Mar 152017

There is a useful and important question that we can ask about social media, and what we understand to be the emerging role of the social media producer. Does our view of people shape the methodology that we adopt in thinking about social media, or does our view of the available methodologies shape the way that we think about how people use social media? The reason that this is important is because if we adopt different approaches to the study of social media, then we will necessarily arrive at different conclusions and different expectations about the people who are involved in producing them.

I want to use this blog to sketch-out some ideas and principles that I hope to adopt when developing my studies of social media, and the associated creative practices that underpin them. To be direct, my starting point is humanistic and empirical, it is based on the idea that what matters most about the study of media is what people become in the practice of sharing and creating different media products and relationships.

This means thinking about the dispositions that people adopt, the patterns of behaviour that they exhibit, the accomplishments that they seek to achieve, and the conceptual framework and language routines that they articulate in the process of enacting their social presence. This is an approach that is informed by symbolic interactionism, which is a way of pragmatically thinking about our engagements in our individual and social life.

Herbert Mead, the renowned American anthropologist/sociologist, framed the pragmatic view of human life in these terms: firstly, we define ourselves as individuals in relation to our social encounters and situations; second, we define our social encounters in relation to our individual creative dispositions; and finally, we use symbolic forms, such as language, communication practice and media, to establish social relationships which are capable of creating new opportunities for mutual understanding.

This view sees social life, and the individuals that make up the social body, as the primary source of all human undertakings and accomplishments. This means that all the patterns of behaviour, all the concepts that account for our behaviour, and all the meanings that we negotiate between different agents acting in the social body, are observable, and are made meaningful as a process of negotiation, reflection and action.

Therefore, any study of social media has to recognise that it is people, themselves, who create the meanings that we collectively hold about the nature of the world, and so studying and accounting for the way that people make sense of the world is the primary purpose of our reflections on the way that things are, and how we fit with them.

It is the meanings that people create and negotiate that give us the options to act in particular ways, some established, and some emerging and different. And it is people who share the symbolic frameworks of language and mediated representation that are part of the cooperative and developmental process that results in our interactions with the world in purposeful ways.

Now, taking the symbolic interactionist framework at face value, it is possible to map-out some principles and themes that might help to form a view of social media, and the manner in which it is possible to study the forms and practices that social media represents.

This is a sketch and reflection on the practices that I’ve developed in two modules that I teach at De Montfort University, Leicester Media School. TECH1002 Social Media and Technology, and TECH3022 Advanced Social Media Productions. The first module is an introduction to media culture and social media practices, and the latter module introduces ethnographic principles of enquiry, combined with creative and collaborative working practices, suited to emerging social media production challenges.

Reflexive Learning
Symbolic interactionists regard human agency as a primary component of social life and activity, thereby adopting a view of human agency that is reflexive and contemplative, and which is able to retain memories of former practices and states of mind, either as habits or as narrative experiences, which we can learn from and reflect on. Thus, drawing inferences about the process of what makes personal and social development possible.

Blogging – Explaining to Others
I’ve been encouraging learners to write and produce blogs that account for their experience as they learn to make media and share their media socially. There are generally three levels of reflection that I have aimed to introduce. First, how does the process of creating and developing media products feel to the individuals involved? Second, how does this process feel to the group of people who are involved? Third, asking how might the products and the process look to other people who are not involved or committed to the repertoire of meanings that are being offered?

By breaking-up the process of reflection in this way, a mature learner should be able to switch from one perspective to another, and thereby they will be able to account for their own intentions in acting and communicating in the way that they do – before accounting for how these intentions might be operationalised with other people. If we get stuck in any one of these modes, the self-observant mode for example, and are unable to imagine what they might be like for other people, then we will be unable to fulfil our potential as participations in our social situations, or feel individually satisfied at the same time.

