We’re in a time where whatever is presented to us as discourse on Facebook, Twitter or any of the other platforms out there, may or may not come from humans, bots, or someone/a group with a specific agenda irrespective of what you say or respond. We’ve seen it at the political level, with outside influences on elections, we see it in things like gamer gate, and in critiques of the last Star Wars movie. It creates damage on a societal level, and it damages people individually. To quote Angela Watercutter, the author of the mentioned Star Wars article,

…it gets harder and harder to have an honest discussion […] when some of the speakers are just there to throw kerosene on a flame war. And when that happens, when it’s impossible to know which sentiments are real and what motivates the people sharing them, discourse crumbles. Every discussion […] could turn into a […] fight — if we let it.

Discourse disintegrates I think specifically when there’s no meaningful social context in which it takes place, nor social connections between speakers in that discourse. The effect not just stems from that you can’t/don’t really know who you’re conversing with, but I think more importantly from anyone on a general platform being able to bring themselves into the conversation, worse even force themselves into the conversation. Which is why you never should wade into newspaper comments, even though we all read them at times because watching discourse crumbling from the sidelines has a certain addictive quality. That this can happen is because participants themselves don’t control the setting of any conversation they are part of, and none of those conversations are limited to a specific (social) context.

Unlike in your living room, over drinks in a pub, or at a party with friends of friends of friends. There you know someone. Or if you don’t, you know them in that setting, you know their behaviour at that event thus far. All have skin in the game as well misbehaviour has immediate social consequences. Social connectedness is a necessary context for discourse, either stemming from personal connections, or from the setting of the place/event it takes place in. Online discourse often lacks both, discourse crumbles, entropy ensues. Without consequence for those causing the crumbling. Which makes it fascinating when missing social context is retroactively restored, outing the misbehaving parties, such as the book I once bought by Tinkebell where she matches death threats she received against the sender’s very normal Facebook profiles.

Two elements therefore are needed I find, one in terms of determining who can be part of which discourse, and two in terms of control over the context of that discourse. They are point 2 and point 6 in my manifesto on networked agency.

  • Our platforms need to mimick human networks much more closely : our networks are never ‘all in one mix’ but a tapestry of overlapping and distinct groups and contexts. Yet centralised platforms put us all in the same space.
  • Our platforms also need to be ‘smaller’ than the group using it, meaning a group can deploy, alter, maintain, administrate a platform for their specific context. Of course you can still be a troll in such a setting, but you can no longer be one without a cost, as your peers can all act themselves and collectively.
  • This is unlike on e.g. FB where the cost of defending against trollish behaviour by design takes more effort than being a troll, and never carries a cost for the troll. There must, in short, be a finite social distance between speakers for discourse to be possible. Platforms that dilute that, or allow for infinite social distance, is where discourse can crumble.

    This points to federation (a platform within control of a specific group, interconnected with other groups doing the same), and decentralisation (individuals running a platform for one, and interconnecting them). Doug Belshaw recently wrote in a post titled ‘Time to ignore and withdraw?‘ about how he first saw individuals running their own Mastodon instance as quirky and weird. Until he read a blogpost of Laura Kalbag where she writes about why you should run Mastodon yourself if possible:

    Everything I post is under my control on my server. I can guarantee that my Mastodon instance won’t start profiling me, or posting ads, or inviting Nazis to tea, because I am the boss of my instance. I have access to all my content for all time, and only my web host or Internet Service Provider can block my access (as with any self-hosted site.) And all blocking and filtering rules are under my control—you can block and filter what you want as an individual on another person’s instance, but you have no say in who/what they block and filter for the whole instance.

    Similarly I recently wrote,

    The logical end point of the distributed web and federated services is running your own individual instance. Much as in the way I run my own blog, I want my own Mastodon instance.

    I also do see a place for federation, where a group of people from a single context run an instance of a platform. A group of neighbours, a sports team, a project team, some other association, but always settings where damaging behaviour carries a cost because social distance is finite and context defined, even if temporary or emergent.

    In the Open Data arena people often ask if ‘the people’ are actually ‘ready’ to deal with the availability of data. Do we have the statistical skills, the coding skills, to make data useful?
    In my presentations over the past 8 months I’ve positioned data as an object of sociality: it becomes the trigger for interaction, a trigger for the forming of connections between people. Much like photos are the social object of a site like Flickr.com, and videos are the social object of YouTube, or your daily activities are for Twitter.
    The current best example of how data can be a social object is something John Sheridan showed at the Vienna Open Data Conference last June. All legislation information in the UK has been made available as linked open data. This makes it possible to reference specific paragraphs in laws.
    In general law is generally regarded as boring and decidedly un-hip, but the availability of all this legal data as linked open data has a surprising effect: people are referencing specific paragraphs in their on-line conversations, for instance on Twitter. This is what you see in the screenshot below, where people link to specific parts of UK legal texts in the course of their conversation. From boring and useless texts (other than to legal minds that is), to the social object around which everyday conversation can revolve.

    Data is a social object. It is a trigger for citizen participation that way, a new way for people to engage with their community. And, the other way around, participation (e.g. existing participatory processes, existing conversations) is a path to data use. From this basic starting point any newly needed skills will grow.

    The internet of things, increases the role of physical objects as social objects enormously, because it adds heaps of context that can serve relationships. Physical objects always have been social objects, but only in their immediate physical context. A social object is an enabler for human interaction and to form relationships around. Human networks grow, interact, change, take on meaning, through social objects. They can be the (temporary) subject of a conversation, relationships and group forming, and transactions.

    Some ‘internetted’ things in our household: Nabaztag, Chumby, Arduino board, Tikitag RFID reader.

    Making physical objects internet-aware creates a slew of possible new uses for it as social objects.
    Think of aspects like:

    Where has the object been, where is it now, where is it going?
    Who has owned this object, who owns it now?
    Where can you get it, how much is it?
    What do people think about it?
    Who is near the object now?
    Who has handled the object?
    What does it notice in its environment?
    What can this object be connected to, part of?
    What is it currently connected to or part of?
    What parts does this object consist of?
    What materials is it made of, what other uses have these materials?
    What does it take to produce it, what are alternatives?
    How can I reuse this object, where do I dispose of it?
    Can you create/copy this object yourself?
    What uses does this object have, what uses have people come up with?
    Where can I use it?
    How does it work?
    Who designed or manufactured it, what else did they design or manufacture?
    What are its physical attributes?
    Is this object useful today, will I need it? (think connecting your umbrella to the weather forecast for today)
    Why did the object change hands?
    How does it relate to other objects?
    What other objects did it interact with and where?
    What other objects did it come in contact and where?
    What does the object look/feel like, in different settings, colors etc?
    What does the object look/feel like when used in different ways?
    What other stuff do people that use this object use?

    And if you add more sensors or actuators to a product (object hacks so to speak), the list grows accordingly.
    My explorations into FabLab and transient technology are meant as experimenting around this internet of things.