Communicative Intimacy and Social Media

Mark Johnson

When I was a student, my professor of music, Ian Kemp, would illustrate the wit of the classical style of composers like Haydn with a limerick (via W.S. Gilbert): 

There once was a man from Dundee,
Who was stung on the nose by a wasp,
When asked, “did it hurt?”
He said, “quite a lot,
But I’m glad it wasn’t a hornet!”

It was all about selecting gestures (words, notes) and playing with expectations. 

A word (like a note) is a choice – a selection from possibilities. The art of poets, playwrights and comedians lies in choosing words whose anticipated effects and actual effects are brought under their control. This simple point raises two profound questions which relate to how we talk with each other both online and face-to-face: 

  1. What mechanism does the selecting of words? 
  2. How is that selection mechanism constructed?

Psychologists have made strong (and often complicated) claims to answer the first question – but perhaps a simple answer is that mechanism that does the selecting is what we call “communicating” – literally, the process of “making things common” between us. If the mechanism didn’t work, I wouldn’t be able to choose the words to write this. 

Given we all communicate, the more interesting question concerns the way our selection mechanisms are constructed. This is important because the way we communicate in intimate conversation seems to be quite distinct from the way we communicate online. 

Imagine two people in a noisy room. One wants to convey to the other that they should head to the exit. They can’t get close to each other, so they shout. But the voice alone doesn’t carry. So they gesticulate as they shout – pointing or miming, and they repeat themselves, varying the message slightly each time. Each of these different forms of the message would suffice to communicate in a non-noisy environment. But to overcome the noise, what are effectively “multiple” versions of the message become necessary.  

The communications engineer Claude Shannon recognised this kind of situation as fundamental to communicating systems. Noise is part of almost all real-life communication situations, and to overcome it, the adding of multiple versions of the message – which he called “redundancy” – was necessary. Redundancy was rather like the “ground” to the “figure” of the message – or what Shannon called “information”.

“Redundancy” has many synonyms which can illustrate it further. It is the same as “pattern” (think about wallpaper) or “constraint” (think about grammar).  In my example above, redundancy constrains the selection of the interpretation (or meaning) of what is being said. 

This is how we come to know each other: by observing and expressing different versions of ourselves, we come to understand the constraints within which each of us makes our selections of communication. We “tune-in” to each other’s “inner worlds”, as the phenomenologist Alfred Schutz put it. In face-to-face contact, there is rich scope for exploring these multiple forms of expression – and (as I have argued here before) – this is done both simultaneously (synchronically) and over time (diachronically). More importantly, we communicate to keep our options for further communication alive, and this means understanding each other better, and expressing ourselves so that we can be understood – which is the ideal situation in education. 

When communication doesn’t work, it is often because of an inability to reveal or appreciate the constraints within which we are operating. In his wonderful book on love (“Love as Passion”), Niklas Luhmann remarked that “all marriages are made in heaven, and fall apart in the motor car”. Why? Because the lifeworlds of the driver and the passenger are so different, where neither party is able to enter into the other’s world.

Social media is rather like Luhmann’s car. There we all inhabit different lifeworlds determined by the algorithms of tech companies. And of course, online lifeworlds proliferate. Given this, how is communication on social media even possible?

Redundancy can be produced in many ways. The selection mechanisms of communication operate to keep the communication going. The teacher’s and the learner’s jobs, after all, are about working out what is going on in each others’ heads. If that works, the conversation continues, and people grow together.

On social media, there are different kinds of constraints. Interfaces provide one kind – Twitter’s character limit, for example, or the “Like” button. But another more significant form of constraint is the mass audience. For every message, there is a potential audience of millions who might generate different versions of that message – a political position, a meme, a trolling attack or a trend. The source of the redundancy is not an individual consciousness, but a collective audience filtered through algorithms which further amplify the collective redundancy generation (and in the process, drive engagement, data and profits for social media corporations). What is called “confirmation bias” is an example of this kind of redundancy operating as a constraint on the selection of an online utterances. 

Intimate communication lives if the constraints of the other person are understood well-enough that their responses can be anticipated in the kind of playful way illustrated by Ian Kemp’s limerick example. On social media, communications can live if a sufficient portion of the audience acts in such a way that can be anticipated. It means that Donald Trump could say outrageous things on Twitter knowing how his polarised audience would respond, and knowing that this dynamic would keep his options for further communication alive.

The selection mechanisms of our online utterances concern the selection of an audience as much as they might concern the anticipation of another person. It reminds me of Dom Jolly’s running gag in “Trigger Happy TV” of a bloke shouting down a ridiculously oversized mobile phone in public places, “I’m on the phone!”.

In the wake of all the pathologies of the Trump and Brexit era, our deep challenge is that it is difficult to distinguish a communication that lives through the intimate mutual tuning-in process of two people, from the communication that lives by virtue of an audience that is manipulated and steered by algorithmic processes and powerful actors. 

The internet has produced vast opportunities for personal growth, communication and development. But in the process, it has introduced a new environment of living communication which disrupts that intimate domain which is so essential for the spiritual growth that is at the heart of education. Moreover, in this disruption, the need for intimacy is increased as the only defence against the potential incoherence, paranoia and conspiracy theories that social media proffers, and which its politically expedient “fake news filters” will only exacerbate. 

As the pandemic has thrown all universities into the online world of mass audiences and transactional behaviour in learning, recovering intimacy may be the biggest challenge facing the post-pandemic university.

Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

Mark Johnson is a Post-doctoral researcher in the Department for Science Education at the University of Copenhagen. His work focuses on cybernetics, the organisation of education, and the role of technology in institutions. His current projects include designing novel approaches to machine learning in medical diagnostics, developing radical pedagogies at the Far Eastern Federal University in Russia, and researching implementation of curriculum digitalisation at the University of Copenhagen

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