Dr. Mariann Hardey

Digitally on.

Speaker, Writer, Academic.

Durham University Lecturer.

I do stuff for the BBC.

Feminist & lovely.

Slanguage of social media

I am lonely and allergic to the modern workaday

November 2015

In 2010, Professor Rowland Atkinson (then University of York, now as Chair at the University of Sheffield) and I embarked on an unusual mission; to identify those 'outside the rush of the information age' - the disconnected. We posed several advertisements in the London Review of Books and received, much to our surprise, a flurry of global responses. To date, we have conducted interviews with respondents from 39 different countries. 

Moving house last week, I found some additional disconnected correspondence. One of my favourites, from which I include extracts below, are material from an American poet who - to quote - enjoyed:

'...shamefacedly enclosing [...] the full-page one from Sting from New York [...] The long handwritten one from the philosopher Mary Midgley (which I had reduced so that it will fit down the middle of one page) [and] mentions an objection to the persistent intrusion [...] into ordinary life.' 

As I remind myself to get out the dustpan and brush to sweep up the name-droppings, these are some wonderful social, cultural, economic, political and even intellectual justifications. The justifications include, as another self-identified disconnectee had described, to 'instinctively' make more of a reclusive mode of living - 'unapologetically'.  

In Network Stories¹, the Georgetown Law Professor Julie Cohen sets out to formulate a theory of "the network" as a whole. Cohen is close to the right frame here and when she cites Rachel Carson (1962) who named the 'natural environment' and later James Boyle (1969) who named the 'cultural environment', we have a near complete picture of appropriating the new complex interconnections of relations centred on the interdependcy of resources as a networked ecosystem.

Where Cohen and I differ, is a theory of "the network" as a whole. Carving out such a differentiated environment is important, however, this method ignores the complexity of Network Stories and indeed network life not as separate entities, but integrated into the lives, freedoms, politics, culture, society and more that already exist. To give Cohen her due, she is writing from a legal context. Clearly the configuration of the internet and technology shift legal direction and individual freedoms that merit the distinction of the sum of network experiences vs actions of the individual and other patterns and involvements that their interactions create. 

In October this year, I had the pleasure of interviewing a young man from Greece about his method of disconnection. He took very seriously the sentiment of friends who automatically linked the internet and social media to 'innovation' and 'democracy'. This young man, let us call him Ionnais, stated how: 

...we must find ways to describe what degrees of separation really mean, how they enable, how they hold us back. What we will be able to create and how everything we do has to go beyond a group on a webpage or social network [...] my story is the lone wolf [...] so called to protect my freedom and be outside any threat. Will social media give me my freedom? no. Can I give me my freedom, yes, to some degree. 

This is where Rowland and my interest in connection continue and why, five years on from the original fieldwork, I continue to collect 'data' as the stories of everyday life.  We need these stories as a contrast to the overture of the effect and impact of social media. Working with a client last month they rejected Oxis's latest finding that new members of social networks in the UK had plateaued to less than 1% since 2011. Clearly they had other motivations to uphold the sharp incline and predominance of social media (a new product to promote). However, it is important to remember that the patterns of interaction are much more than how many new users are on Instagram / Facebook / Swarm / Twitter etc. 

This requires nothing less than the appropriation of the environmental or ecosystem metaphor along with the merits of social-spatial reasoning and rhetoric. To return to our American poet, the equivalent of 'knocking on the inner door to my flat.' 

I think we can make three arguments: 

  1. the now techno-old debate about what kind of 'space' the social environment was and is. We've moved on from the separation of cyber/digital and real spaces, yet caution here; if we assert that digital is peopled by real users who are real people who experience the space as real, then we ignore those who experience the same space as different but connected - with acts in both instances having consequences for the other (see Dan Hunter²);
  2. next the now tedious debate about whether there should be new spaces at all, misses the common spatial experience of individuals - that we are led by place, property, boundaries and perceived conflict of intrusion into and preservation of private space; 
  3. this final insight draws on the fives years of 'disconnected' data to suggest a very different way of understanding emergent, often contested, mediated interactions. The importance of this question is not what social media are (see an earlier post for ten myths and eight counter-theses), but what kind of a world that includes social media will become? 

The final point, I'd be very interested in answering... 


¹Julie E. Cohen. Originally published in Symposium, Cultural Environmentalism @ 10, 70 LAW & CONTEMP. PROBs. (James Boyle & Lawrence Lessig, eds., Spring). San Francisco (2007). 

²Dan Hunter, Cyberspace as Place and the Tragedy of the Digital Anticommons, 91 Cal. L. Rev. 439-75 (2003).