Digital Communication and We, the Web Weavers with David Amerland
We are woven of digital threads. Threads of code. Code written in 0s and 1s. And code carved into the way we behave, built of culture.
We need to constantly talk through these codes. And be able to switch them. To do that we need perspectives and new ways of understanding human communication in the magnificent giant semiosphere called the Web.
To find them, I invited writer, speaker and analyst David Amerland.
Within a 30-minutes conversation we made an attempt to putting the Web within the broader topic of communication and vice versa.
Below the embedded video from the talk you will find a transcript of our conversation.
I really hope you enjoy it and let’s keep the conversation going.
The Intertextual Animal: A Conversation with David Amerland [Video Transcript]
Teodora: Hey everyone, this is the first episode from the series The Intertextual Animal in which I will be looking at the morphing textuality on the Web. I am sorry to everybody who were waiting, we had some technical difficulties but thanks to David’s and Scott’s [check out The SCOTT Treatment – it saved the day! and use it for all things video and technical operations] patience I am ready to present you my first guest – David Amerland.
David is an author and a speaker who thinks through our digital and analog, if I can say this, lives. I will be speaking with him about digital communication and the way it changes our world and our ecosystems, business included.
So, without further ado I will ask David my first question and escape the awkward feeling of making him present himself.
What is the difference between communication and digital communication?
That’s an easy one. Or a difficult one, depending.
Every time we communicate we use obviously some kind of medium. And the medium we use has some kind of constraints. It is easy to think of those constraints in terms of bandwidth. And the bandwidth then determines the granularity, the depth and the accuracy of communication. To make this evident, let’s think of pigeon post. If we go back a few years, the only way we could communicate was with our raven. I had to quickly scribble something, put it on the raven’s leg and send it. The bandwidth was pretty narrow, maybe I could get two, three or four lines. In order to get more meaning into those four lines I would probably had to use some sort of shorthand code, so you could understand a lot more. And then I would had to wait for you to reply, so that I would know that you got the message, understood it and we had a communication going. That’s the constraints of the medium.
If we go to the digital world these days, that thing is very frictionless. We communicate with almost anybody anywhere at any time and say pretty much anything. And almost worse than that, we can within limits and within reason almost be anybody. So, we can be other than ourselves. There are complications to this, because everything which we do and in which we engage at length becomes part of our identity curation.
Identity curation is what we engage in naturally in order to understand who we are. Understanding who we are is necessary because it helps us make sense of the world, helps us make sense of who we are in this world. In order for us to get out of the bed in the morning, for instance, we have to have a reasonable understanding of our place in society. And if we take this into the digital sphere now, which increasingly is part of the offline world, because the divide has eroded to a certain extent, everything that we do and everything that we engage in is part of the longer narrative that is informed by our values, our sense of history, knowledge, perspective, biases and our understanding of how these things evolve. The medium itself allows us to not perhaps do more than ever, it allows us to accomplish perhaps more, but at the same time it allows us to make more mistakes, create greater misunderstanding and maybe create greater polarisation with a lot less effort than ever before.
These are the challenges in a nutshell which we face today because of the medium we are in today. Digital communication is just another word for communication in the 21st century. It is like saying a raven communication, a raven’s communication in the 16th centuries.Digital communication is just another word for communication in the 21st century. It is like saying a raven communication, a raven’s communication in the 16th centuries. Click To Tweet
In the the digital realm everything seems as if it is easy but it is not and you said “a longer narrative” – how do you build in this longer narrative, this big semantic network of things and thoughts into a digital manifestation?
The longer narrative is the accumulation of everything we do. There are different ways of doing this.
One is through conscious effort. What we need to remember is that in digital realm, unlike the offline world, we are here by choice. Although that distinction is also beginning to fade, because everybody who has a smartphone doesn’t have a choice but to be in the digital world, anybody who has a job or needs to get some social credit, or form some kind of connections outside their immediate circle, needs to be online. This is when we actually think how we create the identity, the narrative of ourselves. This has two elements. One is conscious – we decide to do things, this is part of our reflection of our belief system, of how things are etc. And through this action, interactions , engagements and so on, this becomes part of the conscious element of who we are.
