Backchannels and memories

On the layering of networks, social media memories, satellites, spies and Benjamin.

Social media networks have three dimensions. And they are getting deeper. We often think of them as being flat - particularly when viewed through the democratising rhetoric associated with social media - yet they are volumetric. In part this is a product of the hierarchies within these networks, it's also about their layering. Networks operate in the background of other networks. Individuals now often use multiple social media accounts across platforms, plus each platform is designed to allow multiple streams of communication anyway. There are now multiple spaces in which interactions occur in the shadows of other interactions.

Media structures are made to facilitate this. Direct messaging and group settings of different types ensure that video interactions, game spaces, group chats, feeds, threads and so on, have the capacity for communication to be networked in different combinations and with different forms of visibility. The new backchannels are multiplying, especially with distanced living.

WhatsApp has continued its expansion (see this piece by William Davies on what it’s functions might mean), allowing closed group interactions, but so too have other types of private messaging apps such as Slack. Backchannels have expanded quickly and backchanneling has become a routine activity. As well as their general expansion, some of this was highlighted again by the recent data changes at WhatsApp that seem to have triggered some movement to other messaging apps, including Signal and Telegram. One question is what the social consequences might be of all these backchannels opening up.

What happens when social media try to intervene in our memories?

I've co-authored a book with Ben Jacobsen that will be out in April with Bristol University Press. The book is titled Social Media and the Automatic Production of Memory: Classification, Ranking and the Sorting of the Past. It looks at how past social media content is repackaged as memories within social media. It asks how social media's algorithmic systems actively seek to create memories. Within these broader processes, this particular book looks at how that past content is classified in a taxonomy of memories before being ranked for relative worth. The book examines these processs of classification and ranking, it also examines how people respond to them. At its centre is the idea that social media are transforming both memories and the very concept of what a memory is.

Here is the blurb:

Social media platforms hold vast amounts of biographical data about our lives. They repackage our past content as ‘memories’ and deliver them back to us. But how does that change the way we remember?

Drawing on original qualitative research as well as industry documents and reports, this book critically explores the process behind this new form of memory making. In asking how social media are beginning to change the way we remember, it will be essential reading for scholars and students who are interested in understanding the algorithmically defined spaces of our lives.

We are just checking the proofs at the moment and the book will be out on the 1st of April. The book can currently be pre-ordered at a discounted price direct from the publisher Bristol University Press (and is also available for pre-order from the other usual outlets). Once it is published there will also be an ebook and Kindle version.

I'll post some more about the book later in the year.


Here is an attempt to list the 10 best visualisations of 2020. It is dominated by the type of visualisation you might expect, but number 8 is perhaps the most interesting. The growth of satellite technology visualised provides a sense of materiality of networked media.

The cold…

Since his recent death there have been a number tributes to the writer John le Carré, here are the reflections of Anthony Barnett at Open Democracy (along with some pieces le Carré wrote for the site).

Jameson and Benjamin…

I’m currently reading Fredric Jameson’s new book The Benjamin Files which was recently published by Verso. It reflects on a range of Walter Benjamin’s works and tackles some of the underpinning ideas within them. The chapter I’ve just been reading is about Benjamin’s One Way Street. Jameson looks at the content of the short aphoristic sections of that book whilst also reflecting on the style being used and the way that gaps and spaces work in these interrupted sections. It’s not an angle I’ve seen explored before. I might write more about Jameson’s book, if I have the space to do it.

The sound of platforms…

DIY Music and the Politics of Social Media by Ellis Jones has just been published by Bloomsbury. This books seems to use music as a way into understanding social media - particularly from a cultural industries perspective.

Whilst on understanding social media, out later this year is The Public and their Platforms: Public Sociology in an Era of Social Media by Mark Carrigan and Lambros Fatsis.


Lyndsey Stonebridge discussing the works of Hannah Arendt with the On Being podcast.