Hemmed in by signposts: Metaphors limit the scope of social media innovation

Long exposure of car tail lights
It can all become a blur very quickly

Metaphors are a crucial part of how we relate to the digital world. They are crucial in one sense as the low-level languages that computers use are incomprehensible to humans. All our spangly, shiny Powerpoint presentations and music libraries are streams of hexidecimal or binary digits to our processors and disk drives. Unless you’re very special these low-level digital streams are gobbledygook and even if you are special enough to make sense of them they’re certainly not anything like the files most of us expect to see or listen to.

With the invention of the graphical user interface (GUI) metaphor became a much more explicit part of our computing experience. A host of analogies were launched upon us in a rush, windows, scrolling, dragging, trash and even document. These terms were needed to help us cope with this new world and GUIs were crucial in the spread of computing from the lab to the wider world.

While these metaphors were initially liberating they have become limiting particularly as digital information weaves itself into increasingly intricate patterns in our lives. Venkatesh Rao from the Xerox Innovation Group has written an interesting post on Mashable on this issue, specifically how the metaphors that served us well in the past now limit us.

Somewhere to start from

Back in the ancient days of the ‘80s, when Apple launched the GUI, personal computers were used mostly as analogues of old tools. We typed letters and tabulated spreadsheets. Perhaps this was enough of a revolution to take on board in on bite. It certainly was a revolution. Word processing made it possible to efficiently edit existing documents in a way that was impossible a few years earlier. They also made collaboration possible in new ways. What would have been accomplished by a trail of arcane editorial notation and another trip to the typing pool could now be completed in a fraction of the time.

It is in the realm of word processing that the first big metaphor shear occurs. In his wonderful book In the Beginning was the Command Line Neal Stephenson examines the term document. As a writer he has a particular attachment to his work and the sense of document meaning to record permanently is important to him. Digital files are not necessarily permanent though. Strings of digits captured as electromagnetic marks on a disk are subject to all sorts of perils and if one crucial area of the disk, an address block for example, is damaged the whole file can be cease to exist.

In this example the metaphor encourages us to imbue the digital object with qualities is doesn’t have, permanence, but increasingly the metaphors we habitually employ in attempt to describe our digital world limit us. The computers we have in our homes now are incredibly powerful and their potential is massive. We limit ourselves through the mental models we have constructed to understand them. This is particularly evident as we struggle to understand the potential of social media.

What is Twitter?

The question of what is Twitter gets people reaching for metaphor in an instant. It’s a conversation, a party or a stream depending on who you talk to, but all of these descriptions are like the story of the blind men and the elephant as they only tell part of the story. We have created a world where our old models are less and less relevant. In fact they may even be damaging or at least limiting to the potential of our new media.

To see Twitter as a conversation deemphasises the broadcast potential of the medium and the party metaphor struggles with the complexity of how different friend sets affect the perception of the information shared. The stream metaphor seems to be the best fit. Twitter is a fluxional medium. You can’t visit the same Twitter twice for it is not the same Twitter and you are not the same man. Streams are fairly homogenous entities though and once you get close Twitter is far from homogenous. There are lots of chunks of different kinds of information in that stream.

Media like Twitter are curious in that they seem to be both high and low definition. They demand attention by a pageant of information (like a film) but they also require conscious participation to extract value (like a comic book). The volume of information is enormous but the character limit on individual posts restricts the amount of information an individual message can contain. Films and comic books used to be very different media but now we have a medium that contains elements of both experiences our mental models are being stretched.

So what’s the problem?

The problem with forcing flawed models on how we think of social media and digital information in general is that we limit the scope of how we can use the tool with the model. If Twitter is seen a conversational medium then that metaphor shades our perception of what the platform is for and the individual voice is seen as more valuable than the aggregate of the information broadcast. This isn’t in itself bad but limits in the scope of our thoughts are powerful.

Google has announced it is to stop developing Wave. This was an attempt to create a collaborative communication platform. To risk a metaphor, a modern take on email using the technology available now rather than sticking to the protocols and concepts invented in 1965.

Wave floundered for many reasons and one was that email has an incredibly powerful hold over how we think about online communication. Wave was collaborative and fluxional whereas email narrowcasts discrete slices of information with clear authorship and date of creation. I wonder if the concept of a mutable, participatory and plastic medium was just too far from the concept of mail to easily absorb.

As the possibilities of how we can distribute and structure data expand our models of thinking about what we are doing will become increasingly important. This is not an issue that will pass with time either. There are youngsters who have never used a typewriter who spend huge amounts of their life typing using a keyboard layout invented to stop mechanical machines from jamming.

The image Light Trails on the Square by Rich Anderson is used under a Creative Commons license

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Ruben Kenig

I used to play punk, then jazz. Somehow I went to music school to study composition. I wrote music and made sound design for theatre and studied film music. In the interstitial spaces of this I made websites as a content manager and project manager. I sometimes publish articles at rubken.net.