol as the inherent good to which activity should be directed, the users adapt their behaviour toward yielding the most desirable metrics, potentially sacrificing certain modes of self-expression and relationship formation. In the second direction, users feel a general sense of meaninglessness about their activity, and/or have failed to build lasting relationships with other users, so opt to discontinue their involvement with the platform. The third direction is our most hopeful option: the frustration of “meaningless” interaction motivates users to re-imbue their activity with new social value. As we have seen in the example of Klout, however, subversion of the authoritative metric can be difficult amidst a social landscape in which many users have, in some way or other, “bought into” this system of thinking.

Difficulties aside, the idea that the third direction exists as a possibility is central to this paper’s purpose. If anything, this piece has been written in an attempt to highlight and strengthen this possibility. As mentioned before, exercising an active awareness of the framework by which exchange is facilitated and value is defined will be the first step toward conceiving of and generating new value.  The critiques presented thus far have been intended as a step toward such awareness. Because social media is a relatively young phenomenon, its associated systems of social currency are also quite young. In this way, users are placed in an awkward, yet crucial position: as they learn to function within a rudimentary framework of social exchange, they pave the way for users and currencies to come.

money-exchanging-handa

New Systems of Currency and the Power of Community

One quality of the SAD framework’s currency that distinguishes it from classical Money is the instable collective understanding of value amongst its users.  Indeed, this instability comes partially from the framework’s immaturity. McLuhan acknowledges this toilsome process of establishing a currency system in his discussion of printed money’s relation to literacy, recounting the abrasive turn toward having a society physically visualize previously “inner” values: “Far easier is the organization of production than is the training of whole populations in the habits of expressing their wishes and desires statistically, as it were, by means of market mechanisms of supply and demand, and the visual technology of prices”[21].  The SAD framework faces a similar challenge of symbolically quantifying social gestures. The retrospective insight gained from McLuhan’s historical account calls to question what sort of paradigm shift online social currency might be approaching.

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As it stands, the young SAD framework holds a precarious position. Further-structuring the framework (with, for example, a fixed-price system) offers benefits of stabilized value, while posing threats of constrained user-experience. Allowing for structural flexibility (by, for example, the elimination of numeracy) offers benefits of user-autonomy while posing threats of obstructing a collective understanding of value. Some would argue that a rigid framework of social currency cannot achieve the fluid subtlety capable of responding to social interaction. In an examination of action and contemplation within the realms of privately-owned online public spaces (such as Twitter), Brian Droitcour states the following:

Private ownership…constructs protocols that make space and public as ephemeral as money. Communities can take shape around these protocols but they grow their own, unarticulated systems of interaction and affinity that change more subtly and unpredictably than terms of service and zoning laws. The latter are brittle. Communities…adapt easily to new conditions, and thrive in discourses beyond those of the marketplace.[22]

The sentiment expressed here gives hope that in the face of codified systems of conduct and interaction, the user’s creatively social and communal drive will remain supple and resilient.

Central to this resilience is the power of community. Just as currency serves to tighten the bonds of a community, so too does currency rely upon the community’s collective understanding of its value and purpose. Droitcour’s reasoning highlights for us the opportunity for co-constructed social value.  As users find themselves amidst the birth of a new and uncertain social economy, it is with/as a community that they develop awareness and working methods of meaningful exchange.

what is a fav_edited-1

retweeting_edited-1

[When I decide to favorite something,] I suppose it’s just anything I like that I don’t feel requires a retweet. Oftentimes it’s a response that I like that I receive in a conversation or perhaps something I see in my newsfeed that I think is clever but doesn’t call for an RT. I certainly don’t give as much thought to favourites as RTs or tweets. I don’t see it being a terribly important function. I sometimes even favourite just to be polite and acknowledge a tweet someone has directed at me.

-          Rudayna @Rudayna_B

ok hmm ok. my approach to faving. i dont know. i fav tweets that i like and thats pretty much it. it’s cool faving tweets because maybe ur making someone feel good. i feel good when people fav my tweets? when twitter took away my faving privileges it sucked because i kept trying to fav and sometimes i look thru my favs to look at all the cool tweets and i couldnt fav! so those tweets i didnt fav were lost forever. i rly like faving tweets.

-          Olivia, @FAKEGIRL500

Follower-following ratio only becomes important in my consideration to followback if someone follows significantly more users than they are followed by, and even then, there are exceptions. I’d say what is more important is the absolute number of accounts followed – when someone exceeds 1,000 accounts followed, I generally take this as a signal that they no longer use their Twitter timeline to consume content, or even then, would be very unlikely to see my content if it were to enter their stream.

-          Adrian @AJEbsary

the way i see it, there is a hierarchy of fav value that derives from the nature of one’s relationship with the other user in question. i.e. a fav from a close friend who often favs can mean less emotionally than a fav from someone who rarely favs you. Sometimes favs can take on whole other shades of meaning—favs on a selfie, for example, carry a lot of weight becaue that person is literally fav-ing your face. i guess the main point i was thinking about with fav hierarchy is that sometimes i will recieve a fav that really makes me happy, and others less so, based on my relationship with the person. the same reasoning applies to my process when faving some1 else—i fav for a lot of different reasons, from flirting to thanking someone for following me to ending conversations that i am done with to simply reminding someone i exist. i guess the latter is the entire reason for having a twitter lol.

-          Ezra, @ezra_marc


[1] Marshal McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York:  McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1967), 123-34.

[2] J. Falkinger, “Attention economies,” Journal of Economic Theory: 133.1 (2007), 267.

