Tag Archives: Tom Standage

Concept in 60 (collab with Callie)

Although Callie just posted the link to the video we created together for class this week, I just wanted to add a few thoughts.

As champions of the medium, Callie and I wanted to explore the ways that changing the context and manner in which we watch TV can transform it into a productive form of social media—one in which we can participate consciously, actively, and thoughtfully.

Also, the song we chose is from a band named Boards of Canada, the Scottish brother duo whose music consistently draws from television elements: VHS-quality sounds and motifs, as well as actual sound clips from television shows from their childhood. The song’s title, “Constants Are Changing,” seems apropos for the project that Callie and I advocate, namely a shift in the way we think/talk about and use television!

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?

Meeting Tom Standage at the Coffeehouse

After grabbing your favorite coffee drink from the over-worked barista, you sit down next to Tom in the busy Starbucks where he has saved you both a table and ask him a question about his book, Writing on the Wall. He starts going on and on about his research, just like he always does when you meet up for coffee:


. . .

. . .

. . .

Alright, just kidding.

Tom Standage wasn’t really in a coffeehouse when he said those things and neither were you when you heard them. I’m afraid the smell of espresso that still lingers in the air is simply your imagination.

But what a “meta” moment that has just occurred! This was a conversation in a virtual (audio-created) coffeehouse about the history of coffeehouses, accessible to you via what Standage might describe as a digital “coffeehouse,” the WordPress interface.

What can this weird listening experience tell us about the relationship between the historical coffeehouse and our digital play areas?

In his book, Standage describes online discussion and social-media forums just like this WordPress site as having the same “vibrant, freewheeling spirit of the coffeehouse” with “a free and open space for debate and discussion” (123). It is clear that he sees online discussion communities as analogous to those meeting grounds of the past, where class and social status were (in theory) discarded in favor of meaningful intellectual and social activity. In connecting these two spaces, he doesn’t go so far as to posit a wholly equal relationship; Standage is more interested in proving the concept of pre-digital social media than navigating the specific nuances between these different kinds of technologies.

Yet, as I read his chapter on coffeehouses and scientific journals, I was struck by his positioning of internet forums alongside the former in terms of content and quality of conversation. Scientific journals aren’t given the same “free and open” description as coffeehouses and forums are given.

But how “free and open” are internet forums, truly? Beyond issues of accessibility as well as economic and socio-political power structures governing interest and ability to participate (things that affect all forms of information-sharing across history), the short clip above points us to at least two issues that we should consider in relating internet forums to coffeehouses and scientific journals both.

First, though internet forums do seem to engender a conversational style not unlike those of the coffeehouse, their text is permanent in a way that face-to-face discussion could never be. It is not just its placement in the archive of the forum–messages can be saved and screenshot so that they remain even after the original poster has deleted it from the discussion board. Although the oral quality of Standage’s dialogue gives the appearance of immediate, easy (“free and open”) conversation, you are able to play it over and over again at your leisure. In this sense, the permanence of the text of online forums follows scientific journals more so than coffeehouses.

Second, just as scientific journals were prized in part because of their “geographical reach” (121), so too are internet forums able to reach even further and wider. As opposed to the close proximity of the coffeehouse, the internet forum is able to receive visitors and posters from disparate locations, many that we will never know even came. Because of this, it is often open to the same critique of credibility as scientific journals–a truth well-represented in the earlier audio clip, which featured my personal mash-up of a Standage interview and many different free atmospheric sounds (such as footsteps, coffee pouring, and relative background noise) instead of a true recording of him in a Starbucks. Although I think we are learning more and more to think through issues of credibility (and here I don’t mean issues of ethos as much as the ability to prove you actually are the person you say you are) in written online text and image, the presupposed integrity of audio and video still seems pervasive. In terms of proximity and the ensuing issues of credibility, then, internet forums are again more similar to scientific journals than to coffeehouses.

I think that Standage is doing good work in countering contemporary anxieties about social media by delineating its impulses throughout history. Having been given these broad strokes, however, we should think more in-depth about how to understand specific kinds of contemporary digital technology and social media, as they relate to previous information-sharing techniques and to one another. Though he readily admits that his “analogy between ancient (analog) and modern (digital) forms of social media is not perfect” (241), I think it is important that, if we’re willing to follow his conception of social media, we map out exactly what the differences are.

What other specific issues do you consider when trying to relate newer social media to Standage’s older examples? What do we make of their interaction and interference with one another? How can we extend or revise the kinds of connections Standage’s book has created for us?