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.

9 Responses to “Social Media and Social Anthropology, Part One: Technological Constructivism”

  1. Brad, which population(s) are you proposing to observe? As I see it, there are at least 3: (1) the analysts (2) the online participants (3) the relations professionals

    I’m also wondering your thoughts – if it’s the network that’s important, not the technology… what happens when the technology fails and denies access to the network? Will people shift to a “superior” 2d mover similar type of platform (such as Pownce for Twitter) or will an entirely new technology that facilitates a different type of online interaction fill that gap and meet additional needs?

    I’m interested to see your next posts in this series! :)

  2. Hi An — thanks for the comment!

    Well, I think the series will seek to discuss all three populations. It’ll propose how we can do better as analysts, how we can better observe participants, and how we can perform better relations. But I don’t see all of these populations as mutually exclusive. For instance, I’ll explain how analysts and professionals must be participants in order to succeed.

    The great thing about our online cultures is that our networks are varied and diverse — we use multiple means of accessing our networks. For instance, when I lost my cell phone a few months ago, I was able to re-obtain information from Facebook, e-mail, IM, and old call logs. If Twitter experienced a major shut-down, we’d still be able to find each other. But I think movements towards different platforms are organic and vary from each situation. Look at the “MySpace to Facebook” transition, for instance — it just kind of “happened” little by little, and as more people left one for the other, other people followed. I think it’s hard to predict where people will go — it’s just that “people go,” if that makes any sense?

  3. Hi Brad – Yes – it makes sense. Think Friendster –> MySpace –> Facebook.

    Though I think the userbase for MySpace differs greatly from the userbase for Facebook, and wouldn’t be surprised if some people kept different profiles (personal v. professional) profiles on each network. So how much of it is transitioning/migrating and how much of it is multiple adoption of services?

    Have you read Moore’s “Crossing the Chasm?” You might enjoy it.

  4. As you know, I am very interested in this approach. A look at online cultural through anthropological study. I am also looking forward to this series.

  5. Simply put, the culture needs manifest in the shape of a “Social Utility” or crudely a technology powered application. Technology has taught us that needs are pretty much temporary. Although I refuse to use or even find any sort of appeal on either Twitter or Facebook, I love LinkedIn, thus all comes down to my own ethos.

    “A people’s ethos is the tone, character,
    and quality of their life, its moral
    and aesthetic style and mood; it is the
    underlying attitude toward themselves
    and their world that life reflects. Their
    world view is their picture of the way
    things in sheer actuality are, their
    concept of nature, of self, of society. It
    contains their most comprehensive ideas
    of order.” –Clifford Geertz

    Very deep and complex subject Brand, I look forward to your insight. THANK YOU!

  6. I rather favor your perspective in that I also believe that culture shapes technology and applies technology so as to satisfy its’ needs and desires. In addition, I think that these needs fluctuate over time and dictate the changing functions and formats of technology. The relationship, as you state it, is one of constant change that emphasizes quite heavily the impact culture has on the creation and usage of technology. This being the case, I find myself curious to hear more about the ways technology impacts culture. By this I do not meant to say I believe that technology determines culture, because I do not believe that to be the case. I just find myself curious to know more about the ways technologies impact the lives of individuals, the minute components of culture.

    Your discussion of how Twitter exemplifies the formula and steps within your post is well done and reinforces your thesis. It also provides an individual unfamiliar with that platform information on the cultural context from which it emerged and an idea of its’ potential personal applications. As an individual user, would you be able to tell me about your experience and how you re-shaped/modified your life to allow room for Twitter to exist within it? Also, has your usage of Twitter changed over time from when you initially began using it? I find myself curious to know this.

    Upon further reflection, I find these ideas of the technological determinist/constructivist to be rather binaristic. I do not think that operating based off seemingly mutually exclusive dualistic principles can allow us to make great gains in terms of mapping mediascapes and their impact on the culture, the technology and the individuals involved in their creation/existence. In real life, it would seem that there is an overlap between these two perspectives in that the culture possesses unmet needs, the technology is shaped to meet these needs and the individuals then shape their lives to these technologies as a response to their personal needs. From this point I imagine that the changing needs and desires on the individual level change the needs and desires of the culture, that then in turn change the technologies to meet these newly modified needs and desires. A discourse, as opposed to a simple give/take relationship exists between three entities and not two. Perhaps you meant to convey this notion in your blog and I simply failed to understand it, but I would be interested in seeing you highlight the discourse between the individual, the culture, and the technology in future posts.

  7. […] and anthropology” series was more of a vapor-series than a real one, I’m back with part two!  In the first post, I was beginning to discuss the role of culture in new/social media, and how we can use anthropology and culture studies in […]

  8. To follow on from Lissette’s comment, and speaking as an anthropologist who specialises in media issues, I’ve been wondering for a long time whether in avoiding technological determinism we anthros have a tendency to fall into sociocultural determinism, i.e. the idea that it is society/culture that determines technology, see my blog post on this here:

  9. A really interesting post Brad, and realise I am two years too late to this discussion, but have just written on this subject and against technological determinism. I like the idea of Technological Constructivism, my own suggestion was Technological Humanism, as I think it is important to re focus on human nature and needs as the basis for technological innovation. Looking forward to catching up on the rest of the series when I get a minute…..

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