Do Books Need to be “Social”?

Social media isn’t going away. Anyone arguing that isn’t paying attention or is just straight up not very bright. Everything is “going social”. Services like Facebook and Twitter, when coupled with the rise in popularity and greater affordability of mobile computing are making it easier for folks to stay connected to one another over long distances, and to feel like they have a relationship with their favourite brands, celebrities, media outlets, whatever. In some ways it’s a marketer’s wet dream.

There’s this idea that social media, or the social web, or whatever you want to call it, is about making direct connections between people rather than, say, connections between dumb web pages and PDF documents and what have you. This dichotomy is true if you think of the Internet as being largely made up of automated, corporate-controlled, business-centred websites and tools. Accurate statistics have always been hard to come by, but I’ve been rolling around these here Internets since 1998, and that’s only been true for people who think of the Internet as a place to extend the same old things they were doing before, rather than a (metaphorical) place with its own rules, its own conventions, its own reasons.

I’ve had two great loves in my life, and the two relationships could not have been more different. J and I were together for seven years, as inseparable and connected as we could manage, but according to Facebook’s metric, we never should have been able to manage a single conversation without boring each other shitless. We had nothing in common—in fact we often hated the things that the other person loved. Her friends didn’t really care for me, and mine hated her. The relationship developed—and lasted—because we found ourselves in situations where we were forced to interact, and the more we interacted directly, the more we found how awesomely powerful, and more importantly, how attractive the tension between us was. Weirdly, our romance was incredibly stable, solid as a rock for nearly the whole seven years.

With A Certain Young Lady, things couldn’t have been more different. We hit it off right away, and while it’s true we didn’t love every little thing that the other was into, we had more common likes and dislikes than I share with even my best and closest friends. Every conversation contained a frisson of recognition as we learned more about each other. It was more like discovering a new facet of myself than getting to know another person. But the relationship was volatile, turbulent. We both, at various times, admitted to never having had so emotionally intense a relationship. We saw each other on and off, as friends or lovers, sometimes barely speaking to each other, for roughly three years, never managing more than a handful of months at once. By Facebook’s reckoning we should have been a flawless match, but instead we haven’t been able to have a civil conversation for going on two years.

Facebook has it backwards. Social relationships aren’t built using blocks like simple likes and dislikes; it doesn’t matter if you have X number of things in common, because those commonalities are not what you use to forge real social ties. Relationships are forged because we use direct social interaction to discover the frisson that happens when our likes click, or the tension that happens when they don’t. And it’s those elements of frisson and tension that make relationships work, make them real. To start instead with a data set of likes and dislikes, common interests and concerns, and move from there into direct social interaction and then to tension or frisson is to have all the ingredients right, but to be putting them together in the wrong way. Facebook’s way is simpler, but I worry that by tying to understand people’s relationships with each other as a function of having similar relationships to things, that simplification creates more problems than it solves. (I swear to God this is leading up to books, just bear with me.)

Hugh MacLeod has written a post on something called the Social Object, and Dare Obasanjo has done a pretty good job suggesting that it’s Facebook’s model for how social connections are made and work. I think Obasanjo is right that Facebook is using that model. The problem is that the model is wrong.

Let’s look at how MacLeod defines “the Social Object”:

The Social Object, in a nutshell, is the reason two people are talking to each other, as opposed to talking to somebody else. Human beings are social animals. We like to socialize. But if think about it, there needs to be a reason for it to happen in the first place. That reason, that “node” in the social network, is what we call the Social Object.

This isn’t as straightforward as it looks. MacLeod apparently likes talking about something called “Marketing 2.0” (seriously dude?) which is probably going to make this a little fuzzy by default, but I see at least two competing ideas here. First, the straightforward bit: MacLeod believes that Social Objects are the reason people connect. If you and somebody else both like Star Wars (to take one of his examples), then that common like gives you a reason to talk to each other and make a social connection. I think this is a bit of a stretch (I’m a fan of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, which are books written for and mostly read by young people, but I don’t think that gives me a reason to talk to any of his twelve-year-old fans), but it is straightforward.