There is also the subconscious element of this – that is the one that is generated by the data which we produce, which is tracked. This is what we give off to search engines like Google for instance, or social media platforms like Facebook. So basically, through our conjunction, or sort of a union of those two things, we begin to create sense of a digital identity which is again multifaceted and multidimensional.
This reminds me of something I wanted to start the talk with, which is this theory that on the Web we are actors and we act. And acting we are leaving trails and then behind this there are authors of the whole of this acting. They are connecting the nodes. And these are the algorithmic authors. So let’s think through this: algorithmic authors behind what you write on the Web.
In a sense, the algorithms which are part of the fabric of the digital domain track our activity to a great extent and it is not just cookie tracking. Google has now developed a technology which tracks you through a trackless signature. If you have specific devices and engage in specific activity this becomes part of your profile which enables the company to determine who you are, what you do, even though there aren’t any cookies involved. Now this is just pure and simple metadata. The digital domain allows us to see all that , to collect it, to analyze it, and to infer lot more from it, than ever before so that we understand a lot more.
What’s the way of seeing the totality of the place where we act in? When we start being on the Web how do we conceive of the Web?
That’s a tricky question. Mostly because it relies on perspective. Because we are here intentionally certainly in the beginning, what we conceive of the Web is determined rather by our own intention of what we want to achieve while we use it.What we conceive of the Web is determined rather by our own intention of what we want to achieve while we use it. Click To Tweet
And again, let’s sort of narrow this thing a bit. Suppose I want to sell used cars and I choose the Web and a remote buying is my means of doing so. And the first thing I need to do obviously here is to establish a sense of trust and trustworthiness, what I am doing and so on. Therefore with everything I do I will aim to do that in order than to go in the next proposition – “Hey, what I am selling is good and there is a reliable channel for you to act!”
We come through digital domain, we come through many of the human qualities which we try to establish in order to actually have that kind of relation exchange that we would have in an offline world.
These days I am having some thoughts that selling on the Web, that conceiving of the Web as a selling medium… What if it is first a digital sense-making medium, an exobrain you once called it? Can we start from there even if we are a business?
We conceive of the Web or any kind of technology as a selling medium because relational exchange that has a transactional value is easy to understand because we can see the motivation behind it.
But obviously any kind of technology, and it doesn’t matter what it is, if we go from a papyrus, to paper, to you know tape to disks to 1s and 0s in the cloud is essentially a repository of information. And we are informational clouds ourselves.
So information being there, informing, connecting, exchanging, interacting, engaging is actually what makes everything possible. And that is how these things actually connect. So your idea that something is information-driven as opposed to just purely transactional is actually quite correct as in many cases we need information before we can perform any kind of transaction.
Okay, where does information stop. Where is the boundary between information and marketing.
Marketing in many ways is information.
Says the marketer 🙂
An advert itself is an information. The question is “Is it the right kind of information, is it accurate and can you trust it?” Is it information that is accurate and trustworthy is information you can engage with? And if we talk about marketing, the above is exactly the kind of information that any marketer would want to share because that is what will give them the engagement they need in order to market to somebody.
Everybody has a vested interest information to be as accurate as possible. Another thing as a distinction you can make between information which is there for transactional purpose (be it product specifications or even a sales message) and information which has been shared seemingly for the sake of being shared. That is because when somebody shares something just for the sake of it there is still some kind of intent behind it, a belief system behind that action.
Within that context, where everybody shares information on the Web and the book Everybody Writes – if everybody writes, what are then the content writers doing?Within that context, where everybody shares information on the Web and the book Everybody Writes - if everybody writes, what are then the content writers doing? Click To Tweet
That depends purely on the intention of the content writer.
If a content writer writes to share passion that is still part of their identity curation effort. If they write simply because they want to inform the world about something that had seen this also part of their identity curation efforts which feeds into their sense of how the world works and how they work in that world.
