A century of McLuhan: understanding social media

I was among the invited speakers of the McLuhan centenary conference McLuhan100 Then Now Next at the University of Toronto. So I’m back from a full week of scientific research, art, concerts, and conversations with great contemporary media scholars such as Ian Bogost, Barry Wellman, Arthur Kroker, Jay Bolter, Derrick de Kerckhove, Peppino Ortoleva, Mike Wesch, Joshua Meyrowitz, Michaël Oustinoff, Hervé Fischer. But enough with the name dropping. Here’s my own presentation (slides+text), where I mix up McLuhan, Merton, Facebook and Teilhard de Chardin. Enjoy.

Text of the presentation:

Slide #1: My name is Antonio Casilli. I’m an associate professor in Digital Humanities at Telecom ParisTech (Paris Institute of Technology) and a researcher in sociology at the EHESS (School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences, Paris). My main domain of activity is computer mediated communication and online social interactions. My presentation brings together and develops some of the topics discussed in the last few days. It tries to find a common ground between McLuhan’s approach to communication and today’s studies touching on social media. Establishing the basis for this dialogue is not always an easy task. McLuhan’s analytical framework is deeply grounded in pre-Web technologies, where the study of the medium provides enough substantive insight about the message conveyed. But emerging research trends, especially those dealing with the participatory Web and SNS, deal with relational technologies , where the message is influenced by the reception in a group of peers with whom we share some common characteristics.

Slide #2:For the partisans of this second approach, the famous McLuhan’s motto might read — in an admittedly less incisive phrasing: “The medium is the structure of the social graph describing the ties between the social agents uttering the message”.

Slide #3: Historically, the moment in time when the tension between those two approaches expressed itself clearly – the moment when it became clear that McLuhan and those adopting a sociological stance to media were going in different directions – is situated 56 years ago to the day when McLuhan met Robert K Merton. The date is November 1955, the location Columbia University Teacher’s College where McLuhan was giving a seminar about his recently published book The Mechanical Bride. Paul Levinson’s relates the episode in the first chapter of his 1999 exploration of McLuhan’s heritage in the age of digital media. A momentous incident in the history of modern scholarship: the clash between the budding Canadian information theorist and the dean of US sociology.

Slide #4: If the anecdote were about an academic accusing a colleague of lacking methodological precision, that would be mundane. If the anecdote were about McLuhan coming up for the first time with his famous reply “You don’t like my ideas? I have others”, that too would be mundane. Indeed this was the moment when two different approaches to the study of human communication parted ways: one would become a holistic and mostly theoretical stance, focussing on the ‘content’ of mediatic communication; the other, more empirically-driven, micro- and meso-sociologically-oriented, focusses on the ‘context’ of the mediated communication.

Slide #5: So Merton embodies this second stance. Merton the theorist of the “middle range”, Merton the one insisting on the social role of individuals embedded in reference groups, Merton the sociologist that one year before that seminar co-wrote with Lazarsfeld a seminal contribution to social science “Friendship as a Social Process: A Substantive and Methodological Analysis”* Merton signed his name into the hall of fame of contemporary social media studies and raised to prominence as the patron saint of “social media”. In that seminal text, he developed the notion of (value) “homophily” defined as a social propensity towards the creation of affinity ties through communicative interaction among individuals with shared characteristics. Today this notion is essential to answer the questions: How do we connect to others in social media? How do we create “Friendship” online? What is the interplay of affinities and affects that determine the co-evolution of medium, message, messengers in SNS? * Lazarsfeld, P. & R. K. Merton (1954) “Friendship as a Social Process: A Substantive and Methodological Analysis”, In Freedom and Control in Modern Society, Morroe Berger, Theodore Abel, and Charles H. Page, eds. New York: Van Nostrand, 18–66.

Slide #6: In order to answer these questions, we have to address some of the underlying assumptions of contemporary studies touching on interactions in social media. One of these assumptions is that users of online services are motivated by the maximization of their social capital (notion developed differently by Pierre Bourdieu, Robert Putnam or Nan Lin). The way I have characterized it myself in my 2010 book Les Liaisons Numériques *, with regard to online human behaviour is: “ Social capital is the amount of social resources necessary to position oneself conveniently within an online service”. The way individuals maximize their online social capital is by finding the right balance between bonding (the social cohesiveness with relevant others) and bridging (the social connectiveness with others with a lower level of proximity). * A. A. Casilli (2010) Les liaisons numériques. Vers une nouvelle sociabilité ? , Paris: Seuil. Image: Author’s elaboration.

