The popular overuse of the phrase “social network” has aligned the concept more with its modern signifiers (Facebook, Twitter) than with its significance. The social network refers to a series of ritualized interactions and actions that reinforce social ties, therefore, a larger cohesion is dependent on a series of smaller, individual actions.
If Vincent Miller defines phatic communications as having “purely social (networking) and not informational or dialogic intents” (Miller, 387), therefore, “real information” (Miller, 395) must be the opposite (i.e. informational and/or dialogic). However, is it even possible to have any type of communication that is not purely social? The dissemination of information itself tends to serve an exclusively social purpose (if we think about academia, the news…), one, I might add, that functions on a platform much farther from dialogue than Twitter or Facebook, as it is privileged by a higher barrier of entry and has no interactive affordances. The social network, within as well as beyond the digital realm, relies on reciprocal or complementary actions to create (feelings of) cohesion between individuals. The confine within which culture operates is the medium, and thus communication, expression, and “information” have particularly limited meaning. Marshall McLuhan’s words are actually incredibly useful in elucidating what Miller means when he claims that “phatic messages potentially carry a lot more weight to them than the content itself suggests.” (Miller, 395)
“All media work us over completely. […] The medium is the massage. Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments.” (McLuhan, 26)
The “interface” within which we operate delineates the cultural logics that may emerge from it. Within these, rituals of communication form (complete with their own etiquettes) and reinforce social ties. Thus, the way that one knows/learns to participate in Facebook culture points to a wider cultural reality. Once we begin to understand media as environments, we can begin to appreciate the values and limitations of the actual data within it. While Miller and McLuhan might dismiss the content of our media uses, Stephen Wolfram might in fact help provide the raw cultural proof that social networking operates on an individual level with a general consistency for individuals to act similarly (depending on their groupings).
Data Science of the Facebook World displays synthesized infographics on general Facebook use and aims to pull potential theories from it. Wolfram explains,
“what to me is remarkable is how we can see everything laid out in such quantitative detail in the pictures above—kind of a signature of people’s thinking as they go through life.”
Wolfram may not have meant it strictly this way, but if we are viewing Facebook as an environment in which people follow very similar, predictable paths in their use of that environment, perhaps it is not the evolution of “people’s thinking as they go through life” that we are witnessing, but actually a cultural stagnancy that indeed proves that the content is not informational on its own. However, between Miller and Wolfram (and even McLuhan), we must try and reconcile the values and limitations of “content”. Wolfram’s section on the topics that users of varying ages/genders discussed relies specifically on an analysis of the phatic text Miller views as inherently lacking in information. If people are in fact posting such platitudes to maintain their social ties, then isn’t the content of such posts in fact valuable? While individual status updates may not provide “information” for Miller, a broad view of trends in status updates is undeniably informational; therefore, de-contextualizing the social action of updating one’s status makes no sense, as would many other individual social actions taken on their own. Undeniably, Wolfram’s analyses point to the database-structure of the information found on Facebook, as he admits that he can infinitely recombine various aspects of the data to garner new information.
McLuhan, Marshall. “The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects”. (2001), Gingko Pr Inc.
Miller, Vincent. “New Media, Networking and Phatic Culture.” Convergence 14.4 (2008): 387-400. Web. 23 September 2013