If we were to redo Obasanjo’s diagrams strictly with this definition, Star Wars would probably fit best as an edge. In his example, the nodes Jennifer and Kim, who are currently connected by the edge “is a friend of,” are both connected to the node “Justin Bieber” via the “is a fan of” edge. But according this part of MacLeod’s definition, Jennifer and Kim’s fandom of Justin Bieber would not be an indirect connection through a third party node, but “is a fan of Justin Bieber” would itself be an edge connecting them. Fandom is not the thing they do to express their connecting, it is the thing that connects them. This probably wouldn’t work in terms of the code, which is what Obasanjo is mostly concerned with, but that’s how the relationships actually functions.

The competing idea in MacLeod’s description is that Social Objects are also sites for social relationships, or put another way, they are the things we do to express our connections. To take another of MacLeod’s examples, educated-but-bored wives of rich men (let’s not get into all the things that are wrong with MacLeod’s examples, or we’ll be here all night, okay?) want to get out of the house and socialize in a way that stimulates the mind, so they organize a high-profile charity event. In this example, MacLeod lists the charity event as the Social Object (as opposed to the boredom, which would have been the Social Object if we were going by the first part of his definition). In this case, the Social Object is quite clearly the kind of node that Obasanjo represents in his diagrams.

What happens when you try to define a network where major elements are both nodes and edges? Well, I haven’t worked with network theory in years, and I wasn’t an expert then, but I’m pretty sure that at worst you get nothing, and at best an arbitrary, fucked up network that doesn’t work, doesn’t make sense, and doesn’t really tell you anything useful. Either way you have to go back and redefine your terms. Let’s do that now.

First, we should take a closer look at MacLeod’s first definition, and talk about some rules. Obasanjo was right to describe “Justin Bieber” as a node with “is a fan of” as the edges connecting it to Kim and Jennifer. If being fans of Justin Bieber truly is the reason Jennifer and Kim are talking to each other, then the “is a friend of” edge between them exists only because they are already connected to the Justin Bieber node. In other words, it’s a catalyst. Two nodes of a certain type (People) must be connected to at least one node of another type (a Social Object) by one or another of a particular kind of edge (in this case “is a fan of”), in order for any kind of edge to form between them, in this case the “is a friend of” edge, though from MacLeod’s examples it’s clear that other types of edges are permitted between People nodes. I think this has problems, but let’s keep going with it for now.

The second part of MacLeod’s definition already sets up Social Objects as nodes, so we’re on safer ground already. What we need now is to talk about edges, because in his “bored housewife” (ugh) example, a new Social Object node is being created because of existing “is a friend of” edges. Here’s MacLeod’s example in full:

You’re an attractive young woman, married to a very successful Hedge Fund Manager in New York’s Upper East Side. Because your husband does so well, you don’t actually have to hold down a job for a living. But you still earned a Cum Laude from Dartmouth, so you need to keep your brain occupied. So you and your other Hedge Fund Wife friends get together and organise this very swish Charity Ball at the Ritz Carleton. You’ve guessed it; the Charity Ball is the Social Object.

There’s actually more than one Social Object in this example, but there are some problems. In two of MacLeod’s first three examples, the Social Objects are physical things that you can have feelings about (books you can like, mobile phones you can be interested in). All the others (with one notable exception: MacLeod refers to human children as Social Objects, and while I think that having children ought to be, on some level, an expression of love between the parents, there’s a lot more going on that MacLeod doesn’t seem to want to look at too closely), they are all things you do to express certain kinds of relationships between people. For all the Hedge Fund Wives to get together to create the Charity Ball node, they must a) already have “is a friend of” edges joining them, and b) already be connected by other Social Object nodes. The nature of the Charity Ball node makes it easy to pick out the other Social Object nodes that connect the Hedge Fund Wives. They are Rich, Married (Wives, remember?), Educated, and Bored. It’s interesting to me that none of these are the external, physical things that folks have feelings about that characterize MacLeod’s examples of how people form social connections. They are all abstract characteristics of the people themselves. Common properties of the People nodes, rather than People nodes who both connect to a certain Social Object via a particular kind of edge.

