Up, Down, Side to Side: Vertical and Horizontal Communication through Social Media

In Writing on the Wall, Tom Standage makes a compelling case for understanding the social media practices of ancient Rome and the web-based social media practices of the modern day as linked in important ways. Standage claims that both practices involve “two-way, conversational environments in which information passes horizontally from one person to another along social networks, rather than being delivered vertically from an impersonal central source” (Loc 43). Though he doesn’t continue to use these exact terms in his fascinating discussion of the historical development of social media, they underlie one of his boldest and most sweeping arguments: that social media like radio and television marked an historical ‘middle period’ of one-way, non-interactive vertical communication, while the ‘new’ social media afforded by the internet indicate a return to dynamic, horizontal, peer-to-peer interactions.

A simple graphic representation of vertical communication (a) and horizontal communication (b). (via emeraldinsight.com)
A simple graphic representation of vertical communication (a) and horizontal communication (b). (via emeraldinsight.com)

I think “horizontal” and “vertical” are potentially quite useful terms for thinking about the functions and effects of today’s digital social media practices—with one small caveat: that we don’t limit ourselves by defining these two forms of communication as incompatible or mutually exclusive. That is, Standage seems to view horizontal communication (and its dynamic possibilities) as the defining feature of both ancient Roman and modern social media environments, while downplaying the vertical forms of communication both environments enable(d). What I’d like to suggest is that both environments, and the modern digital one in particular, actually enable complex and almost dizzying combinations of vertical and horizontal communication that complicate the way information is circulated.

In today's web-based social media, vertical and horizontal communication converge in complicated ways. (Graphic also courtesy of emeraldinsight.com)
In today’s web-based social media, vertical and horizontal communication converge in complicated ways. (Graphic also courtesy of emeraldinsight.com)

For me, one of the most interesting features of new social media is the increasing frequency with which texts and narratives move in the opposite direction of what we might have previously expected. That is, rather than being distributed vertically en masse and then moving horizontally across a smattering of peers through face-to-face or phone conversation, we see that many texts are distributed in exponential peer-to-peer sharing before they are finally picked up, reframed, and redistributed in vertical ways. That is, they “go viral” horizontally before news outlets or other central distributors of information are able to co-opt them.

As an illustration of this ‘backward’ movement from horizontal to vertical: I’m sure most of you have heard of “Don’t tase me, bro!”— if only because the meme has been so persistently recycled online since it emerged following the initial incident in 2007. This was the episode at a John Kerry forum event at the University of Florida, where senior undergraduate Andrew Meyer became agitated that he was denied the ability to ask his question, and after a loud and very public struggle, was tased by the police. Here’s a short clip of the struggle and the line that made Meyer (in)famous. (Original video by Kyle Mitchell, 2007.)

This event had minimal press in attendance; the reason the incident came to such public visibility was a number of attendees who uploaded videos of the scene to YouTube and shared it peer-to-peer. One video reached 7 millions views—quite a bit by the internet standards of 2007. The story raised issues of free speech and excessive force by police, and was quickly thereafter picked up and reported by the mainstream press. The phrase “Don’t tase me, bro!” has since become a well-known trope on the web, and has been transformed endlessly into memes like the one below. Meyer even apparently registered the phrase as a trademark, and tried (unsuccessfully) to publish a book on the coattails of this insta-fame. In any case, it’s clear that Meyer’s narrative developed within a horizontal media sharing environment before it was captured and re-distributed vertically—an interesting early reversal of the expected vertical-to-horizontal pattern that dominated in Standage’s ‘middle period’ of radio and television, before the internet age.

Meow! Don't tase me, bro! (via cheezburger.com)
Meow! Don’t tase me, bro! (via cheezburger.com)

But beyond reversing our temporal expectations for how narratives circulate vertically and horizontally, I think we have started to see evidence that these two forms of communication are converging and playing off each other in more complicated ways. One of the simplest illustrations of the way new social media integrates vertical and horizontal communication is the share + comment maneuver we see so frequently on Facebook. This is where someone shares a story, video, or other kind of text that was composed by a professional writer for vertical, one-way, mass distribution (often from news outlets)—but frames it with their own commentary before sharing it horizontally with peers. Here’s a recent example from my own Facebook newsfeed:Screen Shot 2014-02-25 at 11.35.01 AM

The information and the video itself were produced/compiled by WATE-6 News, an ABC affiliate out of Knoxville, TN—presumably, an example of Standage’s vertical communication from an “impersonal central source.” But in the very act of sharing this with peers, the communication begins to move horizontally. Even more interesting is the framing of the narrative by my friend: he sets his peer readers up to process the “vertical” information through his personal (political) lens.

So fine: we’ve got a source that was once distributed vertically and now begins to distribute horizontally. But it’s actually even more complicated than that if we look closely: the original video that was packaged by the news source was shot by some Joe Shmo in his car, and was shared peer-to-peer until it “went viral” and was picked up by the news outlet. And what happens if someone shares this video without adding their own commentary? With a link directly to the original, isn’t it essentially the same as going directly to the “impersonal central source”? Or perhaps not, since in the very act of sharing, the person is framing the narrative for his/her peers in the context of assumed approbation or disapproval? In these messy layers of vertical and horizontal communication, which are not even easily defined in temporal terms (first vertical, then horizontal, etc.), lies a peculiarly modern pattern of communication—one in which it is often not easy to draw straight lines, identify a source, or define authorship.

Okay, I didn’t get around to making the case for this convergence of vertical/horizontal communication in ancient Rome. Maybe we can talk about this in class, if anyone is interested?


