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.

9 thoughts on “Synchronic and diachronic readings of activity streams”

  1. Adina,

    Interesting post, and a distinction worth making. Especially if streams are viewed as a form of talk, not as a text. Diachronic analysis is often used for historical context, and as a means of focusing on change — synchronic analysis by contrast takes a snapshot at one moment of time. In conversation/talk analysis diachronic study is a matter of course — synchronic would make no sense.

    However given that twitter conversations are the aggregation of multiple individual streams, a synchronic view of separate user streams at one moment in time is interesting — trending topics are synchronic views of the twitterverse. (topics with a time slider, animated, would be diachronic).

    From the user experience perspective, past and present are the corresponding distinctions.

    I wonder if the tendency of the user experience is towards an ever-present now, twitter being a tool of “now.” (The past, for me at least, in twitter is a few hours, never more than a day, long.)

    Where the tendency of extracting value from the text/content produced is in diachronic — context added to tweets by measuring them over time.

    That would be interesting — it would suggest that the value of streamtime in the user experience is always different and unavailable to the observation and extraction of value in the content produced. That realtime tools satisfy the user’s interest in paying attention now (then going away for a bit); whereas trends over time are what matter more to analysis.

    That would suggest that in measuring value in the talk, by means of messages, a certain and significant dimension of value (the user’s intention and attention) is always unavailable for analysis. The subjective experience of being on twitter — paying attention to others, getting it for oneself, and so on — hardly make it into the text.

  2. Adrian,

    The concept of extracting value through measurement is there (though deficient in the way that you point out, it doesn’t capture the experience of attention).

    The interesting phenomenon from Kevin’s example is different – yes the twitter experience is always of the present, but there is (or perhaps there can be) a weird hopscotch quality where a much longer-lasting conversation, which takes place over years, is instantiated and moved forward in little jumps on different days separated by time.

    Re. talk. vs. text it is interesting that two textual traditions with pre-Tim-Berners-Lee uses of hypertext, Talmudic and Confucian, are both attempts at using text as an artifact in an oral tradition. The Confucian example comes from Audrey Tang as of yesterday.

    Audrey also noted that because of the information density of the Chinese language, a Tweet can contain perhaps 5x the content f an english-language tweet, making tweets the potential equivalent of blog posts; and this difference informs a different social experience. Perhaps she can chime in here ;-)

  3. Another really interesting post. One of the challenges with longer lasting conversations (the diachronic axis) is how you enable them to persist over time. When someone writes a blog post it tends to get lost over time. And if others respond to the post with counter-posts it’s often difficult to gain a picture of the entire conversation.

    A couple of years ago I read a thesis on periodical essay writing called Social networks and discourse communities in 18th century London and I’ve thought that some of the principles could easily be applied to modern media. The production of genres (magazines and essays in this case) allowed for longer running conversations on a variety of themes. Interestingly they also may have been stronger in establishing norms than social networks. So in essence the community becomes more important than any individual or network.

    Here in Canada it seems that the same effect might have held with pamphleteering. Much of the activity (at least in Ontario) seems to have revolved around the Globe & Mail. The Globe acted as the hub around which pamphleteers (yesterday’s bloggers) organized. The genre created the community.

    One of the difficulties I’ve seen with social media is that, with so many conversations going on, it’s difficult to find parties who share your interests and beyond that to enable the creation of a “genre” around that area of interest so that the conversation persists. I wonder what your thoughts are on this.

  4. Kim, yes! Another component that is largely missing in our diachronic perspective of conversations is the ability to curate a picture of a conversation that has been taking place over time. This sort of curation of includes editorial choices about what is relevant to the conversation at hand. And then this can serve as a base for further conversation. These things don’t exist yet and should.

    There are really interesting differences and similarities to the older models – good fodder for further conversation and development.

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