Vlogging – Personal Reflection
Reflection isn’t a zero-sum game, however, and so identifying our own individual needs does not necessarily mean a trade-off against what we are trying to achieve socially. A useful technique to make this process tangible is the use of video reflection. I’ve only started to do this properly this year, and yet have found it to be a rich and accessible form of reflection. There seems to be something about opening-up to the webcam on a computer that allows for a more extended set of expressions of what we are thinking about.

I’ve used this process through the year in the De Montfort University Universal Design for Learning requirements, that expect lectures to be recorded or summarised on video in order to assist learners make sense of the complex nature of the topics. I was reluctant to do this initially, but I soon realised that I was benefiting from recording a summary of the topic of my lectures, and then listening to it and watching it, before posting it to YouTube.

I was never sure that I was making sense previously. Now I feel more confident that I am using the terminology of the investigative method, and the vocabulary of the topics in a more purposeful manner. I can check-in with myself and find out how I am doing, rather than waiting for the approval of other people to offer this supporting acknowledgement. It seems that I am more independent and self-actualised as a result of adopting this simple practice and turning it into a habit.

Talkaoke – Structured Discussion
One of the challenges working with first year undergraduate learners, is to develop and nurture a more extended thinking practice. It takes a long time to get learners from the UK to engage in a discussion and conversation that stays on-topic, and which focusses on the subject and the issues at hand. Literally, my experience is that within thirty-seconds the conversation gets deflected and takes a track that is only relevant to the immediate and personal experience of the learner, but which doesn’t probe or explore any of the deeper and more intractable issues that might be related to a problem or social issue.

One helpful technique that I’ve explored this year to help to redefine this lack of focus is the use of structured discussions in the form of a Talkaoke. This is a basic exercise in passing a microphone and explaining a concept or an idea without being interrupted by other learners. This means learners are able to demonstrate that they can dig deeper into an issue that would otherwise be deflected and avoided when a conversation between friends takes place.

It’s a challenge to speak to a topic for a sustained period, and the focus by the speaker as they hold the microphone is more engaged, knowing that the discussion is being recorded requires an extra level of preparedness and depth. Not everyone can do this immediately, but it’s something we can all do with practice. As long as we a prepared to have a go and reserve judgements until we listen back to the discussion afterwards.

Increasingly I have an aversion to mass-produced and industrially distributed media. I’m getting bored with the sterile and limited repertoire of concerns that are voiced in much of what forms mass media these days. Instead, I’m drawn to more independent and DIY forms of media, because they offer an alternative framework of engagement that draws on the creativity of the people who are making it, and the alternative ways of thinking that they otherwise explore.

Engaging learning through doing.
DIY media is useful because there is no one telling individuals what it is that they should be making or saying. This is a form of media production that is self-determined and draws on the interests and the inquisitiveness of the people who are making it. There is no template, there is no right and wrong, no fixed path or pattern. This is about seeing what emerges as a creative expression and as a form of individual self-discovery.

It is also a form of expression that is directly connected with the process of making something and sharing it. The sense of achievement that comes from making something for ourselves, however limited or ramshackle this might be. The DIY ethos celebrates the achievements of everyone, requiring us to turn-down our sense of judgement, or professionalism, or business acumen, or whatever, and to value the personal achievement and the expression that has been invested in a media product by individuals, rather than simply viewing media products as the outpouring of a commercial process or a factory production line.

Avoiding expensive equipment.
To engage learners in the process of creating things we have to learn to value the most immediate forms of media production, craft and technology that we have to hand. Media production learners get well drilled in the art and craft of the mainstream and industrial production techniques, particularly those required for television or radio, for example. But they have fewer opportunities to explore their creative potential in the form of their own limited, hands-on, capabilities.

If everything can be achieved by applying a pre-determined filter, or by using a technology that makes an artefact look or sound like something else that already exists, then our media becomes sterile and lifeless. Knowing that there is a person behind the process makes it more meaningful, regardless of how ramshackle it might appear.

