Peak StreamMode

Bonnie Stewart has a great post over at her TheoryBlog on the state of Twitter. The post attempts to pull together the problems of the New Orality of social media, which seems to have somehow combined the worst aspects of conversation and print:

Because lately secondary orality via digital media seems like a pretty nasty, reactive state of being, a collective hiss of “you’re doing it wrong.” Tweets are taken up as magnum opi to be leapt upon and eviscerated, not only by ideological opponents or threatened employers but by in-network peers…because the Attention Economy rewards those behaviours.

This is a pretty important point. Conversation works both because interlocutors share context and because listeners and speakers work hard to see the world through each other’s eyes. Sperber and Wilson, in Relevance Theory, go so far as to say that our default assumption in language is that speakers will always be maximally relevant, and when they seem not to be our default assumption will be that our understanding is incomplete, not that the the speaker was being intentionally obscure or sporadically inconsistent.

In fact, so ingrained is the language instinct to try to see the world through our conversational partner’s eyes that we use this as a sort of trick in pedagogy. Have a student explain something to another student, and suddenly the speaker opens up a whole new level of self-analysis. The words that made so much sense in the internal monologue fall apart as we try to speak them to another, surfacing unanswered questions in things we thought we had down pat. Somewhere the model is wrong.

Alas, whatever the evolutionary hacks are that cause that sudden emergence of dual consciousness. they haven’t caught up to Twitter. And as our contexts become more fragmented, we don’t know enough about individuals to know what seems out of place and what doesn’t. In conversation, I know that Bonnie is very far from racist — if she perhaps disagrees that the cop who shot Michael Brown should not be immediately named and states that my mind is going to try to reconcile that with the model of Bonnie’s worldview I have. And that Sperber and Wilson principle of cognitive efficiency all but demands that I resolve the contradiction without tearing down my entire mental construct of Bonnie. This is why in normal conversation such moments can be so powerful — the cognitive dissonance between a statement and our mental model of the speaker pushes us to build a more complex model of both.

That used to be true with Old Twitter too, but as Twitter has expanded it’s fallen apart a bit. It’s not only that we know so little about some people that the dissonance never arises; it’s also, as Bonnie notes, that the attention economy rewards flame wars, scheduled outrage, and intentional misunderstandings. Find someone above you, wait for an inartful tweet, kick up publicly to the cheers of many. Watch your follower numbers grow. Repeat.

I think there’s an additional issue as well, which I blab on about a bit in Bonnie’s comment section — we’re pushing too much of our output through what I have decided to call StreamMode (that running serialization that sees all things as sequenced speech events) and too little of our output though StateMode (that iterative mode which sees our work as existing as a sort of snapshot of us and our ideas). We used to work in hybrid forms — self-contained blog posts that were serialized to RSS, Flickr collections with new photos feed. Increasingly, however, we are abandoning StateMode altogether. Instead of Flickr we have Instagram, instead of blogging we have Twitter and Tumblr. Everything is placed on a timeline, and very little is integrated in any greater way than “X came after Y”. You can take my location history, interleave it with my tweets, my Netflix viewing patterns, my Facebook likes, my GoodReads additions. It’s all just one big soup of timestamps.

StreamMode has some advantages, but it’s curious how quick it’s swallowed everything. I remember when I first saw the Facebook lifestream idea (the running log of what you had done on Facebook) back in maybe 2006 this seemed very new — this idea that it could all just be stream. Now I don’t even think people realize it was new at one point, or that there are alternate ways of ordering online experience.

These thoughts are too nascent to spend much time on yet, but throwing them out there in case someone has any suggested reading for me.



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