Wednesday, November 20, 2002

More on social software

As the current BoingBoing guest blogger, Clay Shirky is collecting a list of formal constitutional documents for research into what works in social software. "In keeping with the great tradition of chaos in online social systems, everything here documents some crisis or period of prolonged difficulty. These documents are concrete wisdom about social software."

LambdaMOO Takes A New Direction, by the Wizards of LambdaMOO -- The wizards depart, and then return quite crankily.
How Did the Moderation System Develop? from the slashdot FAQ. -- Gaming the system as the principle concern of system design.
Our Replies to Our Critics from the Wikipedia FAQ -- Leverage for a core group to keep things on an even keel.

Okay - let me see if I understand correctly: 1. Online social systems are chaotic. 2. Chaos creates crisis and order emerges as codified constitutional documents. 3. Constitutional documents represent concrete social wisdom. 4. Wise online social systems are ordered.

As an academic, my primary interest is social and cultural theory as related to virtual spaces and new technologies. So my concern here is what notions of sociality are being employed in the definition(s) of social software. This may seem tangential to design, but I would argue that the models we use to develop new technologies actually help constitute our experience of the social. In other words, technologies are never neutral, and the relationship between people and technology is one of reciprocal construction.

So how is sociality being defined? In a word, as a system. A quick-and-dirty history of social systems theory begins (and ends?) with functionalism, the most influential form of social explanation for much of the past century. The functionalist perspective holds that society, as a system, is separated from the external environment by a boundary that maintains internal order. At the micro level, interaction between people can be viewed as a functional system: the interaction will have a purpose, and the social system of rules and conventions, strictly speaking, coordinates not the people but their actions. For theorists like Niklas Luhmann, this is a good thing, as it removes the burden of responsibility from individuals. For theorists like Habermas, this poses a threat as it removes society from the control of the people who constitute it. (I filtched this bit from a textbook, so please forgive the generalisations.)

At the risk of alienating myself from every computer engineer and challenging conventional design wisdom, my position is that systems theory is completely incapable of explaining the richness of human interaction and sociability. And I don't want new technologies designed along those lines, because I don't want my experiences as a social creature to be defined in those ways.

Working as an information architect allows me to indulge my desire to bring order to chaos, to impose control. But I'm no longer convinced that should be my goal.

Dervin outlines how we have understood the concept of information over time:

1. Information describes an ordered reality.
2. Information describes an ordered reality but can be "found" only by those with the proper observing skills and technologies.
3. Information describes an ordered reality that varies across time and space.
4. Information describes an ordered reality that varies from culture to culture.
5. Information describes an ordered reality that varies from person to person.
6. Information is an instrument of power imposed in discourse on those without power.
7. Information imposes order on a chaotic reality.
8. Information is a tool designed by human beings to make sense of a reality assumed to be both chaotic and orderly.

Definitions 2-7 are variations on definition 1: all rely on notions of a fixed and orderly reality against chaos. Definition 8, on the other hand, allows for the experience of a world simultaneously ordered and chaotic. While Dervin may partially rely on notions of unity, she moves us away from notions of order and denies notions of purity by creating a hybrid definition of information.

Deleuze and Guattari claim that every social phenomena faces escapes and inversions, and it is in these lines of flight, where there is leaking between segments, that sociality escapes organisation and centralisation. And so it is to these lines that we must look to find the socially meaningful. De-territorialisation is characterised in terms of nomadic subjectivity, and nomadism is based on freedom of movement, on choice, on becoming. Nomadic space is smooth, without features, undifferentiated from other spaces. Nomadology itself is a line of flight, a process which constantly resists the sedentary and the fixed.

In other words, it's not about being inside or outside of a system, but rather about trajectories of movement, or directionality. So when it comes to using constitutional documents as a means of understanding sociality, we are stuck defining this process as one of containment. In any process of containment, we must define "in" and "out" - and this is, by definition, reductive and exclusionary.

Last year I wrote a paper on the Hacker Jargon File as allegory. We could view the Jargon File as the definitive statement on hacker culture, but we would be remiss if we neglected how the editor(s) decide what constitutes hacker jargon, or the criteria for inclusion in the lexicon. The Jargon File itself is both absolute and relative: there is such a thing as the “hacker community,” the people and practices involved in constructing, maintaining, sharing and changing the file; and yet the “community” remains heterogeneous and unfixed. The file itself is in a state of flux, as a “living document,” never finished. It contextualises, decontextualises and recontextualises hacker slang and shared meaning. And my analysis does the same. And so too the authors of each text are contextualized, decontextualised and recontextualised in the process of reading and writing. Together we make an unruly bunch, difficult to pin down, to stabilise, even temporarily. At this point, instead of trying to bring order to this chaos, to stop the flow, to say “what it all means,” I want to draw attention to the sense of mobility, of leakage. For if I can say anything about these objects and subjects, I can say that they do not cooperate with traditional notions of object and subject. These categories resist me, and I resist them; we may even contradict each other. All I can do is point to these places of movement, of contradiction, of interpellation. My exercise then becomes one of allegory – to represent that which cannot be represented. I can write of texture, but not of form. I can “evoke but not describe.”

So now I'm working on how technologies can be designed to evoke, rather than to describe; to perform rather than to represent...

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