Promoting alternative and independent points of view.
It’s essential, therefore, that we have in place a structure for learning that promotes and exposes learners to alternative forms of media practice. Particularly those forms of media practice that offer alternative opinions, expressions of identity and dynamic forms of creative practice. Simply churning-out graduates who are capable of slotting into the already established and pre-existing employment and skills structure that is represented by mainstream media is no longer tenable.

All we will end up with is a sterile and flat media culture that offers no diversity of thinking or interest, and which can only reproduce that which we already have. Where will the innovation in media forms and practices come from if we are only teaching learners how to fit into the established mould of media producers? Don’t we have a responsibility break and remake the mould from time to time?

Social Learning
One thing that is clearly breaking the mould, even as we speak, is the requirement to learn the skills and attitudes of collaborative thinking and working. The tools that are available to us in the internet age are making it much more likely that we will have to collaborate in ways that we have never done previously, on a continual and a deeper level than we have done in the past.

Collaborations skills are going to need to be richer and more socially based than the old command-and-control models of organisation development will allow. It’s going to be essential that knowledge workers will have an outlook and disposition that is essentially social, and which enhances the network potential of new data-driven tools and communication practices.

Dominance of Skills & Roles Models
Presently we are locked into a model of learning that is process driven, in which the focus is on how we manage the techniques of project development, rather than focussing on the relationships that are fostered by the people involved. This means that we are continually turning-over the ground of set skills-pathways and skills-models that come from a previous age – the mass production and factory age.

The role-models that are advance in this model also tend to come from the same community of practitioners that are identified with tightly-defined set of production techniques. The value of people who can discuss social imperatives is not part of this grouping. How we feel and understand what things mean, is not necessarily something we focus on when putting a production team together, though in an age of increased anxiety, this might be worth pursuing.

Shift to Practical & Experiential Engagement
What we learn from practice and experience will be different from the kind of analysis that we can derive from our understanding of process and systems. While these systems are important and provide the backbone of a set of media practices, the social context in which they are enacted are equally important. One gives life to the other, and to focus on a purely rationalist or instrumental view of human activity and motivation produces a sterile and alienating experience.

Peer-Learning Practices
This is why continuous peer-learning techniques are essential in the development of a social approach to project management and development. Learning is no longer terminated upon graduation. It has to continue and continue to be undertaken for the rest of our lives. So, let’s make these learning practices as accessible and enjoyable as possible. The symbolic interactionist approach recognises that all social activity is learnt activity. We continually learn from one another. To learn in isolation is going against our natural dispositions, perhaps suited to less than twenty percent of the population. So why aren’t we accessing those social learning practices that work so well in informal play or recreation?

Playfulness and Alternative Learning Practices
There is a developing trend towards the use of gamification techniques to enhance learning and comprehension. Simply regurgitating the ‘tram-lines’ models of learning that have been imposed in the mass-media age will not suffice. We need to look again a co-learning and participation-based models of learning that foster and nurture a sense of engagement on multiple levels, not just those that are preferred by the inspectors and supervisors of the curriculum. Humans comprehend the world in many different ways. We approach problem-solving in equally diverse ways, so why not allow learners the opportunity to explore more diverse approaches and use a wider range of practical tools that are better suited to their divergent cognitive dispositions?

Collaborative Practice
If social media is to realise its potential, not only as a mode of promotion and conversation, it also needs to be articulated as a set of collaborative platforms that ensure that work can be developed on a shared, transparent and continually engaged basis. The silo mentality of development is a difficult one to shift in the mind-set of most organisations, as it seems counter to rationalist and efficiency models of social organisation.

Stepping back and allowing self-determined and interdisciplinary teams to take the reins of a project is anathema to most project managers and systems developers, who would rather work by dividing and conquering, as each task and resource that is deployed to focus on the task is optimally deployed on a unit-by-unit basis. Russel Ackoff critiques this approach, when he questioned the ‘systems-thinking’ mind-set. His argument was as simple as: take any single component of a car and see if it achieves anything like what the car can achieve when it is operational as a whole!

