Thursday, January 21, 2010

Flow and Networked Culture

I just read a timely article entitled "What is Implied by Living in a World of Flow" (English translation at written by Hubert Guillaud in French and posted to, which I commend to you. The article reports on the concept of "flow" and its implications on how we live today as presented by danah boyd in her talk at the Web 2.0 Expo in New York in November, 2009. boyd, who styles her name with only lower case letters, is a recent Ph.D. from iSchool (School of Information) at the University of California at Berkeley and Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, who works as a Social Media Researcher at Microsoft Research New England.
Flow can be described as the information stream that floats all around us. We consume it, add to it, and redirect and share pieces of it. One of the definitions of consciousness is that it is sensory awareness. One could characterize information as that of which one has sensory awareness. The Matrix film trilogy certainly did so with the image of the streams of computer 1's and 0's flowing on screen to symbolize the Matrix’s reality created by the sentient master computer.
Aspects of the world of flow reside in social media such as Facebook, Twitter and blogs in which information is delivered, largely unedited, in real time from a multitude of self-selected sources for consumption by large numbers and often by the public at large. It has been said that information posted to the Internet is forever. It is certainly true that no information posted to the Internet is truly private even when one applies the privacy filters routinely and dutifully provided by online programs.
boyd is quoted in the article as saying, "Those who are most enamored with services like Twitter talk passionately about feeling as though they are living and breathing with the world around them, peripherally aware and in tune, adding content to the stream and grabbing from it when it is appropriate. Of course, this state is extremely delicate, plagued by information overload and weighed down by frustrating tools."
At 60 years old, I somewhat resemble boyd’s remarks.  I admit to being an “information junkie,” craving the almost hourly stimuli of an overflowing in-box with postings from news aggregators of both the progressive and conservative ilk including a few friends who share their notable newly received postings regularly, as well as being online with Facebook, Twitter and blogs, including my own blogs. This information flow is added to the magazines and other publications that reach me through the prosaic mail.
This wealth of information does make me feel more connected to the world at large in the sense that I feel like I know what’s going on in the world. Of course, I recognize in my rational mind that I don’t really know what’s really going on in the world and that I am merely comforted by an illusion of knowledge (shades of The Matrix). I don’t believe I’m alone in this state of illusion.
I suspect this is some of the fragility that boyd addresses in the flow – an illusion of “what is,” when it is really not that at all. For example, think about the privacy settings and privacy notices in your online programs. They’re there to satisfy the corporate lawyers whose job is to protect their online clients, and they’re there to give you the illusion that you are protected with a veneer of privacy as you share your stuff (writings, comments, photos and where you’ve been on the Internet) online. If you live online at all, try “Googling” yourself, and you will find that your name pops up in surprising places where you have been referenced without your knowledge.
boyd comments on four important characteristics of the world of flow or networked culture that are worth noting:
  • [Non-]Democratization: Democratization, often vaunted as a value of networked culture and mentioned as “leveling the playing field” for everyone including the person-on-the-ground in China or Africa, just doesn’t live up to its hype. Just because everyone has access to information doesn’t mean the information that is presented represents everyone. Sophistication in controlling the means of content delivery prevails.
  • Stimulation: Content which is most attention grabbing is content that gets viewed and shared, giving it disproportionate weight as compared with content that might actually have value and be important. Think about the 6:00 o’clock news and the dominance of human interest stories or the celebrity gossip magazines, columns and online sites.
  • Homophily: Homophily refers to the phenomenon, described in Bill Bishop’s book, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart, of people’s tendency to be attracted to and congregate with like-minded people. Humans’ proclivity to being comfortable and fitting in means that we stick with whom we know, what we like and what makes us feel like “we’re okay."
  • Power:  The old adage “Information is Power” couldn’t be more true in the world of flow. However, the adage needs to be updated to say, “The ability to control the mechanisms of the delivery of information is power.” Think whistleblowers and how their information has no power until it makes it into the public eye.
"To be relevant today requires understanding context, popularity and reputation,” Guillard quotes boyd in his article. I think this is particularly sage advice to those who disdain the networked culture, acknowledging its existence, but not its relevance to everyone’s daily activities today. boyd agrees that “Right now, it’s [the networked culture is] one big mess. But the key is . . . to find ways to surface content in whatever context it resides.”
Towards the end of the Guillard article, he writes about boyd’s experience while making her presentation at the Web 2.0 Expo that is worth noting, because it is scary for people like me who are frequent public speakers and presenters. As boyd made her presentation, a Twitter wall was projected behind her, which she could not see, of all the Tweets being posted live about her presentation as she was speaking. She could not help but notice this, because the body language, murmurs, snickering, and outright laughter from the audience was disruptive – an electronic form of heckling wrought large on stage.
What was being said about the speaker “behind her back” was literally projected on a screen behind her back. In a truly McLuhanesque manner, the medium had become the message, and it raises all sorts of epistemological questions of the objects becoming the subject, subject-object relationship, and the dual nature of communication.

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