[3] Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” in Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings, ed. David Farrel Krell (Toronto: Harper Perennial Modern Thought, 2008), 311-41.

[4] Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” 322.

[5] Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” 323.

[6] David I. Waddington, “A Field Guide to Heidegger: Understanding ‘The Question Concerning Technology’,” Educational Philosophy and Theory 37.4 (2005) 574.

[7] Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” 323.

[8] Brad Troemel, “Athletic Aesthetics,” The New Inquiry, May 10, 2013, accessed August 21, 2013, http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/athletic-aesthetics/.

[9] Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” 326.

[10] For an example of how such services have been used to frame examinations of user behaviour within Twitter, see the following “influence”-centred study: Huy Nguyen and Rong Zheng, “A Data-driven Study of Influences in Twitter Communities,” arXiv: 1307.4264v1[cs.SI](2013).

[11] “How it Works,” Klout Corporation, accessed August 21, 2013. http://klout.com/corp/how-it-works

[12] Jaron Lanier in Seth Stevenson, “What Your Klout Score Really Means,” Wired Business, April 24, 2012, accessed August 21, 2013, http://www.wired.com/business/2012/04/ff_klout/all/.

[13] See the case of Siam Fiorella, within the Toronto Marketing industry: Stevenson, “What Your Klout Score Really Means.”

[14] McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 127.

[15] Samuel Butler in McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 126.

[16] McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 126.

[17] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004), 6.

[18] See, in particular, Mattesich’s critique of hyperreality in Richard Mattesich, “Accounting representation and the onion model of reality: a comparison with Baudrillard’s orders of simulacra and his hyperreality,” Accounting Organizations and Society 28 (2003), 451-4.

[19] Nathan Jurgenson, “Digital Dualism versus Augmented Reality,” The Society Pages: Cyborgology, February 24, 2011, accessed August 22, 2013, http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2011/02/24/digital-dualism-versus-augmented-reality/

[20] Nathan Jurgenson, “Towards Theorizing an Augmented Reality,” The Society Pages: Sociology Lens, October 5, 2009, accessed August 22, 2013, http://thesocietypages.org/sociologylens/2009/10/05/towards-theorizing-an-augmented-reality/.

[21] McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 128.

[22] Brian Droitcour, “Public Spaces,” The New Inquiry, October 29, 2012, accessed Aug 22, 2013, http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/public-spaces/

The Expulsion

Thursday, June 27th, 2013

the fall_edited-1

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Expulsion_from_the_Garden_of_Eden

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adam_and_Eve

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snakes_and_Ladders

This collage is the first in a series I am working on to do with simulations and echoes of the Garden of Eden narrative.

The Judgement

Friday, June 14th, 2013

the judgement_edited-1

Life Could Be A Dream

Monday, June 10th, 2013

Dear Desktop

flood narrative

Thursday, June 6th, 2013

flood narrative

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noah’s_Ark

the escalator

Sunday, June 2nd, 2013

the escalator

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Escalator

i saw this image of a still escalator with fashionable-looking watches sitting on many of its steps in a recent dream. it reminded me of the timeline.

Semiotic Defense Mechanisms

Friday, April 5th, 2013

title

There are lots of things I say on the internet that make me feel vulnerable. When I express my feelings I feel shy. When I try to say intellectual things I get worried about sounding like a know-it-all or missing the point. When I try to enter conversations with people, I am scared of facing rejection. When I have direct answers or comments for people, I get nervous about coming off as bossy or rude. Things like this. The list goes on. Text-based communication has an intimidating, neurosis-inducing permanence to it that just makes me go crazy. How to deal?

Here are some of the semiotic defense mechanisms I’ve noticed myself using:

The Tilde ~

The tilde has this way of making everything look so playful and “ironic” that totally eases my nerves around writing any stream of genuine thought I have. The tilde is like a piece of fluffy padding that turns what might have been pretentious jargon or naive sentiment into flirting.

For example:

tilde

The Heart <3

The heart has similar intonations to the tilde, but with a more loving touch. In this way, it can be used to shield hateful or aggressive comments with a sense of “good intention”. It works well with underhanded compliments.

For example:

heart2

At the same time, the heart also does a good job of adding a touch of “distance” to forward and affectionate compliments. When expressing admiration for someone with whom your power relations might be ambiguous or uneven, the heart acts as a coy buffer. It can be useful for initiating intimacy.

For example:

heart

 *The Asterisk Bracket*

For some reason, the asterisk seems to have almost replaced the role of the quotation mark in internet speak. In the “postmodern” world, we have developed a hypersensitive paranoia around being unable to adequately express ourselves through the current palimpsestial vocabulary we have to work with – “thus” “everything” “must” “be” “put” “in” “quotations.”

Perhaps even quotations are now insufficient? Enter the asterisk bracket.

For example:

Sometimes the asterisk bracket seems to do more than quotations, though, in that it can also serve to italicize the bracketed word.

For example:

asterisk

The Exclamation Point!

I see the exclamation point as an overcompensating effort to counter any and all potential interpretations of “bitchy” tone with excessive enthusiasm. The difficulty in conveying tone without an audio component tends to drive a fixation with making sure to not come off as rude or upset. The exclamation point seems a common remedy to this worry, despite “excitement” not usually being the appropriate voice to assume. Better safe than sorry I guess.

For example:

exclam

Extraaaaaaa Letters

Although I don’t see or use this convention so frequently anymore, adding extra letters on to words is a totally classic method of message-padding. Extra letters are able to exaggerate excitement or whiney-ness. By this means of hyperbole, the speaker can blatantly depreciate the genuineness of their statement.

For example:

letters

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