Synchronic and diachronic readings of activity streams
The meme of the moment is that online world is moving more realtime. Same conversation, played like Chipmonks Christmas. The anxious worry that Twitter and Facebook will kill cultural depth. Cheerier observers of the same trend see a bubbling flow of friendly social banter, where the compressed time-intensity gives people a sense of shared memorable experience that generates social bonding.
There’s more going on than what’s on the surface. Activity streams are surfacing conversations and information that weren’t seen as easily or as broadly – the much-maligned sandwich tweets that help friends feel connected and let fans see their heroes are human – and serious stuff like earthquake news and updates about critical business facts. With seismic activity on the brain, it’s like volcanic activity is raising an underwater mountain chain so the tops are above the water. You can see peaks above the waves, but the mountains are still there.
There are several important consequences.
* First is the observation that Twitter doesn’t replace long-form blogging but complements it. Twitter headlines draw attention to longer, more thoughtful exposition.
* Second is the related observation that what is surfaced doesn’t need to be something brand new, as Kevin Marks points out. Kevin uses this principle on a regular basis when he cites on Twitter blog posts that were written 3 months, 3 years, 8 years ago. Or for that matter when Carl Malamud quotes Jefferson on Twitter in the context of contemporary policy debate. So, what’s going on is banter, grooming, fire, flood and Michael Jackson, to be sure, but also potentially surface connections to underlying network of much longer-lasting conversations.
* Third is the idea that what’s under the surface can be measured, and the words and relationships that can be measured have economic value.
The most visible time axis in the world of streaming is what’s on the surface. But what’s under the surface is also meaningful and increasingly valuable.
At the one formal class in literary theory I took as an undergrad at Yale – I say one formal class; the ideas of lit theory flowed through the place like the smoke wafting from the cigarettes of undergrads and grad students as they tossed their scarves over their shoulders, and flipped their asymmetric hair, but I digress – the instructor introduced us to the concept of “synchronic” and “diachronic” analysis from the field of lingustics, often pictured as a 2d graph.
Synchronic readings focus on what’s going on at a fixed moment of time. Diachronic readings compare what happens and develops across time. In the world of streaming social media, people are fixating on the synchronic axis, but the diachronic axis is also worth watching.