Even when trying to simplify things, we wind up with a great many flavours of Social Object, a near infinite number of edges, and we even have to be able to say certian things about the People nodes in order to set rules about how they interact with Social Objects (or we have to set up certain characteristics of the People nodes themselves as Social Objects—allow nodes in the network to be networks unto themselves, essentially—and set rules about what kind of nodes can connect to what other kind of node via what kind of edges; in MacLeod’s example, you wouldn’t want Hedge Fund Wife Number Three to be connected to Social Object “Bowling” via the same kind of edge that she is connected to the Social Object “Bored”, would you? Probably not… and what if I like the Lady Gaga song “Bad Romance”, but dislike the rest of her work. How would you represent that social relationship in this kind of network?). It’s enough to make one’s head explode.

And here’s the real kicker: it’s not even half as complex as the way things really work. I didn’t bring up my two great loves to demonstrate how shitty my love life is, but rather that MacLeod (and Facebook’s) model of social connections being made is extremely flawed. In fact, it falls apart in one of his own examples:

You’re a horny young guy at a party, in search of a mate. You see a hot young woman across the room. You go up and introduce yourself. You do not start the conversation by saying, “Here’s a list of all the girls I’ve gone to bed with, and some recent bank statements showing you how much money I make. Would you like to go to bed with me?” No, something more subtle happens. Basically, like all single men with an agenda, you ramble on like a yutz for ten minutes, making small talk. Until she mentions the name of her favorite author, Saul Bellow. Halleluiah! As it turns out, Saul Bellow happens to be YOUR FAVORITE AUTHOR as well [No, seriously. He really is. You’re not making it up just to look good.]. Next thing you know, you two are totally enveloped in this deep and meaningful conversation about Saul Bellow. “Seize The Day”, “Herzog”, “Him With His Foot In His Mouth” and “Humbolt’s Gift”, eat your heart out. And as you two share a late-night cab back to her place, you’re thinking about how Saul Bellow is the Social Object here.

Saul Bellow may be the Social Object in this example, but he’s not the reason for the connection being made, mating is. In fact, a social connection is made without a Social Object at all. Horny Young Guy goes up and interacts with Hot Young Woman (ugh), and they form a real, if shallow and probably short-lived, social relationship (fellow guests at party) without any help from a Social Object. When a Social Object finally is introduced, it serves as a catalyst to upgrade that relationship to a more intimate one, but it could have done the opposite, or, and here’s my favourite part, even if any number of Social Objects had been introduced and they had found none that connected them both, it may very well have been the tension resulting from encountering that strangeness, that alienness, that upgraded the relationship. MacLeod’s definition of a Social Object, and his examples, are simply too open-ended and self-contradictory to actually be useful.

Facebook has gotten around the complexity and open-endedness problems by making everything abstract, and limiting the nodes and edges to a simple handful, using the information that generates largely as a tool for selling advertising (and God knows what else in the future), and that seems to be the same sort of road that most people want to go down when they talk about the “social” web. One thing I worry about is that these over-simplifications of how social connections are made and what they mean will take away a certain amount of our intellectual autonomy. When the Canadian Government was doing consultations on copyright reform last year, the bulk of the people who submitted comments did so by sending a form letter. How many people fully agreed with the letter, do you think, or had done any kind of looking into it? I admit that I sent the form letter, and it wasn’t until later that I examined my reasons for not writing my own (something I would have done ten, or even five years ago). What I realized was frightening: I sent the form letter because someone had simplified the issue for me, and it was easier than dealing with the complexity of it. I thought, “this person has clearly spent more time with the issue than I have, and the letter looks reasonable. I should defer to their judgement.” In retrospect this is appalling, but I think it’s symptomatic of how much we’ve come to rely on the superficial, simplified, and somewhat fuzzy versions of real world issues and relationships that come to us from folks like MacLeod and companies like Facebook.