When we take that to the broader context of the so many different content writers, and the title of the content writer has a commercial connotation, then agin there is an intention behind that and the intention is to make something obvious enough for the communication to happen, for a relation to be established, for some kind of exchange to take place. So a content writer’s role really, in any kind of context, is to be as good a communicator as possible.
We all know good practices for communicating within different contexts, however if we don’t try to extrapolate these practices onto the Web but rather use emerging practices, which are Web-native, what would these be?
That’s an excellent question. Because it talks about the evolution of communication in the ever-evolving space that has no fixed boundaries.
We know that good communication requires boundaries, because they help create some kind of common background which helps us understand the message that is being actually transmitted. For instance, if I said to you “My brother is a seal” – well, if you thought that I have no brother, you would have thought: “maybe what he is telling is not true” and immediately you would devalue that. Or you might say – okay, maybe his parents were in some kind of human-animal experimentation and he’s got a half-seal brother. But within a more limited and bounded context, you think: “okay, maybe his brother is a soldier and a navy seal, and this makes more sense, we understand that. So this disambiguation in communication requires a kind of boundary setting.
Now, on the Web we don’t have that. And we tend not to extrapolate from the real-life setting where we live in to the digital ones. If anything, a lot of the time we seem to leap to the digital realm to get away from the real-life setting and the limitations we experience. We go into the digital realm with the half-baked idea that almost anything goes.We go into the digital realm with the half-baked idea that almost anything goes. Click To Tweet
And here’s how we can help guide ourselves in a place that seemingly has no guidelines.
We need to look at the connection around us and how those connections make sense with each other. And take a guideline from there. Which is pretty much what we do if we, for instance, join a party with people whom we have never met before. They are talking to each other and we join the conversation. Well, nobody spends time telling us who they are, what they do, how old they are and what their boundaries are, because conversation doesn’t go that way. But what we do is listen carefully, see which jokes are okay, see which kind of information is acceptable, see what level of personal detail is acceptable.
If we take that guideline and place it on the Web, and on the Web we can actually see this kind of interaction, then we are in a good position to have an ever-evolving communication strategy for an ever-evolving medium.
That’s beautiful. And looking at this I thinking about the organizations and the enterprises that are not quite ready to adopt an ever-evolving strategy or worldview. They need boundaries, as you said. So, if you write for the web you know that you need an ever-evolving strategy, but as a business you need to set some limits. So, where is the intersection between these two?
That is a little bit tricky but not impossible to solve.
And it really comes down to the relationship between let’s say a content creator and the business they work with. They both should be sharing the same kind of value system at the very least, same kind of goals and what a business that uses a good content creator should be doing is actually having a very able helper in a very difficult medium. This helper is to be helping them achieve what they want and communicating to them what they should be doing and how. And then also understanding what they want to achieve and helping them doing it. And it is this kind of symbiotic relationship that allows us to understand how to best communicate in an evolving digital domain. And that helps both the creatives and the businesses in need for original content all the time.
Speaking about the connections and the party we are listening to the jokes and stuff, the thing is, or at least for me, what I am experiencing with the death of Google Plus (I cannot help but mention this) I am experiencing this fragmentation, I like to be fragmented, that helps a lot with different ideas but at the same time it keeps the narrative broken. There is something wrong with this scattered content all over the Web within different silos. What is the working way around this?
I think your question, which is a very valid one, is at which point do our efforts for identity curation begin to become either too expansive or need to be curtailed a little bit back.
There is not one rule fits all here. Some people are very comfortable being all over the place. And some people like to be only at two or three places, and they just like to maintain their relationships and their contacts and so on through mostly those things.
It really comes down to what you are comfortable with as an individual and a business and ultimately a brand I suppose. Because we are all becoming brands to some extent and we are learning to project specific brand values and fulfil very specific brand promises and have very specific brand behaviour. So really an individual or a content creator needs to decide what is it that they are actually comfortable with and what actually informs their own behaviour.
You need to understand your own mind. And if you can do that, then you stay true to yourself, even though you may feel you are all over the place. Because the things which actually allow you to be all over the place have an overlap in terms of interests and that becomes part of your identity.
What do you mean by an overlap?
