Last week, before all hell broke loose with my son's health, I had the opportunity to participate in two conference calls on the topic of "emergent democracy and blogs," arranged by Joi Ito. The participants included Clay Shirky, Ross Mayfield, Seb Paquet, and a number of others (more than I'm willing to type in).
Somebody in the group (Pete Kaminsky?) christened it a "happening," and the name seems to have stuck. As a result, the refrain from a song in the musical Jesus Christ Superstar has been running through my mind..."What's the buzz, tell me what's a-happening." I looked up the rest of the lyrics, and found them serendipitously interesting in this context:
APOSTLES What's the buzz? Tell me what's happening. (Repeat eight times)
I could give you facts and figures.
Even give you plans and forecasts.
Even tell you where I'm going.
[ . . . ]
Why should you want to know?
Why are you obsessed with fighting
Times and fates you can't defy?
If you knew the path we're riding,
You'd understand it less than I.
In the first conference call (which involved only the call, without other media) I asked Clay what his response to the "so what?" comments on his power law essay from people like Jonathon Delacour and Alex Halavais. Part of his answer led to the question of what will happen to blogging as the conversational space scales? He believes what will result will be too complex to have a single name applied to it. The heavily linked blogs will become a form of media outlet (think Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Reynolds, et al). But he didn't really address the part that Jonathon raises, and that I"m most interested in...what's happening "in the middle"?
In my heart, I'm a qualitative researcher, not a quantitative one. I don't want the "facts and figures," "plans and forecasts," so much as I want the stories. It's not that I don't want a big picture, it's that I want one that emerges (there's that word again...) from the details, rather than one that comes from an aerial view. Knowing that we're "baked into" power law distributions doesn't tell me anything. ("If you knew the path we're riding...") I want to get inside that curve, ride it for a while, listen to what people are saying about it, figure out the path ahead from the people who are on it.
We talked about this more in the second conference call, which made me feel woefully inadequate as a multi-tasking member of the new media world. I was tasked with note-taking, which would have been fine if it had just been an audio call. But the call was accompanied by a chat session that had nearly 20 participants at its peak, and by a wiki site that was changing as we went. So I had three windows to work with -- a browser for the chat, another browser for the wiki, and the text document for notes. And I was trying to listen, too. Doesn't work well for me, I found. (And that's a serious understatement.)
But I did still manage to extract key concepts from what we discussed. Key among them was the rallying cry among several participants that "We are not ants!" What does that mean? Well, we were discussing Steven Johnson's book Emergence, in which he discusses the emergent behavior/intelligence in environments like ant colonies. The problem, several of us noted, is that ants do not have much self-awareness, while people do. (Yes, I know, that can be argued on many levels. Let's take it as a given for now.)
Some of the most interesting social scientific writings I've read have looked at social phenomena from a critical theory perspective. Scholars like Anthony Giddens have specifically addressed this reflexive character of human behavior--that when we study behavior, and write about it, what we write feeds back into the very environment we describe.
Bloggers who spend a lot of time "metablogging" tend to get flak about it from readers--but in an environment as fluid as the "blogosphere," those reflections on practice and participants are incredibly powerful in shaping the environment. To dismiss them as "naval-gazing" is short-sighted. As Giddens says, "reflections on social processes (theories, and observations about them) continually enter into, become disentangled with and re-enter the universe of events they describe." This is particularly true with blogging.
As a result of the "happenings," my reading list has grown. I have to actually finish Emergence, which is on my shelf with Smart Mobs, both half-read, half-skimmed. And I've ordered a copy of William Calvin's How Brains Think, which several participants in the call recommended highly.
Happily, our quarter break is approaching fast, so I might actually have a chance to read these books. I hope so, because the conversation that's beginning here is a fascinating one, and I want to be actively involved.