So what does this mean for books?

For starters, it means that it’s a bad idea to take the reported value of any kind of social media at face value, or to use the numbers those media generate (fans, follower counts, comments on a blog, clicks on a “like” button) as any kind of true indication of message penetration, market share, or even potential sales. I like Microserfs, but I’ve hated everything else Douglas Coupland has ever written, and reading interviews with the man has led me to believe he’s kind of a flake. Does it make sense to market his books to me because I once clicked a “like” button next to the title Microserfs? How would you even know?

(Back in the summer of 2004 I worked as a research assistant on a project led by Dr. Madhur Anand and Dr. Hoi Cheu at Laurentian University, looking to find a link (using complex systems theory, and network theory in particular) between literary theory and science, perhaps even hints at a biological imperative. Much of the next few paragraphs has been adapted from a summary and analysis document I wrote on the materials I was reading for that project. The research and writing are mine, but the ideas, tentative and incomplete as they are, are heavily influenced by feedback and direction from Dr. Anand and Dr. Cheu, and the original idea and parameters for the project came from Dr. Anand.)

One of the things I think MacLeod got right (and Obasanjo illustrated well) is that we need to think of Social Objects and people both in terms of networks if we’re going to say anything meaningful about how they interact. MacLeod’s explanation of Social Objects tried to do too much. We need to limit ourselves to one kind of Social Object in order to say anying meaningful—in this case, books (or to limit things further, literary texts in general, including poems and short stories) are our only Social Object, and humans are our other node, networks unto themselves. Some basic assumptions:

Minds are worldviews (subjects).

Worldviews are networks of ideas. For the sake of clarity, I will define ideas as information plus context (which may or may not include interpretation).

Texts are models of worldviews using a network of selected ideas.

Humans create models to help them understand their world and themselves.

Texts exist to help humans understand their worldviews.

Texts exist to help humans understand themselves and each other.

Texts can only be understood/interpreted through the filter of a worldview, using specific tools from that worldview (a combination of cultural codes, norms, and local knowledge/experience).

As nodes in the network, humans are worldviews (something contemporary literary theory identifies as “subjectivities,” although that word has too many other meanings to be useful here). A worldview is a network of ideas that together form a whole. Liane Gabora (in “Ideas are not replicators but minds are.” Biology and Philosophy 19: 127-143, 2004. Gabora is not consistent about the makeup of her worldview networks; sometimes they consist of ideas, sometimes ideas and attitudes, and similar vague terms. I will treat all such units simply as “ideas.”) writes that

what is evolving is not separate ideas or attitudes but worldviews, i.e. interrelated networks of them. Worldviews are primitive replicators, which replicate without copying from a code. Underlying any idea is a web of assumptions that render it not only possible to be expressed, but sensible and worth considering in the first place. Even when one does not believe an argument or adopt an attitude, one’s worldview is nevertheless affected by (potentially indirect) exposure to this underlying web of assumptions. As Spurber points out, it is not necessary that an idea be understood or even believed to be true for its influence to spread. For example, if Ann’s argument for why free trade is good appears flawed to Bill, and thus strengthens Bill’s conviction that free trade is bad, the structure of Ann’s argument has spread even if the final conclusion has not. Thus even if no particular overtly expressed act or belief gets copied, through exposure to parents and other influential members of society, a general framework for how the world hangs together falls into place in the child’s mind, and this worldview will have some likeness to that of its predecessors. The worldview of a child is a replicant of the worldview of its parents (and others) so long as the fidelity requirement is not applied stringently (137).

What is important here is not so much the concept of the worldview as a replicator that allows culture to evolve, but rather the concept of worldviews as networks of ideas that can interact with one another and change one another.