Wiki Development
The tool that I’ve been using most to develop this is an instillation of MediaWiki – the system that Wikipedia runs on, and which has been installed on the DMU Commons. It requires a change of mind-set to embrace wikis as a collaborative development space, because the lack of hierarchy, the open structure and the negation of status challenges many of the received models of knowledge development that are incorporated in our public institutions.

As the symbolic interactionist tradition acknowledges, it’s not the institutions that matter, but the perceptions and the shared experiences of the people who form those institutions that make the difference. If we separate the organisation from the people then we are left with a sterile and information-process-led approach which most people seem to find to be an anathema to a happy and fulfilled working life. So why keep doing it?

Social Production Tools
Fundamentally, we have to invest in the social tools that will enable us to maintain meaningful human contact when we engage in dispersed projects and try to achieve extended common goals. Yes, different types of jobs and tasks tend to attract specific types of thinkers, but they might be so much richer and quicker to resolve if they take a more pragmatic and inclusive approach to cognitive diversity. Simply employing people with the same outlook will only produce the same responses. If we paraphrase Einstein, the way to critique one system of thinking is to deploy an alternative system of thought that that can help us to shift our perspective and bring about fresh thinking.

Before Copernicus every expert was adamant that the Earth was the centre of the universe, and that when we looked at the sunset we saw the sun setting below the horizon. After Copernicus, it was possible to demonstrate that it was a false image, and that it was actually the horizon that was rising to obscure the sun. Sunsets, however, remain beautiful and prompt a sense of wonder – so it’s win-win to be able to think both ways.

Social Evaluation Tools
This means that we need to think differently about the evaluation tools that we use to demonstrate that we are engaged in a common endeavour of value. How we look at meaningful social communication has to be understood in different terms than simply measuring the interactions and the number of people who flick a switch and stare at a screen. What are the wider outcomes that we are trying to achieve? What is the context of need and social development that we are trying to cope with? How can change and shifts in disposition be accounted for?

Either we continually try to chase our tails, and keep-up with the numbers and the metrics, or we step back and ask questions about the ethics, the value and the meaning of our social forms of communication. In my work with community media, the challenge is never to measure the audience of a community media project, but instead to ask what people become in the process of developing the relationships they establish in their practices?

By returning to the triad of pragmatic communication, associated with Pearce, we can complete the cycle of development and understanding. What are the forms of communication helping us to become? How do they help establish a sense of ‘self’? How are they valued and understood in the context of the community of practice and interest in which they are expressed? The pragmatic symbolic interaction tradition is an anti-essentialist form of thinking. It doesn’t see language as a universal trait of human nature, rather, it looks to practice and activity as the formation of our language.

The need to collaborate and meet shared social goals is what leads us to formulate language and symbolic representation. What, then, are the shared aims and goals that our present forms of symbolic representation seek to address? Our tools of symbolic communication are always shifting and changing, and in the process our goals and aims also change.

Social life is never static, it is dynamic and changing. It evolves in practice, and our reflection on that practice gives us new insight into how we can change and evolve our goals and aims continually. We are restless in this respect, because we remember that we have lived our lives one way before and we are drawn to the creative practice of trying new ways to live, new ways to interact and new ways to see the world.

Pragmatic Models of Communication
Pragmatism, then, takes the dynamic process of interaction and social engagement and asks: what do we become in the process of applying these emergent forms and practices of communication? Accounting for change is the primary need of all social enquiry. We are continually faced with change. We remember the habits of the past, and sometimes we long for those habits with a force that is deeply held within our being.

Periods of rapid social change are always challenging, and they displace the equilibrium and harmony that we previously established. But in time we adapt. In time we establish and incorporate fresh perspectives and the harsh lessons of life get incorporated in our language repertoires and routines. It is impossible for us to live in a word of no memory, though it is often difficult for us to move on from the past. We are driving into the future with our eyes firmly fixed on the rear-view mirror, (to steal an analogy).