10 thoughts on “Up, Down, Side to Side: Vertical and Horizontal Communication through Social Media”

  1. Kiley,

    Your discussion of the directions in which information and communication travels digitally is really quite compelling, and it made me think of two kinds of digital media specifically: memes and torrents (and I must acknowledge Katie Wright’s contribution to helping me understand memes rhetorically!).

    I thought of memes because of how they circulate so widely, and also because you mentioned the “Don’t Taze Me” one. With the way memes work, I can’t help but conceive of the original photo’s source/creator as the person at the zenith of the top-down model, even if said photo was only meant to be shared vertically at first. Or, if that original creator isn’t at the top, then I’d say the first person to generate a meme based on it would be. But because everyone has access to the original so that they can offer their own incarnation of the meme, it’s difficult to assess, nay trace/track, exactly where that meme goes. Oftentimes these memes circulate seemingly without end, but I’d argue that they can experience a revitalization in the horizontal method depending on how we co-opt or use them. For instance, could we say that when I use memes to teach academic conversation (again, kudos to Katie!) that that information is being transmitted top-down because my students are not on the same academic level as I am? I’m not sure, but it’s certainly an interesting question to try to tackle.

    Second, torrents work precisely on this messy web of horizontal and vertical movement, however illicit they may be. But even the terminology associated with them implies a kind of rhizomatic structure, in that each torrent file can be “seeded.” What that means is that even while you’re downloading a file from a host, that same file is being “seeded” from you to other users. Because you’re most likely not the original owner of that file, it’s difficult to determine how that file came down to us horizontally in the first place, or if we can even use terms like horizontal and vertical at all.

  2. Kiley,

    I love that you start to break apart this either/or construction of vertical and horizontal media-sharing. In the Victorian Periodicals class last semester I also questioned the idea that once mass production started, the culture quickly and completely shifted to one of top-down production. I looked at Dickens and found that his readers at least felt as though they could intervene in his artistic production as he serialized his fiction.

    One text you may want to take a look at if you’re interested in the ways in which we receive media, especially in the case of entertainment, is Henry Jenkins’s Convergence Culture. I think he, like Standage, at times overemphasizes mass media as problematic, but his work is one of those at the forefront of the discussion.

    1. Caitlin–

      Hurray, Victorian periodicals! An interesting factor that we did not really talk about in that class is the correspondence or advice columns in some Victorian and early twentieth-century periodicals, which perhaps disrupt the purely top-down approach by reversing it for a time–sadly, the questions or comments subscribers sent in are usually not reprinted (or archived), so all you get to read is the editor’s response. These publications thereby invite correspondence (a temporary two-way vertical movement), but do not really allow for communication amongst the subscribers (horizontal) or between subscribers and editors after the initial question has been answered (reversing the vertical).

      Nevertheless, for the curious, I recommend Tanith Carey’s collection of such amusing and/or horrifying excerpts, titled “Never Kiss a Man in a Canoe.”

  3. Kiley, I love this post so much–it basically gets at everything that I seriously had trouble with in this text. I already commented extensively (and rantingly) about this exact topic on Michael’s post; otherwise, I would say the same things here.

    I would add, though, that even beyond questioning how information travels (first vertical, then horizontal or both vertically and horizontally or some weird combination), I think we should also prevent ourselves from thinking about the original source as an “impersonal central source.” Things like TV channels, radio shows, or your example of the WATE-6 News video are so much more complicated than simple “advertising-determined” or “state-controlled” media. These kinds of mass media are often both responded to and affected by the general population (again, just like in your example, where the original clip was recorded by some random guy). If that doesn’t also fit into the category of “social” media, then why doesn’t it?

  4. I can’t help but thing part of what’s being gestured at is a rhizome structure–a nodeless, constantly shifting series of distributed connections, along which any piece of information might flow. The verticality of media is often based on giving one producer special status (Neil Gaiman’s blog, or Tom Standage’s twitter) and imagining other things as “downhill” from there. One of the interesting things you propose here, that I like, is how information often moves in the opposite direction than intended–Standage, for example, replied to me on twitter when I hadn’t @-ed him, this week–

    1. (And for some reason my comment got posted mid-way trough). As I was saying, I like that you have a model where information has a way it should go (from cultural criteria) but does not always go, and is capable of some really strange behaviors from going viral (horizontal or vertical to horizontal, if artificial) to becoming meme (probably horizontal to vertical) to sneaking up the vertical chain (vertical backwards).

  5. Kiley,
    I really enjoyed reading your thoughtful post, it invites me to think about the historically established hierarchy of media and masses with a different challenge. It seems that a more complex diagram or a less linear model is needed to depict this “up, down, side to side vertical-horizontal” digital communication. I am just thinking about Brownian motion and whether it is applicable to this unpredictable movement of data in the digital world or not. Is this movement really unpredictable? Is it random or there are social or mathematical rules driving it, vertically and horizontally, towards predictable goals? Are we facing chaos, order or something beyond them?

  6. Kiley,

    I find the horizontal/vertical metaphor very useful in thinking about how texts circulate. Your thoughts here remind me of those of my friend Jay Rosen, in his well-known piece on The People Formerly Known as the Audience. I’d be interested to learn what you make of it.

    I’m also intrigued by comments, on this thread and others, that seem eager to reclaim the value of vertical top-down media like TV. I’ll be interested to hear more about that in class, as well as about vertical media in classical times. I’m intrigued!


  7. Kiley,

    Your post makes me think of an issue we talked about last class: how authors can start as bloggers and then become published. In a way, these bloggers/web comics/hybrids also “go viral” by being shared among friends before they “go vertical” by being picked up and distributed by an official (print) publisher.

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