The ideas that form these worldviews are not entirely random. After all, if interaction between worldviews is how culture evolves, it stands to reason that despite all interactions being local, certain ideas, or kinds of ideas, such as social norms and codes, spread more or less evenly, although not identically, throughout the network. Gieseke (in “Literature as Product and Medium of Ecological Communication.” Configurations, 2002, 10: 11-35, 2003) quotes Nonaka and Tekeuchi, calling this

tacit knowledge, which is hard to articulate with formal language. It is personal knowledge embedded in individual experience and involves intangible factors such as personal belief, perspective, and the value system … (25)

Because tacit knowledge is not easily expressed, it does not fit smoothly with Gabora’s notion that ideas must be transmittable and worth transmitting. Rather it implies that when worldviews meet there are interactions on more than just the explicit level. In order for worldviews to interact with one another, they must have in common a certain amount of tacit information—or the tacit information in the interacting worldviews must be similar enough that they have a framework for more explicit communication. Gieseke quotes Nonaka and Tekeuchi’s comments on explicit knowledge, as that

which can be articulated in formal language including grammatical statements, mathematical expressions, specifications, manuals, and so forth. This kind of knowledge can be transmitted across individuals formally and easily … (25)

That definition seems much closer to what Gabora had in mind when she wrote about interrelated ideas, but clearly those kinds of ideas alone would be inadequate.

Explicit knowledge is the same as what I will call “selected ideas.” These ideas are added to worldviews as a result of specific local interactions that involve deliberate communication, such as schooling, time spent with parents and peers, and sometimes even texts (it is possible to learn how to make jam by reading Anna Karenina, for example). These ideas are often less reliant on the interpretation than tacit ideas, but have a greater influence on the uniqueness of the individual worldviews, because unlike tacit ideas, these ideas are defined by the fact that not every human in the network has access to them.

Texts are model worldviews made of chosen (and if they stick around long enough, selected) ideas. They exist for the same reason that all models exist: to help humans understand their world (or in this case their worldviews).

When a writer creates a text, they choose ideas from their worldview (and very often those ideas were incorporated into that worldview from other texts) and constructs the text from those ideas. All of the ideas incorporated into the text are chosen, but they are not necessarily “selected,” i.e. they can be ideas unconsciously taken from the writer’s tacit knowledge. The author has a limited power to direct interpretations because they can pick and choose which ideas to include, but because the author also relies on the tacit knowledge of the reader, the text can only ever be partly directed. What little power the author has also diminishes over time, because cultures and worldviews both evolve, while texts cannot. Therefore if a text remains in the network long enough, it becomes exclusively a network of selected ideas because the tacit ideas that originally informed it will no longer be operating in the network as a whole.

What is present in the text is present in the text and cannot be added to. However, the interactions between humans and texts are interpretive. Humans use their own worldviews as a filter when interpreting texts.

Alright, so as stumbling and half-formed and academic as all that nonsense is, what does it mean? It means that books are already a social medium. What they aren’t is a simple social medium. You can’t engage with it by clicking a “like” button, or joining a Facebook group, or typing your email into a subscription box. When the project ended in 2004 we were just starting to work out how the interactions might work between nodes and edges. We were looking only at how people interacted with literary texts, largely to see how new texts were created and what the network would look like as a whole. People (worldviews) and texts (model worldviews) were the only two nodes on the network, and two potential flavours of edge (reading and writing).

These are the sort of interactions we were looking at:

When a worldview and a model worldview meet, the worldview evaluates the model in terms of its tacit information to determine if any interpretive act can be performed (this is itself an interpretive act, but is not the meat of the matter). The worldview behaves as if the model is a code (or several linked codes) to be deciphered rather than another subjective network of ideas. Multiple codes (and multiple interpretations) can be recognized by the worldview, but the text itself never changes and therefore its subjectivity (its network) cannot evolve the way a human’s idea network does, because it does not carry with it the information from each interaction.

