Social Media and Social Anthropology, Part One: Technological Constructivism
With all of the developing technology and tools, many social media and new media communicators have been bogged down in the role that technology plays. Without seeing the evolution of technology, the view is that you cannot succeed — and that you must adapt to all of these technologies. Technology, it is believed, is the enabler and therefore determines culture — the view is that it is predictable, traceable, and it has effects on societies and their history.
This view is called “technological determinism,” and many people can get lost in the idea. I’ve seen many clients and organizations fall victim to it, and it’s reinforced by popular culture. Subscribing to this idea tends to lead campaigns on a wild goose chase, with no strategy other than to “seize the technology.” The strategy, therefore, usually becomes “well, let’s throw all of these things up against a wall and see what sticks,” and the organization never get the results that they were hoping for. A distrust of the social media realm usually evolves, and the organization concludes that social media is not “worth it.”
I tend to disagree with this deterministic view because I believe more in the role that culture plays in the evolution of technology. Over the last 10 years (yes, I’ve been blogging for a decade), I have seen this to be the case. I believe that there is a distinct reason why the word “social” is used in the phrase “social media,” and therefore, I tend to fall on the other side of the spectrum — called “technological constructivism.” To constructivists, human action shapes technology, which births adapted technology, which is then shaped more by culture, and the process continues. The “enabler” to constructivists is not the technology, but rather the culture behind it — and the culture that shapes how it was created.
Thus, constructivism follows these steps:
1. There is a culture with a need
2. A technology is developed to meet that need
3. The culture consumes the technology in ways that are meaningful to them
4. Consumption habits dictate new needs of the culture
5. Subsequent technological revisions are based upon these habits
6. The pattern continues
Here’s a perfect example: think about how Twitter started. The culture of blogging became more intricate and involved, and the makers of Twitter saw a need for technology that would facilitate and allow a group of people to “micro-blog.” So, they created the Twitter platform — which was initially designed as a “what are you doing?” solution. When we started using it, we began to reshape the utility from “what are you doing?” to the much deeper “what are you thinking?” And thus, the culture was born.
When the Twitter developers saw the type of cultural evolution that was taking place — for instance, our use of “@” — subsequent revisions to the Twitter platform have been programmed to allow this type of culture to flourish. In other words, we made the technology what it is, rather than the technology creating what we now do. This is a clear example of constructivism, because the evolutional trigger was indeed culture.
The constructivist argument can also explains why Pownce never took off as a micro-blogging platform. Pownce was a “second-mover” (meaning that Twitter came first, and then Pownce was created later), and seems to be vastly technologically superior to Twitter. Pownce allows for more diverse means of “sharing” (including files, pictures — much more than just text). But our networks — our “social” networks — remain on Twitter. According to the determinists, Pownce should be the leader in the micro-blogging platform, but it’s clearly not. For most of us, it would take a gravitational shift towards Pownce from our core group of friends to switch to that platform. It’s the network and the people that are valuable to us, not the technology.
So, what does this mean? The constructivist view means that in order to be successful in the “new media” space, we need to refocus our attention from technology and towards culture. Some great leaders in the social media space, like Kami Huyse and Brian Solis, have been pointing out in the last year or so that social media is a lot like social anthropology, and a few of us have had this conversation on Twitter.
Over the next few blog posts, I’m going to explore this concept to a greater degree and with greater detail and elaboration. My goal is to explain why an anthropological approach towards blogger relations and community relations — and with that, social media and the communications realm as a whole — is very much needed, valuable, and will lead to successful campaigns.
Specifically, I’m going to start with the practice of ethnography, which is an anthropological research method based on observation, and explain its value and its techniques. From there, I’ll explain how ethnography and online research should be parallel, and should be, in fact, the same thing. Then I’ll argue the benefits and value of the ethnographic technique towards campaigns, their successes and the overall “bottom-line.”
~ by Brad Levinson on February 6, 2008.