I had a minor epiphany last week after my friend Jocelyn posted a quote from our conversation at dinner on my Facebook wall. For those of you not on Facebook, the wall is a single-threaded discussion board, where people can write comments to you that are visible to others. One of the reasons I didn’t “get” Facebook was that observing something like the wall from outside a community was meaningless. The comments were disjointed and without context, and I didn’t see how they were interesting… until I got one myself. Jocelyn’s comment preserved our conversation in a more substantial form, but it will only have meaning to those of us who were at dinner – it requires knowledge of a separate context to make sense of the comment.
This is part of a larger trend in society to expand our conversations and communities across multiple forms of media. This post is informed by having read the Transmedia Storytelling chapter of Convergence Culture, by Henry Jenkins, where he describes The Matrix as follows:
The Matrix is entertainment for the age of media convergence, integrating multiple texts to create a narrative so large that it cannot be contained within a single medium. The Wachowski brothers played the transmedia game very well, putting out the original film first to stimulate interest, offering up a few Web comics to sustain the hard-core fan’s hunger for more information, launching the anime in anticipation of the second film, releasing the computer game alongside it to surf the publicity, bringing the whole cycle to a conclusion with The Matrix Revolutions, and then turning the whole mythology over to the players of the massively multiplayer online game. Each step along the way built on what has come before, while offering new points of entry.
What Jocelyn’s wall post made me realize is that conversations in general can no longer “be contained within a single medium”. We have so many options for expressing ourselves, and for having conversations with our friends, that restricting ourselves to a single medium no longer makes sense. We might start a conversation by phone, follow up by email, use instant messaging to arrange a meeting, have a conversation in person, and recap the conversation in Facebook.
One possible disadvantage of such transmedia conversations is that it requires carrying our context with us. I can’t depend on the media to give me cues about how the conversation has developed when the conversation has spanned across several forms of media. So when I get a text message on my phone, I have to remember what I was last talking to this person about, and figure out the frame of context myself, whereas on the phone I could ask for clarification, or in email, my previous email might often be quoted. This may be a generational thing, though, as I think that younger generations growing up in a world of transmedia will have less difficulty with keeping track of their various contexts, as they will not know a world where it could be otherwise.
A similar constraint on these conversations is the lack of traceability and history. I really like email because I can use quoting of an incoming message to frame my reply, and keep a stored digital copy of what was said for future reference. I often get frustrated when looking at an old email that refers to an IM or an offline conversation because I can’t reconstruct what triggered the reference – the conversation that was part of my context at the time is long since forgotten and I have no way of recovering it. I can see advantages to this form of built-in information decay, but I also think we will lose our history. I can’t imagine future historians being able to track their subject’s thoughts and conversations in the way they could fifty years ago by reading their subject’s letters, as so much context will be lost.
Another disadvantage is that these conversations are impenetrable to outsiders. They don’t make sense from outside the community, because only the community is following the conversation across all media (one might call it “media hopping” in analogy to frequency hopping). This may be an advantage in some ways, especially for teenagers trying to develop and assert a new identity without interference from their parents and community, but it makes the barrier to entry into the community higher. One has to earn the trust of everybody in the community to get included in the conversation. Otherwise, one suffers from the experience we’ve all had where somebody says “Don’t you remember what they said? Oh, right, you weren’t there.” where “there” can be a place, a mailing list, a web-based discussion board, an IM chat room, a friends-locked LiveJournal post, etc.
Understanding the transmedia nature of the conversations helps because it makes me realize that it’s not that I’m “old” in not “getting” a new medium, it’s that I’m not part of a community conversation using that medium. New communities are springing up around each form of social media, and many communities are spanning across several media. Having a surfeit of media options provides people with more options for expressing themselves. People that like to write essays can have a blog, people that express themselves through pictures have Flickr, people who think in one-liners have Twitter, people that represent themselves through their networks have LinkedIn or Facebook, etc. And communities can integrate all of these to express themselves. Much like I might represent myself by a particular combination of fields, a community might define itself by the media it uses to trace its connections.
Of course, the next step is to think about how one might try to design the form a community will take by the media used to maintain it (e.g. mailing list vs. web discussion board vs. closed Facebook group), but I’ll leave that to someone smarter than myself.