When seeing becomes social: How the network is changing the way I look at the world.

In response to the 2010 Edge Annual Question How Has The Internet Changed The Way You Think? classicist James O’Donnell proposed that his fingers have become part of his brain. That “the sign of thinking is that I reach for the mouse and start “shaking it loose”… My eyes and hands have already learned to work together in new ways with my brain in a process of clicking, typing a couple of words, clicking, scanning, clicking again that really is a new way of thinking for me.

That finger work is unconscious. It just starts to happen. But it’s the way I can now tell thinking has begun as I begin working my way through an information world more tactile than ever before.

I, too, often kind of “type” my thoughts into mid-air; a kinetic response to thinking. Is this just a direct response to the time I spend in front of a computer, thinking, and to the devices I use? Possibly. But it isn’t the only response to what O’Donnell terms “the living presence of networked information.” My greater response is far more encompassing than that. Because of my direct connection to my networks – to you – to people with shared interests and frames of reference with whom my buy-in to conversation is the input of interesting content or comment, the way I actually look at the world, the way I listen, and the attention I pay, is shifting. It is as though the network itself is a giant amorphous creature, and I am merely one eye that can see for it; a scout whose role is to look at the world for the information that will benefit the network itself, and bring it back.

When I last visited a museum, you were there with me. I carried you, reader, in my thoughts; in my pocket; in my devices. Though you had no eyes of your own, you stood behind my eyes when I looked at the objects; when I observed the space. Your presence changed my looking. How could I translate what was in front of my eyes and make it meaningful for you? My looking was looking on your behalf as much as my own. Simultaneously, I took note of what interested me and what might interest you. I tried to pay attention to the sorts of things you might want to know, so that if you asked questions, I’d have answers. I did so to have content for this blog; to have reasons for connection. I did so to ensure that I’d have something to contribute to our conversations; something to talk about.

My network, of which you are part, is shifting the way I understand the world. In one way, this is because much of the information that I encounter comes through you. You link to articles, you share news, you provide new perspectives in comments and discussion. You filter forward those things that you think are worth paying attention to, and in so doing shape the way I, as part of your network, understand the world.

But this is not the only way your presence is reshaping how I negotiate or interact with the world. It is actually changing the way I see, and hear. The sorts of Tweetable phrases stories I now listen for, the photographs I take, the anecdotes I file away that might be of use or interest for this blog, they all shape the kind of attention I pay to the world. When I attend a conference without Twitter, I hear entirely different nuance in the presentations from what I hear when I am seeking to translate and Tweet the ideas. The looking that I do; the listening. It is all changed as a result of my interactions with the network; with you.

The perceptions that we have of the world shape the way we understand it, and new technologies lead to new perceptions. Perhaps my greatest shift in this direction came once I had an iPhone; once I began to carry in my pocket a device that would allow me to capture and share what I was seeing or hearing instantly via tools like Twitter – tools that were simultaneously personal and not directed at any single other person. This device, these capabilities altered the way I experienced the physical world. I no longer had to be stuck behind my desk to share content, to make connections; I could do so from the wild. This started changing what I saw by changing what I looked for.

I now see socially. I listen, not just for myself, but for what I can translate and share to my networks. I pay attention to the ideas that you, my network, is interested in, and in so doing, I encounter the world through that lens. The things I notice are not of interest to me alone. I notice those things that I think you would be interested in too, and I think of you when I am noticing them.

When I am in situ in the museum, I encounter the space through the framework of shared assumptions that my digital networks use. My network, who I am connected to, what their interests are, changes how I see and understand the museum and the world. It changes the way I encounter and read objects. It even changes where I go, because I attend events that will be of interest and relevant to the people in my network.

What are the implications of this? We know that the museum visitor does not encounter the object as a tabula rasa, a blank slate. He or she constructs meaning based on existing knowledge and past experiences. But if I’m right about this change in looking, if looking is now taking place socially, then there are new elements and influences at play as well.

