1 Jun 2012

All posts from 1 Jun 2012


Ghost in the Wire: The Importance of Theory

People are often suspect of theory – you’ll hear someone say “well, that’s just a theory,” as if a theory sits just one or two steps away from a guess or strong opinion. We can see this dismissive characterization in the rhetoric of some hard science skeptics – climate change deniers, intelligent design advocates – because it provides a way to assert that, indeed, their own opinion is equally as valid as the theory of some random scientist. The bias against theory becomes even more pronounced when we begin talking about the so-called “soft” sciences, the human sciences, where questions of proof dovetail with methodology and interpretation in a manner that smacks of inference rather than evidence. Fields like history, sociology, communication, and even psychology do posit theories, backed by research and evidence, but these theories tend to have an even steeper hill to climb than do theories in the material sciences.

Part of that steepness is due to the fact that these theories, unlike theories in the hard sciences, attempt to make sense of abstractions—things like culture, identity, equality, envy, uncertainty, happiness, and so on. To claim that genes are selfish, that they seek replication, and that the evidence for the claim is written into the genetic code of various subsequent generations—this seems like a fairly concrete proposition, despite the fact that few people really understand the science, much less have the capacity or resources to duplicate it. But to claim that human beings have their personality and sense of identity structured more by how they perceive others perceiving them than by any clear set of genetic, biological, or other essential personality traits (a claim with decades of hefty sociological and interpersonal research behind it) seems like a much more tenuous hypothesis. Often, folks who encounter a form of this theory believe it to be easily rebutted by the conviction (shared by many) that “we are who we are,” or some other similar sentiment.

Another factor is that when it comes to sociological theories, many people act as if theorizing is optional – as if one makes a choice to either just march ahead and use evidence in a practical, sensible way, or rather one chooses to supplement their practice with some thoeretical nicety, or one dismisses practical application in pursuit of some abstract, grand theory. But one of the fundamental lessons of most social science theory is precisely that everyone, for better or worse, is always already doing theory. They just don’t think of it as such.

Theory, as I never tire of pointing out, descends from the Greek theoria, which translates, functionally, as a “way of seeing.” When Aristotle, for example, defines rhetoric as “the ability, in each particular case, to see the available means of persuasion”, the word he actually uses to describe this act of seeing is theoresai. We see the world around us, and we make sense of it. This simple act is theorizing, no matter the ultimate grandiosity of one’s vision. The question we should be asking ourselves as media practitioners, then, is this: when it comes to digital and social media, what exactly are we seeing?

A fish, they say, never understands water because they never realize there’s an alternative medium for life. They swim, they exist, and the water is a fundamentally indistinguishable part of that existence. For us, today, the technological pervasiveness of these new, newer-than-new media have become our water, and yet we are often tasked with trying to determine which technologies provide the best opportunities for messaging, for story-telling, or for increasing consideration. The risk exists that we’ll see them like the fish sees water, and never really appreciate how our seeing informs our decisions and our practices.

I don’t want to be too prolix here, so let me instead point to a couple of illustrative questions. Let’s start with a simple one: is the Internet making communication more open or more closed? I think we tend to align with the first option more than the latter, but the answer to the question really depends upon some of our own conceptual theorizing. What do we mean by open or closed? On the one hand, we have the capacity to share more, disseminate more, interact more than ever before. The old barriers imposed by publishing costs, geography, the technical difficulties of managing feeds and writing html/css, these have all been outsourced. We have more devices that grant us more access. We have more data sets than ever before, giving us clearer pictures of what is going on in this vast digital terrain.

On the other hand, those data sets are proprietary, which means we only get partial sets. We have to trust that the companies who collect that data are providing us reliable information. Search engines confront black data holes far more often than they used to (what they call data or network “black holes” have included the majority of Internet activity for a long, long time, but they’ve never been bigger and more essential to the overall structure of online communications), with far more important data being trapped inside. While our new digital social networks have made possible the vast scope of contemporary communication, they also restrict user content, claim copyright over all user communications, can filter search results by person (thus reducing the sense of a shared, open information space), and often curtail or outright prohibit anonymity and pseudonymity. Something like Facebook Social (the comments and like features that can be incorporated into any website) gives us the possibility of spam-free, socially-tethered communication almost anywhere, with little pain. But it has a cost: we lose the capacity to argue, to experiment, to troll for fear of social or juridical censure (we saw this dynamic play out on TechCrunch).

Point being: if you prioritize dissemination and ease, and define openness as an attribute of the flow of communication, things are pretty damn open. But if you prioritize control over information, and if you conceptualize openness as something beyond or before the act of distributing a message, i.e. as an attribute of the composition of a message, then things have become epically closed.

Here’s a second query: what makes social media actually social? This is the sort of question that seems so obvious, so facile, that it can be readily dismissed as a sort of navel-gazing exercise. And yet the power of social networks and the function of social media depend on getting the social part right. How do we understand that idea? How do we measure it? There is an awful lot of research on this that moves beyond merely the supposition of self-evident obviousness. Social networks, for example, can be subdivided into types; for example: discussion networks (those contacts who you actually discuss topics of interest with, whether the topics originate with the contact or with you), diffusion (of ideas) networks, and geographic networks (shared physical proximity). They can be defined by tie strength (weak or strong). Relationships within networks are structured by something called “social capital,” which has been the subject of theorizing by many, many scholars over the years.

I’m not even talking about modeling a social network here, or understanding the difference in complex networks between a random network structure and a scale-free network, or identifying different measures of centrality, transitivity, or balance. I’m simply noting that even if we never attempt to understand the structural “health of a network” through social graph analysis, we still make assumptions about the underlying nature of sociality, and that these assumptions, no matter how incorrect or uninformed, are theoretical. They’re just often not very sound theoretical assumptions. Here’s an example that may seem counter-intuitive: it turns out that in many instances, the best social bridges (people who can disseminate ideas from one social group to another social group, where the two groups in question have very few connections), are often individuals with relatively few overall contacts. In other words, not the popular kids, not the “thought leaders” or “social media experts” everyone is following – we’ll see why this is the case during the summer quarter.

Point being: if we’re “seeing” the social in social media as a process of more people following or interacting with more people, we’ll miss out on the granularity and variability of actual social functions and relationships. We will, in other words, be bad theorists.

This is why theory remains an important part of our media studies. As Scott Macklin often notes, “there’s nothing as practical as a good theory.” Whatever choices one makes as a media professional, it’s worth taking some time to reflect on one’s own “way of seeing” the digital and social media around them, if only to make us aware of our own (often implicit) suppositions. Because, after all, we’re smarter, and better, than fish.

At least that’s my theory.


read more
Ghost in the Wire: The Importance of Theory