The easiest behaviour to analyze this is through social media posts.
Suppose for instance that you are sharing rescue posts in one posts and explain how bad it is and perhaps there is a charity working in that direction to be supported. And then you are sharing something that might be focused on the inequality of the resources across the planet and then something that has to do with particular work methods and so on. And those three things which maybe entirely separate in terms of domain and subject matter, can actually be informed by the same drive to create a certain kind of world where resources are more evenly distributed. And that is really a value-driven approach to content sharing, as particular case. Which becomes part of the identity curation of the individual, even though they are doing different things in different platforms.
What made great sense was the idea of curating and taking care of your own mind, and your intent. And that is a soul-search work, sin’t it?
It is. Absolutely. But it is so easy these days to actually share something. Whether it is a Twitter post or saying something. And unless we actually know ourselves – what it is that makes us do it, it becomes very easy for us to be overdrawn, make mistakes, overshare, say the wrong things, forget to be empathic in terms of different cultures and different approaches. And that creates and entirely new set of problems. This is part of the digital reality of the 21st century and i think we just need to address it.
Just intuition won’t help…
No. When intuition kick in we intuitively feel that we have put our foot it it.
I think need to be very specific in our action and we need to always consider, before we do something, what effect it will have, not just for us (because we obviously do the things for us and it is easy to see our point of view) but also the impact it will have on other people. And we sort of learn to think like that we will begin to see a much bigger picture.
That is again going back to the way we conceive of the Web. If we know that we need to keep the ecosystem clean…
Yes, I think keeping the ecosystem clean is the lofty ideal and if we could make it it will be brilliant.
Is it lofty? It is my ideal.
It is brilliant to have, absolutely. But I think it is more just trying to have clarity in communication. If we see it as a purely communicative meaning, then learning to communicate with clarity is a digital skill set and we should all became digital natives in that.
It is a great epilogue. A digital skill set. And to get back to textuality and to the broader picture of writing text on the Web. If we are to think about digital skill set for a web writer what do we need apart from clarity in communication.
We need an awareness of intercultural impact and we need an awareness of the evolving role of language. It is evolving really quickly and if we are not part of this very living evolution of it, then our ability to communicate sort of begins to degrade.
By evolving language do you also mean the machine languages that are helping us communicate?
Yes, in many ways. The easiest example, if we go back to Google Plus, and these days on Twitter. We see something which we like and we see a post, and we may not want to become part of it for many different reasons, but we click like and we are aware that by clicking like some of the people that follow us will see that, and we are also aware that we raise its status, so it is essentially we are interacting and engaging, even in a passive way and we are adding to the conversation around that particular subject. That is part of our digital skill set, part of the intentionality of communication that we are developing.
The awareness that we are part of the Graph 🙂
The living.. what? Is it a corpus of texts, how do you see the Web?
Well, I see it as a corpus of ever-evolving data, nodes and edges, and it is a very dynamic, very living thing that constantly changing.
Everything is connected to everything else but not all connections are equal and not all relationships are equal and everything depends on context and culture.
Data is the underpinning of it then culture changes data and context changes everything again.
Brilliant. And we need to switch codes.
Yes, we need to always be aware of context and culture. Otherwise we only try to speak data, but data is not enough.
Thanks so much for this talk. Do you need to share something more about the morphing identities?
I think the only thing I would say that we are part of an evolving conversation, the book which you have written is a very good conversation starter, in this regard, it opens many people’s eyes.
And we just need to keep this conversation going, because it is only the beginning. It is far from over. The effect from it is only beginning to be visible.
My dear readers, please stay tuned for an upcoming video on my Youtube channel. I will be uploading the recordings of the Intertextual Animal episodes. and regularly, every month, sharing the posts with transcripts of the video and some thoughts and things that have found me in my newsletter for which you can subscribe here: Tiny Letter Teodora
p.s. The newsletter is my attempt to rearrange (hopefully in a beautiful kaleidoscopic view) the broken narrative I am experiencing on the Web, straddling tons of media, tech and paradigms.
p.p.s. To keep the conversation going, check this image by Ted Nelson: