Social Networking, the “Third Place,” and the Evolution of Communication
NMC White Paper
encourage conversation, thinking, projects, and demonstrations that will enrich the Online
Conference on the Evolution of Communication, and that the dialog begun here will continue
beyond the conference.
Communication is (Still) Changing
The nature of communication has undergone a substantial change in the past 20 years—and
the change is not over. Email has had a profound effect on the way people keep in touch.
Communications are shorter and more frequent than when letters were the norm; response
time has greatly diminished; we are even surprised if someone we wish to contact does not
have an email address. Although there are still a few people who print out their emails in
order to read and respond to them, most of us are accustomed to the daily duty of reading
and answering emails that have arrived since we turned off the computer the night before,
and to keeping up with them as they trickle (or flood) in during the day.
Even as we have gotten used to email, though, the nature of communication continues to
change. Instant messaging has created another method of interaction, one where the length
of messages is shorter and the style of the interaction is more conversational—but where it is
acceptable and common to pay partial attention. Broadcast technologies like Twitter
transform these short bursts of communication from one-on-one conversations to little news
(or trivia) programs: we can “tune in” when we want an update or have something to say, and
“channel surf” to other activities in between updates.
The expectations we place on those we communicate with vary from medium to medium, as
has always been the case. Sending a letter through the postal mail sets up an expectation of a
response that will come in days; email, in hours; instant messaging, in minutes. We expect the
letter-writer to devote a certain amount of time and attention to responding. With email, the
expected time investment is smaller. With instant messaging, we understand that the other
party’s attention may wander between messages in some cases and remain focused on us, as
with a phone call, in others.
New environments like virtual worlds present additional opportunities and challenges for
communication. In such settings, there is a visual component to the online interaction that is
lacking in email or instant messaging: we can see a “body” that goes with the voice or text
conversation. Affordances like this can help foster a feeling of presence and give us clues
about when the other person is listening, when he or she wishes to speak, and when his or
her attention is directed elsewhere. This is not to say that these environments offer the same
contextual cues as face-to-face communication—they do not; but there is an added
dimension to interactions in these spaces that does not occur in other online contexts.
Online communication tools also have the potential to increase our awareness of the
movements of our professional or social contacts. Twitter, for instance, offers an at-a-glance
update of things people we know happen to be doing: who is outside cleaning their gutters,
who is writing a new blog post, who is about to have lunch with a friend. Clive Thompson
(2007) calls this phenomenon social proprioception, named after the physical quality of
proprioception that tells a creature where its extremities are by the reception of stimuli
produced within the organism. Social proprioception tells us where the nodes of our
community are and provides a sense of connectedness to and awareness of others without
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