I’ve been trying to sit with some of my frustrations about sociable technologies lately. I’ve been trying to work through them in order to understand why Liz’s frustration with blogging research resonates and why i start twitching every time people put together panels that pit blogs against “big” journalism. I wanted to let go of my boiling anger over the fact that YASNS do not look like “real” social networks.
I realized that all of these concerns come from a common root. Sociable technologies are all built on metaphors. They are often an attempt to model a set of practices already known in everyday life. Yet, as models, the technologies are not the same as the metaphors on which they are based. The result is an entirely new form that encourages entirely new practices.
Metaphors are not new in the technological world. Email’s metaphor was built into its naming. Yet, today, when we talk about email, we can draw on the metaphor of mail, but we all know that email is something entirely different. It is a fundamentally new communication system, not simply an electronic form of its predecessor.
My frustration with academics, press and conference organizers exists because the primary way to handle these new technologies is to address them in metaphoric terms. This perspective comes from a distanced vantage point.
What is special (and magnificently more frustrating) about blogs is that they stem from many metaphors, including newspapers/magazines, journals/diaries, and log notebooks. No wonder people are up in arms screaming that it’s not like a newspaper, it’s like a diary! or vice versa. They’re both right and wrong. If you’re stuck in a metaphoric understanding of blogging, the conflicting metaphors are problematic and discount your approach to the system.
Now that most people are on email, it is rare to have to explain that form. But when people were starting up, it was confusing. My grandparents thought that i couldn’t write because my emails were strewn with spelling errors, lacked capitalization and were often fragments. Nowadays, they get it because they get that email is different than letters.
With blogging and YASNS, people haven’t “gotten it” yet. Even many of the people creating these technologies still think that they’re building out the metaphors. Of course, if they stay trapped in the metaphor, they’re doomed to failure. It is crucial to understand that YASNS and blogs are different than their metaphoric precursors.
This is precisely why it’s bloody hard to study/discuss these technologies without being a practitioner. Distance is valuable as a researcher, but it’s also limiting. You need to engage with the culture at a deep level in order to study it. Because digital technology cultures are so peculiar, you need to be involved at an intimate level. Being a lurker is just not the same. It is the practice of engaging with these technologies that makes you able to move beyond the metaphor.
[Also posted at apophenia; more comments there]