When the Social, not the Medium, is the Message: On the spaces we make for virtual and face-to-face interactions

Periodically I find myself confused about my online presence and contributions.  Am I using wikis, blogs, twitter, social networks, and email effectively?  Effective by what criteria?  Indeed, who am I trying to influence?

My explorations of what others say about this recently has led me to a position—albeit a provisional one—that I don’t see expressed elsewhere.  The social, not the medium (or technology), should be the primary consideration.  The criterion we need to apply in designing our online presence and contributions could be something like: “Am I welcoming and cultivating apprentices who are getting prepared to go on and cultivate the kinds of interaction in virtual and physical space that support their own work?”  (In case “apprentice” connotes for you someone who is bound to a master, envisage these apprentices as part of a Free Association of Free Apprentices.  More on connotations in due course.)

A related image, one that complements the apprentice relation, is that of “flexible engagement.”  In my book, Unruly Complexity (2005, 210), I used this term to “capture the challenge for researchers in any knowledge-making situation of connecting quickly with others who are almost ready to foster—formally or otherwise—participatory processes and, through the experience such processes provide their participants, contribute to enhancing the capacity of others to do likewise. The term plays off the ‘flexible specialization’ that arose during the 1980s, wherein transnational corporations directed production and investment quickly to the most profitable areas and set aside previous commitments to full-time employees and their localities.”

In recent years I have come to see flexible engagement in terms of sequence of 4 Rs—respect, risk, revelation, and re-engagement.  A face-to-face or virtual mode of interaction should begin from a position of respect, taking whatever time is needed for that position to be experienced by all who are participating.  Only on that basis can we expect people to take risks—whether that be trying out a social medium that is new to them or exposing something to people who they might not know well.  Risk creates openings for new ideas and paths—for revelations: “I see this differently”  “I don’t have to continue along previous lines.”  The sense of creativity or generativity that accompanies revelations makes us ready to be more active and engaged in shaping and fostering relationships.

OK, but how does this translate back to the world of internet technologies?  This is not obvious and to some extent that is just the point.  I want to begin from the kinds of interactions we want to cultivate, not what is hot technologically.  Keeping that point in mind, I will sketch my provisional translation in the next posts.


About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, http://bit.ly/NNN2014). On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012, http://bit.ly/TYS2012).

One Response to When the Social, not the Medium, is the Message: On the spaces we make for virtual and face-to-face interactions

  1. Pingback: New Social Media: From technologies to spaces for virtual and face-to-face interactions IV « Probe—Create Change—Reflect

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