Brief Conversations and Social Media

or, On Brevity

I want to register a hesitation I have about social media or certain kinds of social media. In one of the book promotion videos we watched for this class, Jose van Dijck shows some of Facebook’s promotional material, in which Jostein Solheim, CEO of Ben & Jerry’s, says Facebook has allowed him to “engage in a large-scale conversation” with customers. In the discussion threads I expressed some skepticism about this. I wasn’t just skeptical about the idea that a corporation would engage in dialogue, however; I was also skeptical that Facebook could host a conversation, let alone a large-scale one. Indeed, I am skeptical that a large-scale conversation can exist.

I tend to think of conversations as an exchange of ideas; this might include mutual exploration of a topic, or persuasion attempts, or debate. No matter what, though, conversation (as I understand the term) involves getting someone else to understand how I am thinking about an issue. In order to do this, I need to “show my work,” in the terms of high school math class. The more information I give you about how I think—my values, my intellectual style, my assumptions—the more likely you are to understand why I think what I think. So this puts certain constraints on conversations: short conversations and conversations in which participants do not get to really know each other (in an intellectual way) are less likely to be successful.

This means that broadcast media, in which one source tries to communicate with large numbers of people, cannot host dialogue very well. I suppose all of the viewers/followers/readers might be well situated to understand the broadcaster, but even if there are options to talk back, the broadcaster cannot easily understand their many, many interlocutors. And Ben & Jerry’s Facebook account seems to be more broadcast than narrowcast media: when Solheim speaks of a “large-scale conversation,” he seems to indicate that he wants to understand his customer base, but I wonder what kind of understanding is possible given how large his customer base presumably is (if we assume, for the moment, that he really does want to understand his customers). Perhaps you can gain a shallow, aggregate understanding, but this isn’t really a conversation so much as a poll.

And even if there are fewer dialogue partners, brevity prevents the sort of rich understanding that conversation demands. Unfortunately, brevity is a built-in component of some social media technology (Twitter) and a conventional one of other social media technology (Facebook). At any rate, this is why I have preferred blogs in the past: blogs let me show my work, which means my interlocutors can better understand my argument but can also better critique my argument, showing me where I’ve gone wrong. Brevity is further important in increasing the success—by metrics of popularity, access, etc.—of social media. Even in the world of blogging, long and thorough posts are less likely to circulate than brief but incomplete ones, all else being equal.* (That said, there are some really excellent blogs out there with long, long entries, and some of these are still fairly popular! The public intellectual conversation isn’t dead.)

But perhaps institutions like libraries do not need or intend to engage in conversations, as I understand them. There are lots of other models of communication—including polls and announcements—for which the broad, shallow approach of social media is perfectly adequate. So some or most of my hesitations might be unwarranted! I will need to tame this fretting. At the same time, however, I will try to think of ways—and maybe use this blog to experiment with ways—to show my work while also keeping my posts short. (One possibility might be a long conversation spread out over short installments?)

Please feel free to quarrel with anything I’ve said.


*And, of course, for these blogs in particular, it is simply a kindness to keep things short, since participation is mandatory and whatever I write is perhaps required reading for you (and vice versa).

2 thoughts on “Brief Conversations and Social Media

  1. Or, perhaps libraries and librarians can adopt broad/shallow or narrow/deep conversational approaches as time, circumstances and audiences warrant?

    The one thing that seems to cry out in your blogpost is a visual to amplify your good thoughts. A few more links perhaps, more media please! My bias (and don’t take it as a directive at all). Dean

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