Slide #7: These notions are pivotal to social network analysis (SNA), an approach that has become increasingly successful since the beginning of the 2000s. SNA is that branch of social sciences which studies and measures networks of interactions. It describes human groups as made up of individual “nodes” connected by ties. Those ties can be stronger or weaker according to reciprocity, stability or frequency of the personal relationship shaping inter-individual connections. Under the name of Sociometry, SNA has been used since the second half of the 20 th century. In this sense this approach is contemporary to McLuhan’s rise to fame – it would be interesting to have go analyse historically the links between him and the pioneers of this approach. Anyway, anthropologists and sociologists didn’t need to wait for online social media to envision families, schools, organizations or just about any human collective as networks of interconnected individuals. Online social media are just a new variety of social networks, a variety that does not replace pre-existing ones, but rather goes along and complement them. Image: M L Northway (1952). A Primer of Sociometry. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Slide #8: Notably, recent developments in online social network analysis point to a compatibility between strong ties (families, friends, colleagues, neighbors) and weak ties (vague acquaintances, buddies, strangers) – both online and offline. We have abandoned the idea, still popular in the 1990s, that – to put it in a somewhat sketchy way –Internet users spend their nights chatting with strangers over the Web, and thus they automatically neglect their friends and loved ones. This was known as the displacement hypothesis. Since the beginning of the 2000s we know that the actual social consequence of the Web isn’t social isolation, but rather a dramatic reconfiguration of the balance between strong and weak ties, between bonding and bridging. Image: P M Valkenburg, & J Peter (2007). Online communication and adolescent well-being: Testing the stimulation versus the displacement hypothesis. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication , 12 (4), article 2. http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol12/issue4/valkenburg.html

Slide #9: Having said that, the relevant question remains what kind of social structures users of computer-mediated global online communication networks (notably, the Web and social media) contribute to put in place? I am particularly indebted to Toronto’s own Barry Wellman for these three models I am about to show you. We are, according to him, living the transition from a society made up of “little boxes” to a new form of society. In an essay published in Digital cities II (2002)*, Wellman explains that these little closed boxes were the small communities of strongly tied-individuals we traditionally lived in before the Web. What changed with computer communication becoming pervasive can not be characterized as social atomization – the “boxes” are shattered and individuals live in a hell of social isolation. As he already said in his presentation we are in a sparsely knitted “networked individualistic society” There is a third scenario, though, that I consider theoretically relevant and that Wellman described – a scenario where the small boxes are still in place, but they are linked up via passageways and bridges. This scenario resonates with the definition of social capital provided a few slides ago**. This idea of a glocal network also resonates particularly with McLuhan’s notion of global village, as Wellman himself demonstrated in his 2004 essay***. B Wellman, “Little Boxes, Glocalization, and Networked Individualism.” Pp. 11-25 in Digital Cities II , eds. Makoto Tanabe, Peter van den Besselaar, and Toru Ishida. Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 2002, pp. 10-25. ** A A Casilli (2010) Les liaisons numériques. Vers une nouvelle sociabilité ? , Paris: Seuil. *** B Wellman (2004) The Glocal Village. Internet and Community . Idea&s, the art and science review, 1(1): 26-29.

Slide #10: The creation of a glocal network is for instance what happens with Facebook – to name but the most popular social networking service. When signing up, new users are instructed to “connect with the people in [their] life.” And, on an aggregate level, users tend to comply. They first use the service to get in touch with people they know – to recreate their “little boxes” online. Image: Author’s elaboration.

Slide #11: But after this initial phase, users become more socially adventurous, as they go look for new acquaintances, FOAF (“Friends Of A Friend”). This is where they get in contact with random strangers – usually by taking advantage of the high transitivity of online social tools. Transitivity implies that if A is friend with B, and B with C – eventually C and A will get in touch. Higher transitivity online translates into “longer bridges”: users can reach out for further social components and connect with their members. In the context of social media, then, online communication enables bridging on a higher level, it creates a “glocal” network, that can be described as an assemblage of small interconnected components – our little boxes. This is where another notion framed and popularized by Wellman and his coauthor Caroline Haythornthwaite comes handy*. The notion of “media multiplexity”. A number of studies conducted in the late 1990s and in the 2000s point to a strong positive correlation between Web use, phone use, mail use, and face-to-face meetings. Online and offline communications are not mutually exclusive. They rather tend to range over a media continuum where users can choose and modulate their modes of interaction. * C Haythornthwaite 2005 “Social networks and Internet connectivity effects”, Information, Communication & Society, Vol. 8, No. 2., pp. 125-147. Image: Author’s elaboration.

Slide #12: From this point of view, relational multiplexity (the fact that individuals still have multiple affiliations, as they belong to families, institutions, schools, sports teams, etc.), coincides with media multiplexity (the fact that they also belong to several social networks, online discussion forums, and services at the same time). These two types of multiple affiliations superpose to create a complex and multilayered online/offline environment where our social ties are knitted almost indistinctively via two communication modalities: face-to-face and computer-mediated. This is a fresh way of envisioning what McLuhan described as “the new electronic interdependence [that] recreates the world in the image of a global village”.

