We’re Here to Bury Comments, Not to Praise Them

In the beginning was Marshall McLuhan, who would have celebrated his 98th birthday these days, but more about him later.  When I launched this blog almost two years ago, I decided not to accept comments: I observed how other blogs got inundated with horrific verbiage, often unrelated to the piece the comment was supposed to reflect on. Most relevant to me, however, was the fact that the majority of comments recycle the piece instead of adding something new to the concepts, ideas and thoughts used in the original. Why waste bandwidth with comment like “I agree fully” or “this is nonsense”?  We’re here to bury comments, not to praise them.The recent TechCrunch Real-Time CrunchUp 2017 hosted, among others, Khris Loux, CEO of JS-Kit, a company providing “a full-featured commenting engine” for web sites. Seeing that Loux’s widgets are installed on over 600,000 sites, his presentation – announcing the “death of the comment” – caused quite a stir.  According to Loux, social media (such as Facebook, Twitter and Flickr) killed the comments by creating what he terms “parallel channels away from [the] product” (source: ReadWriteWeb) – what used to be localised dialogue is now fragmented, scattered over parallel websites. In a world in which each piece of information has multitudes of online clones, a unique comment carries no distinguishing traits.

Loux does not have a written transcription of his presentation, but he referred me to “a larger container of thinking on the synatpticweb.org wiki — it’s certainly a very early notion …“. The wiki Loux mentioned is The Synaptic Web – a blog he shares with a JS-Kit Evangelist called Eric Blantz, and JS-Kit VP of Product Strategy & Community Chris Saad. 

The Synaptic Web, according to the intro,”is about the evolution of the Internet from document delivery platform, to a platform for communication … and now towards something much more profound: a dynamic web of adaptive connections and information flows that give structure and meaning to otherwise chaotic steams of data.” Sites must now connect with other online entities and presences at light-speed, creating a myriad of connections and using these to exchange stimuli in a digital, automatic game of do or die – “Like individual neurons, “sites” must now maximize their connections in response to external stimuli or risk being pruned themselves.” 

The Synaptic Web is the befitting platform to accommodate the rise of the Digital Natives, who are, to quote Harvard University’s Urs Gasser, a generation “born digital” – “those who grow up immersed in digital technologies,” he says, “for whom a life fully integrated with digital devices is the norm.” As they use The Synaptic Web, it will be the digital natives, “who decide with whom, what, when and where connections occur, not the platforms” say Loux and colleagues, “Social profiles are becoming streams. If the old profile was a neuron, the stream is a neural pathway or pattern. It is the connective tissue between applications and people that feeds information from one node to another. Profiles come and go, people express themselves using countless tools and technologies – the stream, however, is the consistent and persistent channel that matters.” 

Using the human nervous system as a metaphor for communication technology is not a new idea. Mass communications guru Marshall McLuhan offered a near-prophetic view of “the electrical network”, as he called it, which is – he argued – an externalisation of our own central nervous system:  “It is a principle aspect of the electric age that it establishes a global network that has much of the character of our central nervous system. Our central nervous system is not merely an electric network, but it constitutes a single, unified field of experience… an organic unity of interprocesses.”  (p 380)   The legendary communication scholar, James W. Carey argues further that, following the American Civil War, “electricity as fact and symbol seized hold of the native imagination, envisioned as a precursor of a new form of civilization … Moreover, electricity was pictured as classless … a force invested with the power to transform the human landscape … it lent itself to speed, movement, distance and decentralism. It imitated, as many commentators noted, the very action of the brain.” (pp 37-8)  Replace ‘electric’ with ‘digital’ – and you get the preamble to the Synaptic Web. 

Electric and synaptic technologies have similar characteristics.  Here, in point form, are the characteristics of electric technology, as observed by Marshall McLuhan and James W. Carey. 

Electric and digital networks …

  • are an externalisation of our central nervous system
  • imitate the action of the human brain
  • form a single, unified field of experience
  • create an organic unity of interprocesses
  • are a precursor of a new form of civilization
  • are classless
  • are invested with the power to transform the human landscape
  • imbued with speed, movement, distance and decentralism 

This is the background against which Loux based his startling obituary to blog-comments, who, he says, are destined to die and cede their place to “Implicit information derived from content and gestures” – as we “observe a set of gestures and connect them together [we create] a dynamic profile of interests, intentions and friends that can be used for discovery and filtering.“ 

This conglomeration of information, relationships, contacts & connections form what Loux and his co-writers call “collective intelligence.”  Clearly, the multifaceted super-connectors forming the Synaptic Web will find the classic communication model, based on a system of dialog (one talks, one/some listen/s, one/ some send, one / some receive/s, etc.) quite limiting, and so, social networks strive to reconfigure themselves so that “[o]nly the connections between the people – the ‘social graph’ – and between their social objects – images, profiles, links and groups – matter.”   

Looking at Twitter & Facebook, arguably the most successful social networks we have these days, one can see how dialogue is conceptually impossible – unless one uses ‘side rooms’ – digital bubbles that offer direct messaging facilities. This, however, does nothing to stop or even slow down the flow of current communication streams flowing through social networks.

The issue of split and parallel dialogues in social networks brings us back to Moodle. I ToingToinged about Moodle, an advanced, free, a-synchronous Online Learning Environment. Moodle is conceptually based on principles guided by social constructionist thought, according to which “groups construct knowledge for one another, collaboratively creating a small culture of shared artefacts with shared meanings. When one is immersed within a culture like this, one is learning all the time about how to be a part of that culture, on many levels”. Social Constructionism makes up the final layer of an emerging human communication, which is based on

  1. Synaptic infrastructure 
  2. Contextual meaning 
  3. Hypertextual content, and   
  4. Socially-oriented connections and relationships that are driven by Digital Natives

Khris Loux’s obituary is therefore fully justified. Comments, as we know them, are set to change, in fact, they are changing already, because communication is moving away from a linear, dialog based, send-receiver type interaction, to become multi-threaded, on-demand, asynchronous and omnipresent.

‘Traditional’ comments were based on threads of thought that were linked like branches to a major trunk. Synaptic thinking expands this system to include an ever-increasing number of trunks, where each trunk implies both content and relationships. Each idea serves as an independent unit of thought, as well as a reflection on other ideas. In a world were thoughts are built like Rubik’s Cube, a one-on-one dialogue may seem like a two-dimensional poor relative.

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