What is Social? 5 Big Questions for Marketeers, Design Thinkers and Futurologists

With apologies to Joseph-Severn (1845)

With apologies to Joseph-Severn (1845)

I would like begin this article with this extended quote, which comes from Henri Bortoft:

Everyone is familiar with the experience of sitting down to write something, and finding that as pen is put to paper (or fingers to keyboard) the words just seem to escape us. It is very frustrating. We feel that we know what we want to say, until we try to say it, and then to our dismay we find, not only that we cannot say it, but that what we want to say no longer seems as clear to us as we thought it was. It seems to have withdrawn, as if we can’t quite see it, even though at first we felt that we knew what it was we wanted to say.

This experience is as disconcerting as it is familiar. But, sooner or later the words come, and as they do we see clearly what it is we want to say. What had tantalisingly eluded us, as if somehow just out of reach, now comes into expression as we recognise ‘that says it’. We must attend to this very carefully if we are to see what is really happening here.

At this point, for example, it is only too easy to fall into the trap of subjectivism, and think that ‘expression’ here means that the subject is expressing what he or she has ‘in mind’. This is a fallacy. When the words come it is what is meant that comes into expression and thus appears – when we can say it we see it. It is not primarily the writer expressing herself, but the thing meant. What is said, the content, is more than the words in which it is said, and yet without the words what is meant would not appear.

The words do not produce what we say, as if what is meant is a product of the words, but they do bring it into appearance. This is why it is so important to find the right words, i.e. the words which do express what is meant so that it appears.

Henri Bortoft (2012) Taking Appearance Seriously: The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought

One of the very central foundations of Bortoft’s teachings is that we need to think in a way that does not separate into two but at the same time doesn’t collapse into one. Understand this point is critical if people who are in the business of social media are to understand how to progress from where we are now.

This is also true for people working in the related areas of search and artificial intelligence. The concept of walking a tightrope between not splitting a phenomenon into two, nor reducing it to one in relation to language is explained further by Bortoft:

Because we see the meaning manifest in language, and it is the meaning that we see and not the language itself, we can quite easily wrongly conclude that we can have unmediated access to ‘pure’ meaning which we first know non-linguistically before words are subsequently superadded for the purpose of communication. In this case the function of language seems to be entirely secondary. The ‘pure’ meaning is embodied in language, a process which does not influence the meaning itself, which therefore can subsequently be released from its linguistic embodiment into the understanding of the reader or listener, where it will again become a ‘pure’ meaning.

We can see that language is ‘too late’ here. It implies that the meaning is already formed beforehand, and consequently it overlooks the formative role which language has in making the meaning manifest – ‘But to talk of “making manifest” doesn’t imply that what is so revealed was already fully formulated beforehand’.

We can only avoid being ‘too late’ by trying to catch language ‘in the act’ of saying. This fallacy of the preformation of the meaning underestimates the role of language because it begins ‘downstream’ with what has already been said, instead of going ‘upstream’ into the saying of what is said.

This is why it is just a bit ‘too late’, and consequently back projects the end result – i.e. the expressed meaning – prior to the event of cominginto- language.

We can now also see how the opposite misunderstanding arises when, noticing that we only come to the meaning through language, we wrongly conclude from this that the meaning itself is entirely a product of language, i.e. that ‘the words themselves produce the thought such that the thought is “mere words”.’ In this case language is ‘too soon’, introduced prior to the meaning in such a way that it can only seem as if the meaning itself is no more than the words which express it.

When we are ‘too soon’, it seems that language actually creates the meaning in the first place instead of bringing it into expression. This linguistic reductionism assumes that thought is only words. But it is no more ‘only words’ than it is ‘pure meaning’.

Henri Bortoft (2012) Taking Appearance Seriously: The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought

Henri Bortoft (1938 – 2012) provided us with one of the clearest articulations of the hermeneutical philosophies of Heidegger, Gadamer and Wittgenstein. Their works are some of the most difficult texts to penetrate, but inside of their dynamic conception of the relationship between the universal and the particular, the parts and the whole, meaning and words, we will find answers to why current conversations on the future of big data, social media and search are not going to lead to progress.

Louis D. LoPresti IIWhich leads me on to the short but very spiky ebook What is Social? written by Louis D. LoPresti Ii, which can be downloaded free here: What Is Social?

The subtitle for this 28-page book is “How an over-amped, over-hyped trend has changed the world and made most rational people take complete leave of their senses” and I do have a lot of empathy with this sentiment.

It is definitely worth a read, and I thought I would share a few sound bites with a little commentary from myself.

