Social media and protocol

Social media is the largest mainstream technological development of recent years. While it has undeniably lead to an increase in the interactions we have with others, I would argue that these interactions also inherently seem less meaningful due to more stringent mediation. The latest generation of social networking sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Digg, is characterized by highly formalized, high-frequency content formats—streams of short messages, status updates, short videos, and other forms of content, all apparently aimed towards instant gratification for short attention-spans. It appears that the more structure we impose on communications, the more homogeneous and predictable they become.

A phone conversation for instance has a particular protocol, yet is largely freeform. The same could be said for email, still the ‘killer app’ of online communications due to its asynchrony and formal flexibility. While it has competition from IM, SMS and online networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, email will not face extinction anytime soon.

Many have also written about the collective consciousness in relation to social media, referring to an emerging sense of connectedness by which we increasingly operate as members of a larger community and less as autonomous individuals. The theory is enticing and, one might think, validated through observation. Many sites, for instance, bring to the forefront the affinities and relationships found in content generated by individuals, such as photos bookmarked in ffffound and videos uploaded to YouTube. When these affinities occur, however, are they predicated upon shared experience, as we might assume, or do they occur because of the structures and protocols present within the systems we use? Could it be that the collective consciousness that some see in social media is an illusion created by restricted means of expression?

One could claim that communication is increasingly shaped, even instantiated, by the technologies we create and employ, through the protocols (the conventions) they establish. Naturally, people seek convention for a sense of security and belongness among a particular community, and the communication technologies we adopt commoditize conventions. This is apparent for example in the way in which Twitter appropriates the convention of short messaging.

Following that thought, social media does create a sense of presence and collectiveness, though not through shared experience, as might be assumed, but through protocol. Which finally raises the question—returning to the initial argument that online mediated interactions are becoming less meaningful—whether we need platforms for interaction that are as accessible as current social media, yet ultimately more expressive.

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