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What’s our conclusion? Introducing ‘scalable sociality’

By Daniel Miller, on 16 June 2015

Scalable Sociality Infographic

Scalable Sociality

Right now we are finishing the last of our eleven volumes from this project, a book which will be called How the World Changed Social Media. Not surprisingly, people are starting to ask about our conclusions. There are of course many of these, and the website will also showcase these ‘discoveries’, but as anthropologists our primary concern is to determine the consequences of social media (or what used to be called social networking sites) for our own core concern which is sociality – the study of how people associate with each other.

We have concluded that the key to understanding this question is through what we will call ‘scalable sociality.’ Prior to social media, we mainly had private and public media.

Social networking sites started with platforms such as Friendster, QZone and then Facebook as a kind of broadcasting to a defined group rather than to the general public, in a sense scaling downwards from public broadcast.

By contrast some of the recent social media such as WhatsApp and WeChat are taking private communications such as telephones and messaging services that were mainly one-to-one and scaling upwards. Often these now also form groups, though generally smaller ones. Also these are generally not a single person’s network. All members of the group can post equally to all the others.

If we imagine two parameters – one consisting of the scale from private to public and the other from the smallest group of two up to the biggest group of public broadcast – then as new platforms are continually being invented they encourage the filling of niches and gaps along these two scales. As a result, we can now have greater choice over the degree of privacy or size of group we may wish to communicate with or interact with. This is what we mean by scalable sociality.

However this is just an abstract possibility. What people actually do is always a result of local norms and factors. In each society where we conducted fieldwork, we saw entirely different configurations of these scales as suits that area.

In our South Indian site these mainly reflect traditional groups such as caste and family. In our factory China site an entirely new society of floating workers create largely new norms of group interactivity including their first experience of true privacy. While in our rural Chinese site the main difference is that it is possible to now include strangers on the one hand and to extend various social ‘circles’ on the other. In our English site people specialise in the exact calibration of sociality that is neither too close, nor too distant.

Nonetheless, all of these are variants that can be understood as exploiting this new potential given by social media for an unprecedented scalable sociality.

‘What is social media?’ – a definition

By Daniel Miller, on 1 May 2013

Photo by Muffet (Creative Commons)

Photo by Muffet (Creative Commons)

Having described our project as the Global Social Media Impact Study, we realised there was just one little thing we hadn’t actually done. This was to define, at least for our purposes, what we mean by the words ‘social media’. Our studies are ethnographies, there is pretty much nothing we would not wish to include. This includes polymedia, the study of how all our various forms of communication interact with each other. But we also wanted to flag the degree to which we are concerned with new kinds of social communication. Our project talks about social networks or social network sites but sometimes these are hard to define. We don’t really focus on what sociologists mean by social networks since we may end up largely working on groups such as kinship while that tradition is more focused on ego-cantered networks that at least according to Rainie and Wellman may replace more traditional groups. While SNS includes Facebook and QQ (but does it include Twitter?) and is a bit too narrow and technical as a definition of social media.

So at least for present purposes let me suggest another meaning for the words ‘social media’. Our primary concern is with the development of communication media that goes beyond the dyadic, being open to a group of persons. Social media helps draw attention to the development of a series of practices of communication which lie between traditionally dyadic forms such as the phone call or indeed most webcam conversations, and on the other hand public broadcasting as in most traditional media. Social media could imply that the communication is social in the sense of going to a larger group, but social also in that it helps create and maintain relationships rather than the one-way communication of broadcast media. We don’t want to be pedantic or overly semantic. It doesn’t matter a whole lot that we can’t really find precise boundaries for such a definition. Take WhatsApp. This app includes both dyadic texting but also group texting. If we are focusing on social media then our prime concern is with the latter, but obviously we would also take note of the former as part of polymedia. In conclusion as long as we don’t worry too much about precise boundaries, it might be useful to have at least a rough idea of what the words social media might imply about the ways communications have changed over the last two decades. An orientation to the social as opposed to merely the personal seems to keep us close to the intuitive semantics of these words, and that is surely a good thing.