When You Can't See Your Audience, but You Can See Your Social Life

Computer-mediated communication often makes visible and explicit many aspects of social interaction that are normally invisible or implicit.

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Dominic's pics/Flickr

A recent This American Life episode was the radio broadcast of a live performance of the show that was beamed to theatrical audiences around the country. In honor of the fact that the show -- usually an exclusively auditory experience -- was being consumed visually as well, the theme of the show was "Invisible made visible." Host Ira Glass summed up the theme by saying:

To state the obvious, sometimes it is just a lot easier to see things. Clears a lot of things up. And today on our radio show, we have all kinds of stories of people trying to take things that are normally invisible to them and make them visible.

And, of course, he is right. People are capable of processing incredibly complex visual cues -- this gives us the ability to communicate at high bandwidth when we can use both auditory and visual means. Not to get too Marshall Mcluhan about it, but the medium that information is transmitted can have a significant impact on what implicit cues are transmitted, and on how we understand the context of a message.

In strange ways, we face this issue all the time when we interact online.

Computer-mediated communication often makes visible and explicit many aspects of social interaction that are normally invisible or implicit. At the same time other aspects of communicative interaction that we generally take for granted as being obvious or visible are made invisible. If you have ever found it hard to detect sarcasm while G-chatting with a friend, you have encountered this issue.

danah boyd observed in an early and prescient piece (PDF) on youth social networking that interaction on social networking sites is unique from more traditional forms of social interaction in four key ways, which we can be understand in terms of this invisible/visible framework:

Persistence: Normally social interaction is ephemeral. What I say to you in the park ceases to exist -- except as hearsay -- the moment after I have said it. Online, often, messages persist indefinitely on forums, your friend's timeline, or in an archived email thread. In this context, the history of a communication is visible where previously it was not.

Searchability: With such a glut of information, something being technically visible, meaning that it is possible to access it, is notably different from something being visible for practical purposes. Only when something is indexable and searchable can it really be visible.

Replicability: This feature of social networking increases visibility of previously invisible, ephemeral conversation. Not only do conversations persist indefinitely and are easy to find, but they can be easily copied and shared. Email archives can be leaked, as they famously were for HBGary; and cellphones can be hacked. Replicability enables virality, which magnifies visibility.

These three characteristics discussed by boyd, all add to the visibility of online communication in ways that alter context and scope. boyd's fourth dimension is explicitly about the invisible, and how the invisible can make interaction more visible.

invisible audiences: In traditional offline social interaction, the context and audience is obvious. I automatically know, without having to think about it, that a statement I make to my friends at Starbucks will be heard by those friends and the other patrons within earshot. In such situations, because the audience is visible, we implicitly tailor our statements to so that they are contextually appropriate; we all say different things, for example, to our bosses than to our family, friends, or significant others. In online interaction, the logic of this automatic feedback and tailoring is broken: online the audience can be invisible. Depending on privacy settings and platform, a whole scope of lurkers, acquaintances, or even private companies scraping data may be members of an invisible audience that extends far beyond the intended target of a communication.

The invisibility of our audiences makes it difficult to present multiple iterations of our identity to multiple audiences -- a practice we have long taken for granted. In a sense, the invisibility of our audiences makes the multiple facets of ourselves more visible.

Taking social interaction online makes it explicitly more visible to a wider range of people, which sometimes violates our pre-existing, vestigial, physical-world expectations. At the same time, however, many of the cues that make communication rich, deep and meaningful -- cues which are often obvious in face-to-face interaction -- are invisible online. Tone, body language, facial expressions and myriad other micro-signals, the visual and physical parts of interpersonal interaction, are inherently invisible online.

Presented by

Alexander Furnas is a research fellow at the Sunlight Foundation in Washington, D.C.

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