What do you think? Are you aware of changes that connection to the network has made to how you look at and interpret the world? Is this any different from the way you encountered spaces or events prior to carrying a networked device on your person?

8 thoughts on “When seeing becomes social: How the network is changing the way I look at the world.

  1. I’m wondering if what you are describing are actually two different things happening in parallel.

    The first is that your viewpoint is shifting by virtue of experience and expertise. You have read more, thought more and discussed ideas more, such that you now see things in a different way. I’m sure digital networks have put this process on fast-forward, but I’m not convinced it’s qualitatively different from the ‘normal’ trajectory of someone on a research degree. The same ingredients are there, even if the time frame and reach is on an entirely different scale.

    The second is how devices such as smartphones have indeed changed the way we do things. We have subcontracted a lot of our memory to our devices – we capture more, share more and make more use of the digital ‘hive mind’. That does change what we record and what we recall. I notice this change more in my non-professional life – when was the last time you were in an extended debate about whether it was this actor or that in a particular movie? Someone in the pub will whip their phone out and google it.

    1. Hi Regan. I agree that both of those things are happening, and that they are happening in parallel. But they are something different again to this change that I’m noticing.

      There is an article this week on The Quietus about the culture of Instagram food photographs (http://thequietus.com/articles/11356-instagram-food-pictures), which includes the choice line “Nothing encapsulates this misplacement [the elevation of eating from a means into an end] better than the Instagrammed lunch, which implies that one’s personal intake of food is something to be documented, celebrated, envied, and “liked,” when exactly the opposite is true.” This is maybe some of what I am getting at. When an Instagrammer receives a meal now, they notice it as being worthy of Instagramming or not. They look at it, not just to enjoy it or assess it before eating. They look at it for its value as social currency within their social network. They look at it, and therefore they see it, differently from the way they might if there wasn’t such a culture of Instagram food photography. The attention they pay, and what they pay attention to, is changed because the network directs their attention towards particular things.

      To some extent, we have always likely noticed what our friends were also interested in. But I think the strange combination of knowing and not-knowing the people in our networks (I am friends with some of the people I follow on Twitter, but not all, and vice versa with those who follow me) further shifts the nature of the influence. I don’t go to a museum and ask myself what “Bill” would be interested in. I consider what the people who I follow and who follow me in return would likely want to gain out of the situation. There is a shared frame of reference that shapes what I am looking for, and therefore noticing.

      Although I absolutely agree that my viewpoint is shifting through learning, and that this process has been accelerated because of my connections on social media, this is something other than that.

  2. I too sometimes wonder if the shift is qualitative or quantitative. I recollect some 20 years ago when something called IRC chat was brand new and I was blown away that I could have real-time typed conversations with folks from throughout the world. I specifically recall one night having a conversation with someone in Moscow when I was in Epps, Louisiana, US (population 300) and we talked about what we had for supper that evening. I was blown away by the familiarity and the convenience. So now, I can have similar convos via Skype, Google Hangout, blogs with folks from throughout the world. 75% of the world now has cell phone access. This shift seems quantitative.

    However, I think the qualitative shift is the access to having a voice – or what that hyper Luddite Andrew Keane refers to as the Cult of the Amateur. The peer reviewed journal may be what still counts for tenure and promotion in academia, but MOOCs, blogs, and a plethora of other venues are the source of much cutting edge discussion. I am as likely to obtain meaningful direction on museum theory and practice from a blog as I am from the mainline journals. I think of someone such as Nina Simon who became a recognized leader in the field of the Participatory Museum but is largely published through her Museum 2.0 blog and self-published book.