Slide #13: So glocality and offline/online multiplexity can be regarded as the two key concepts to understand contemporary computer-mediated communication. We can now reframe what we have just said in McLuhan’s notion of extension. Marcin Trybulec*, asked the right question in his Tuesday presentation. Is the problem of extension to be regarded as a mind/body split one or as an intersubjectivity one? I lean for the second option: extension has to be regarded as an intersubjective notion. This is not only because I’m a sociologist (so for me everything is social). This, for two reasons: The cognitive system where the media is located is a social system. In this sense every extension of the mind is an extension of the social sphere where the mind acts. Even if we adopt, as Derrick De Kerckhove does, an “augmented mind”** theoretical stance, we have to assume that cognitively significant representations are not only internal to the subject. Cognitive processes cannot be limited to individual biological organs. If the medium affects cognition, it affects sociability. * Marcin Trybulec (2011) The Significance of Extended Mind Hypothesis for Medium Theory , communication at the McLuhan 100 Then Now Next conference, Toronto, Nov 7th. ** Derrick de Kerckhove (2011) The Augmented Mind , Rome: 40kBooks.

Slide #14: The second reason why i say that extension has to be interpreted as intersubjective is that McLuhan himself indicates it. In Understanding Media, when he says that “the personal and social consequences of any medium—that is, of any extension of ourselves—result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology” (p. 23). And in the NAEB Report 1960 “ Any medium whatever is an extension, a projection in space or in time, of our various senses.” (p. 13)* The notion, since its first known formulations is rooted in the collective “our”. It represents in itself a progression from micro to macro, a linkage between “the personal” and “the social” which forces a change in the scale of the theoretical explanation of the observed mediatic process. What does this mean? What am I implying? Am I suggesting that social media usage is expanding the size of our personal networks and multiplying our chances of establishing social contacts? Of course there is some interesting research being conducted on that**. But the extention I am pointing at is not only a quantitative concept. * M McLuhan (1960) « Report on Project in Understanding New Media. A Report to the United States Office of Education », National Association of Educational Broadcasters (NAEB). III. ** A A Casilli (2011) Bums, Bridges, and Primates: Some Elements for a Sociology of Online Interactions , presentation at the Web Culture: New Modes of Knowledge, New Sociabilities conference, Villa Gillet, Lyon, France . Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1940773 .

Slide #15: On the contrary it is essentially qualitative. And this becomes clear if we inquire into McLuhan’s early inspirations, authors he built his idea of extension upon. Among many others usual suspects (Innis, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and even Bergson, Hegel…)*, we bump into two important charachters: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Edward T. Hall. The first influence – not entirely recognized by McLuhan – was that of the philopher who talked in his 1923 book La Messe sur le Monde and in his 1955 Le Phénomène Humain**  about a mystical prolongement (prolongation, maintenance) of the individual body of the Christian subject through material objects. But he also introduced the adjective « co-extensif », used to descibe any phenomenon of correlated growth between two entities (e. g. Past and present, internal and external extension of a same entity: “Coextensif à leur Dehors, il y a un Dedans des Choses. ”, ibid. p. 26). So for Pierre Teilhard de Chardin prolongement , and extension are – in their essence, relational concepts, that connect different individuals, different corporeal and spiritual entities – and this is consistent both with McLuhan approach and social network analysis. The other one, Edward T Hall the cultural anthropologist with whom McLuhan exchanged over 133 letters starting in the early 1960s claimed that “Today man has developed extensions for practically everything he used to do with his body…” It is not a case that he chose labour to instantiate his idea of extension. Labour, the quintessential social process.”Money is a way of extending and storing labour…” (p. 79)*** In the same book he develops another concept which is strictly linked to that of extension – the concept of polychronicity, the ability to attend to multiple events simultaneously . Being at the same tame in two different contexts of communication. This concept can be considered, in my opinion, the ancestor of media multiplexity. * E M. Rogers (2000) The Extensions of Men: The Correspondence of Marshall McLuhan and Edward T. Hall, Mass Communication and Society vol 3, n. 1, pp: 117-135. ** P Teilhard de Chardin, P. (1965 [1923]) La Messe sur le Monde, Paris, Seuil; Id. 1955 Le Phénomène Humain , Paris: Seuil. *** E T Hall (1959) Silent Language , New York: Doubleday and Company.

Slide #16: By way of conclusion i will say that… What is clear now is that since SNA significantly expanded our understanding of social media the myth of the socially isolate computer geek has been replaced by an empirically documented figure of a connected individual. The question that will inform future research is “How do we live in a socially extended environment?” What are the new rules What are the new roles What are the new risks What are the new set of opportunities What we, as researchers and as political animals, have to do now is to direct our attention to the conditions allowing our contemporaries to fine tune — in an increasingly laborious and sophisticated way — an increasing number of acquaintances they consider as relevant to their social existence. Thank you for your attention.

(Communication delivered at the McLuhan100 Then Now Next conference, University of Toronto, Nov. 10th, 2011)