Emails and admin this morning, before heading in for the C3RI seminar. Ben Light’s reshceduled talk on disconnecting with social media was a lot more interesting than I had expected. It outlined the main points in his forthcoming book, which seeks to establish a theoretical framework for thinking about ‘disconnective practices’. These extend from the obvious and blunt turning off of the router, and include a range of negotiations with software limitations, physical and location based limitations, and limiting behaviours that result in smaller, incremental disconnections: “shades of non-use”.
Starting from Steven Lukes’s model of 3D power relations, he described a range of ways that users exert this power, through for eg non-use, friend culling, balkanising social media services, and limiting use in particular physical spaces. I was most interested in the incremental strategies such as ‘half-viewing’: reading the message in the notifications bar but not in the app, so that the sender isn’t aware that it’s been received. This is the kind of tentative, ambiguous connection/disconnection edge that gets me excited about social media. Is it about managing information glut? Is it about partial retreat from compulsive connectivity? I am really interested in the paradoxical pull to connect and desire to avoid overload.
Broadly, he’s using actor network theory to describe all of this, and typically, this plays out like a report rather than an analysis of the implications or motivations of disconnective practices. There were some interesting questions about where the edges of online disconnective practices clash with offline ones: eg, meeting someone you unfriended in the corridor at work. How do disconnective practices operate across the blended spectrum of communicative acts? What happens when they fall off the edge of the digital into actual social interaction? Where’s this being theorised? (Ben thinks: maybe nowhere.)
Can these shades of non-use be seen as active resistance or passive negotiation of a pre-defined interface/territory? They’re not proscribed actions, although social media services often shut down over-use (overfriending) etc.
The talk mentioned a paper called Disciplines of Listening by Kate Crawford [pdf] that I spent the afternoon reading. It’s right in my area – I’m generally sold on anything that opens with Crary. The metaphor of listening that it proposes for social media (Twitter in particular) connects interestingly with much later work about how digital culture is oral culture written down. It’s about lurking, but it also talks about attention in ways that make sense to me. The ‘ambient awareness’ that social media bring sounds persuasive. The listening metaphor brings in lots of new(ish) ways of thinking about the flow of information: eavesdropping, overhearing, whispering, shouting, etc.
I also spent some time reading this article by Jacob Silverman, that was being discussed on Twitter a lot today. There are a few bits I disagree with but it reads surprisingly like a summary of my current thinking. I also read this interview with Seth Kim-Cohen about his book Against Ambient. Interesting that a lot of sound-based theory is finding its way to me at the moment.