In both their monolithic entirety and their fragmented minutiae, social media are hard to comprehend. Their sheer mobility, variety and density make them difficult to grasp.
After leaving Twitter I've been thinking about whether it is possible to understand social media from the outside*. I'm wondering if knowing their rapid streams requires the researcher to also be a participant within them? Maybe a better way to think about this would be to ask what can still be understood from the outside and what is more likely to be missed when not exposed to social media's circulations of content.
A lack of direct participation in social media inevitably removes the opportunity for first-hand and lived experience to inform an understanding of its cultures - the potential for what Christine Hine once called ‘virtual ethnography’ is much restricted by a lack of access. The embodied knowledge that can only accumulate through practice will also be hard to replace. Social media is full of subtleties and quirks. These platforms contain complex discourses and rapid tides of issues, ideas and themes. The concern is that a lack of involvement will mean that much of these will be missed altogether. I've already found that these discourses and themes are much harder to follow when they are not being witnessed unolding. Dipping in is like trying to make sense of a long conversation from a two second snippet or, perhaps, like mapping the plot of a film from only a few frames.
Taken in snapshots and lifted out of their intertextual links, bits of content can be hard to interpret. Operating from the outside might rule out a properly informed textual analysis. Although, I suspect, the cross-reading of this content and the multiple references they contain due to their origins in vast networks, mean that it is easy to misinterpret content even when on the inside. This relates to a bigger issue about the algorithmic filtering that can lead users within the same platform to have very different experiences and encounter very different things. I'm left with little doubt that a lack of participation is likely to further obscure social media's discourses and dialogues.
Perhaps stepping away from social media demands a broader perspective and focus. One possibility is an approach that mostly contemplates more structural issues: the history and direction of social media; the technical infrastructures; the underpinning logics, ideologies and rationalities; the political economy and geopolitics; the power dynamics of datafication and the politics of circulation; the governance, regulation and control of platforms and so on. These are all things that might be understood without a need to participate. These are also the type of things that I’ve tended to focus on in the past, and where I expect my attention will continue to be drawn. I’m conscious though of losing a sense of the type of relational and interactive elements of these media.
Platform politics are certainly still in reach though - and are where some important tensions are playing out at the moment. There is plenty of need for further understanding of the conditions and circumstances that shape how social media circulations and practices are experienced. The mapping out of the broader politics and structural dynamics of social media is something that seems to be calling for attention - especially as the tensions around ownership, control over content and other governance matters continue to unfold. And then there are the changing features of the broader social media ecology.
A lack of participation in social media will have curtailed my voice, I’ve lost my place within the communications network**, I'm hoping that it won't limit what I can see. Maybe it will help to sensitise to its quirks and its broader developments, I hope so. I suspect though that it's much more likely that I'll miss some of its subtleties and lose a sense of the insider discourse. It is here that I will need to think further, or I'll miss a whole genealogy of discursive framing and cultural logics. The next question is whether the very designs of social media mean that those framings and logics are hidden to outsiders, perhaps though they are never quite fully revealed to the users themselves either. Glimpsed only in bits, perhaps no one really gets the full picture.
*Of course, all of this begs the question as to whether there is an outside to social media. They have a wide reach that stretches far beyond their apparent limits and across social connections and broader media. Perhaps we should not think of them as having an inside and an outside.
**Although, as a type of hybrid newsletter/blogging platform, perhaps the Substack platform I'm using here is a type of social media. It might depend on how we define it.