The interactions themselves are fairly straightforward and limited. They are either “embrace,” ” resist,” or “treat with indifference.” Indifference is not the same as an idea being neutral; there is no such thing as a neutral idea. An idea that is treated indifferently is one that is either embraced or resisted, but the reaction is so weak that it makes no qualitative difference to the worldview’s network of ideas. An embraced idea is one that the worldview makes a part of its network, perhaps affecting the network in a way that the worldview feels is positive. A resisted idea is one that the worldview tries to avoid bringing into its network, or isolates/actively resists/works to eliminate if it does become part of the network. The processes are not necessarily conscious (and most often probably are not).

I can’t tell you for sure if that’s how things play out; we didn’t get to the point of actually building computer models and seeing what happens, so the rules never got refined, errors weren’t given a chance to crop up. All kinds of things still needed to be looked at. But that’s not really the point. The point is that all kinds of things go on when you read a book that could qualify as social, but they don’t work the same way as the “social web”. What Facebook is doing with their new protocols, by turning everything into Social Objects, is simplifying those interactions to the point where one may be tempted to let somebody else do the analytical heavy lifting.

Digital books are something else entirely. The possibilities are enormous, especially when open formats like ePub (and the readers that can actually read it) start fully supporting the possibilities of HTML 5, CSS 3 and other technologies coming down the pipe. But there’s potential problems there too. Mark Bertils has made some interesting suggestions about borrowing elements from customer reward programs, and more importantly, video games. Adam Greenfield has posted about this in another context, but he directed me to this excellent post by Russell Davies on taking game elements and adapting them to other contexts. Davies writes:

The problem is, up to now, we’ve mostly experienced these point scoring mechanisms in the context of well-designed games. They’re part of a larger experience – properly thought through by people who know what they’re doing. We like scoring points, partly because, up to now, all the contexts in which we’ve scored points have been fun.

However, as I’ve slightly grumpily encountered myself, not everyone who wants a game wants to pay for a game designer. It’s a bit like advertising, everyone thinks they can do it themselves.

Which means we’re going to encounter a bunch of crappy sorta-games foisted on us. Those rudimentary game schemes are going to be rolled out by everyone with a rewards card, CRM system, loyalty scheme or something that can be plotted on a graph. And they’re going to be no fun. They’re going to drive us all mad. This’ll either lead to wholesale abandonment of the whole idea or a recognition that proper games design is necessary.

He make a couple of good points. I’m part of a long-running private web community made up mostly of web designers and developers. These are the people—not the biggest names in the business, but not your nephew who “knows computers” either—who could make these game elements work using formats like ePub and the various associated technologies. Recently there was a candid conversation between some of them about salaries. Publishing, in this country especially, is notorious for being cash-strapped. The one thing I learned from reading the discussion about salaries is that developers cost money—real money, not publishing industry money. More than one said they wouldn’t get out of bed for less than $80,000 a year. Now imagine a Canadian publishing house having to hire not just one, but a whole team of developers to implement some of Bertil’s game-style suggestions. And if you want a full-on, application style treatment of an ebook, like this Alice in Wonderland ebook, then you’re only talking a handful of projects a year, even with a team, at least if you want any kind of editorial oversight. Greenfield is terrified of what game-related triggers can do in the hands of somebody who knows what they’re doing, but I’m with Davies on this. I am most definitely not looking forward to the half-assed implementations of rewards systems that will proliferate because folks can’t or won’t spend the money to do it right. Never mind the cost of servers and a back end to handle all the interactivity and reward programs and craziness at the client side. Regardless of where you see publishers falling on this spectrum (I know some that would do it up right but can’t, and some that could but won’t), either way I think most will fuck it up somehow. Davies thinks that other elements could be taken from video games and used effectively, like the cues for entering another world and being “someone else” for a time. The thing is, books already have these things.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, or even any answers. What I do know is that publishers need to find a way to engage directly with readers in ways that take advantage of new technologies without undermining the existing strengths and complexities of books and reading, and without simply doing a half-assed job of implementing somebody else’s existing programs.

I know this post was just a collection of incomplete ideas. For now that’s all I have; I’m really deciding what my opinions are as I write them down. Expect more of these, mostly on ebooks. Hopefully they won’t all be this long.


Writer. Editor. Critic.

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