1) Our media experience will be individually curated, behaviorally stimulating and activated.

This implies that search engines and their platforms will really need to understand me at an unprecedented level. For this top happen, search engines will really have to understand the meaning of texts, and that means that the people designing search engines and AI technology will have to understand meaning, and hence hermeneutics. I am not so sure they do right now. Not in the dynamic way articulated by Henri Bortoft.

2) You will not search; the browser will already know what for you are looking.

This for me implies the ability to understand the meaning of pictures and not just verbal content. I have been looking for example for a viral picture of some years ago. It was titled something like “A picture for which there is no explanation” and it is of a car which has bumped into a wall by the River Thames. There are police there dealing with the scene, and two guys who look like university students in black tie, one of whom is holding an iron. I wanted it to demonstrate a point, but still have not found it. How far away are we from not only having computers which understand a pictorial scene, but also of my own experience of that scene?

3) Airbnb and Uber have cashed in on what pundits call the “share economy”.

Airbnb have been successful, and we are seeing them doing very well here in Brazil where people need beds for the world cup. But people are not sharing their beds in a social manner. They are selling. The “shared” economy has big implications for developing sustainable solutions, and I am a big advocate, but sharing is based on authentic and trusting relationships.

Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane

4) Peter Thiel, the billionaire investor who had a hand in founding PayPal and launching Facebook, famously told The New Yorker: “We wanted flying cars, and all we ended up with is 140 characters”.

It’s funny how still to this day across the globe we have futurologists predicting all sorts of wonderful new gadgetry. I had the intense pleasure in the early 90s of working alongside BT’s futurology group (our Human Factors area was a part of the same department), and in the picture above you will see my director, Peter Cochrane, demonstrating the vision of wearable computing. What was not predicted was anything relating to social media, and the idea of meaning in such as small amount of text would have been laughed at.

Something happened to me on Twitter yesterday that was quite amazing. Possibly Brazil’s biggest comedian, Fábio Porchat, wrote a tweet about my article about Porta dos Fundos. 140 characters. Brazil’s biggest comedian. 2.95 million followers. Here is me trying to write positive articles about Brazil, and here is recognition in the space of 140 characters.

Can you understand how meaningful that tweet was for me? The technology is fine, but never lose sight of the meaning. Social media really will need to start to get to grips with how to measure meaningfulness. (Can you see a trend developing here?)

5) Consumers must see your video, contest, e-book, game, or other content as an authentic extension of brand, and not as a publicity stunt.

This is spot on and allows me to conclude these points by point to the essential nature of having an authentic presence on social media. I barely listen now to predictions of the future which contain no mention of universal human values. Sustainability is a huge concept, and it relates not just to sustainable technologies or sustainable business models, it is a fundamental shift in our mindsets and ways of relating to others.

A sustainable world is one where we move away from fragmentation and finished object thinking, and of commoditising everything, to one where we understand wholeness, in a whole new way (excuse the pun).

We need to move from our data-driven machine metaphors of life, to one where we honour, respect and can mindfully contemplate the lived experience of others.

As Louis succinctly puts it:

The social media revolution is a development in human consciousness on a par with the invention of television.

As far as I know, no one has written an algorithm for social. But one general rule for your social business model is that you must engage in new thinking about how people communicate.

William Hone. The Political Alphabet. 1830. DA531 1830 .H772.

William Hone. The Political Alphabet. 1830. DA531 1830 .H772.

I can definitely recommend What is Social? It takes me back to the time of Victorian science. Sometimes we think we are so advanced, with our social media and our blogging, but in Victorian Britain, as Charles Darwin was embarking on his studies of variation in species, not only did we have newspapers and scientific journals, we had pamphlets. These were often scandalous, published anonymously, sometimes necessary for those daring to propose that nature for example was not fixed and static, but in a state of evolution.

What is Social? is a pamphlet (albeit in PDF) but it is rich, thought provoking and offers a guide through the maze that we now find ourselves in with our networked society. There are big questions those involved in the development of our technologies need to ask themselves, and for me, if we can start to get to grips with the concept of dynamic and authentic meaning, we will be able to begin to replace the question “what is social?” with the answer ‘this is what it means to be truly social”.

About Louis D. LoPresti Ii

“Lou” as colleagues call him was born in Boston, educated in London and makes his home in sunny Santa Monica, Ca. He has worked as a global strategist since 2002, directly advising a wide range of clients on economic and political policy, emerging markets, brand strategy, and emerging interactive and social technology. His website bighthinker.com is where you can read other essays and commentary.


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