Affordances & Constraints of Technology
Of course, technology plays an important part in the development of our dispositions and sense-making capabilities. As technology changes, so does our ability reflect on the mechanisms by which we engage with the world, recall information about the world, and engage with one another. The McLuhan’esque determination that it is the technology which shapes our comprehension of the world is only partly true. Technology plays a role, but it does not exist in isolation, and humans still have to make sense of the technology that they engage with and use.

A pragmatic approach to technology seeks to understand the relationship between our sense of self, our sense of the social group in which we operate, and the media and symbolic forms that we have to hand, that allow us to go beyond our immediate bodily senses and capabilities. Any examination of the technology of communication cannot be deterministic. Technology and media practices do not define the human experience. They may help to shape that experience, but they do not totalise it or finalise it.

There is no universal fulcrum on which the world rests. Our experience is the product of the social construction of meaning, which is shifting and developmental, emergent and partial. We never have the full picture and we never will make sense of everything. Our experience is a process of negotiation, and technology and media forms are only one aspect of that process.

Dispersed Meaning Processes
In a sense, the preponderance of social media technologies has helped us to see the world in a different light. We are no longer embedded in mass-media models of subject-object dualisms, and instead can locate the evidence that humans are creative, inventive and generative. Yes, to a large extent we learn by imitation, but if encouraged and supported appropriately, we have the potential to follow richer streams of generative intent.

Mainstream media organisations now spend much of their time mining social media interactions to figure out if they can offer potentially meaningful content to a broad audience. This is a significantly different process than the mass media model of industrial media production. It looks to people and publics to find out what they regard as meaningful, rather than simply imposing content on a uniform and mass audience.

Adapting to these changes is taking time. The levels of collaborative and co-production are emergent, as Henry Jenkins attests, this is a model in which meanings are circulated by users or agents in a network, moving beyond the simple producer-audience binary that has been the mainstay of mass media entertainment through the Twentieth Century.

The task, then, is to prepare for the post-transmission age, in which dispersed and distributed meanings networks are the norm, and the experiences of humans within these networks are given primacy. This will take us beyond the institutions and industry practices of the present, and open a dynamic and shifting mediascape that is driven by individual and unique expressions of belonging, participation, creativity and difference.

Diminution of Importance of Transmission Models of Communication
Gone are the days of reliance on fixed communication pathways. Media will have to work harder to establish a presence within the plethora of social worlds and multiple reality-frameworks that people experience. We might not yet witness the full effect of this change, but it’s becoming more apparent in the dispersal of micro-gestures that make up social media communications platforms and systems. Being able to tune in and out of these reality frameworks is going to be the required skill of future generations.

Rhizomic vs Arbolic forms of Media
Deleuze and Guattari signify this shift in the concept of de-territorialisation, and the contrast between the ‘arbolic’ and the ‘rhyzomic’ structures underpinning knowledge and information exchange and development. Eric Raymond describes this as the ‘cathedral and the bazaar’ model of thinking. We may well continue to invest in long-lasting structures and social spaces, as they serve a functional purpose, but they are slow to respond to social change and aren’t based on flexible forms of thinking. Whereas the rhyzomic forms of collaboration and co-development are fluid and continually emergent, offering change many times over, at a rapid pace and in unpredictable ways.

Practical Tools
The challenge, then is to build a practical set of tools that can help us to adapt to these generative models of social experience, and which help us to realise the potential of participative models of media engagement. These are often labelled as part of the digital literacies model of thinking, and there is a great value in exploring this framework of practice. It will be more effective, however, if we can tie these ideas to the symbolic interactionist methodology, because a lot of the groundwork has already been done, and the simplicity of the precepts have been established.

The challenge is to keep thinking, to keep reading, to keep writing and to keep exploring and making points about how all of this works, what difference it might make in practice, and how we can adopt forms of analysis and evaluation that aren’t fixed to speculative or deterministic ideas. Let’s form a view of people that respects agency and then find a methodology that can account for the creativity that is associated with being human.