    One resource where I received considerable insight and direction in the past year is Debbie Morrison’s online learning insights blog (http://onlinelearninginsights.wordpress.com/). She puts out a steady stream of insightful, reports, ideas, and directions on everything about online education from MOOCs to pedagogy. Her blog posts are as well researched and referenced as a typical professional journal article and provides lots of good things to think about. We occasionally go back and forth in email and blog comments. I have never met Debbie in person, and seriously doubt that I ever will. Yet I am hard-pressed to think of a comparable type of interaction that I might have had twenty years ago. 20 years ago the Nina Simons and Debbie Morrisons (and Suse Cairns) of the world would have functioned as fantastic consultants/students/etc. working in relative isolation. Now, all three of those individuals, and myself, can have a relatively equal voice that can be disseminated and incorporated more broadly than ever before. In theory, whether a broad dissemination occurs is dependent on the value the “public” place on what is being presented. I will read this blog, or any other, not because it is the peer reviewed standard for the industry, but because there is relevance to my interests/needs. That open authority seems a qualitative shift.

  3. I think what worries me about the impact of social networks on my thought processes is how those network providers themselves are trying to influence the behavior of their users. Facebook’s new Graph Search feature is pretty clearly designed to subvert real socialization in order to monetize a user’s preferences for targeted marketing. It’s a feature that, if implemented differently, could encourage users to reminisce or reflect. But the way it is implemented is clearly designed to serve as a sort “social recommendation” engine which really just turns our social interactions into marketing opportunities.

    Every social network is doing stuff like this constantly. They’re not just providing a framework for interaction and watching what happens. They’re trying to manipulate their users’ behaviors in order to monetize their user base. This isn’t some evil conspiratorial plot. It’s just businesses doing what they do, trying to make money.

    The tools we use for any task influence how we perform those tasks and how we perceive them. Social networks are no different from any other tool in this regard. This has to be impacting us. This has to have some kind of effect on how we interact with each other through these services and on how those interactions effect us beyond the screen. It’s not just our followers and friends who influence our perceptions, and I’m becoming more aware of that with every new facebook feature that gets added (because they’ve all followed the same theme lately).

    Are we, as institutions, comfortable with how we use these services? Are we considering the effects and accounting for them or are we just hoping for the best? Are we participating in these manipulations through our own marketing efforts? Should we be concerned? Should we look for alternatives? Should we just start using the major social networks as marketing channels (which is all they’re really becoming) and turn to paid-for alternatives or blue-sky open source projects like App.net and Diaspora for our actual social activity? I don’t have a single answer to any of those questions, but it bothers me that I don’t hear more people in our field asking them.

    1. Matt, I’ve been thinking a lot about these questions myself, and like you, I have no answers. This idea that information is linked so closely to commerce should probably be a concern, particularly when so many of our curators etc themselves utilise search engines quite heavily. How is this impacting the knowledge found within our institutions themselves? Astrid Mager wrote a paper on Algorithmic Idealogy that you might find interesting (http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1369118X.2012.676056 – let me know if you cannot access it).

      As to why they aren’t being discussed, I think there are probably lots of reasons. Some around complexity, some around convenience. There simply aren’t answers, so rather than asking wicked problems, just getting on with daily business makes sense I suppose.

  4. “I now see socially”. Love it. Amazing how the way we see ourselves, our roles and our world influences what we notice, take note of and share… I was asked to tweet as part of a social media team from a conference I attended recently… All of a sudden I was listening intently to even the least engaging speakers, hoping to identify compelling ideas from sometimes dreary presentations. There was 12 of us on the team. In a room of hundreds, at some points I suspect we were the only 12 listening! And boy, did we manage to find some gems in seemingly barren presentations! Listening socially, as it turns out, can actually be incredibly exhausting, but I learned and retained more because of that responsibility.

    1. It’s interesting that you tie in the idea of responsibility to social listening. I think you’re right however. There is an element of culpability in the action of listening or looking when you are doing it to represent someone other than yourself that wouldn’t be there otherwise.

      I’m also curious about the idea that you gained more benefit from the responsibility of your position as eyes and ears for the group than you think you would have without it. I feel like it’s touching on some bigger issues around individual reward vs social reward, but am not yet sure how. Something to think on.

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