Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Object-centred sociality – what happened to this discussion?

Jyri Engeström (not to be confused with Yrjö Engeström – which I did at first) wrote a blog post back in 2005 entitled Why some social network services work and others don’t — Or: the case for object-centered sociality, which attracted about 100 comments and seemed to open up an avenue of discussion about social media and social networks that look like leading to some interesting new theory, and perhaps new approaches to the design of social media.

In fact, not much came of it. Apart from a couple of responses in other blogs at the time, mainly of the 'wow cool'  ilk, and subsequent journal articles (Hoogenbloom et al 2007), Conole & Culver (2009)  the idea seems to have missed its moment.

I think this might be because it was the approaches to the design of social media rather than the interesting new theory that caught people's attention. Engstrom's post was apparently triggered by reading Russel Beattie's account of why he was stopping using LinkedIn.  Many of the comments addressed the issue of social networks needing something to socialise about and discussed the pros and cons of systems that support the sharing of different kinds of 'objects'. The authors of the two journal articles referred to above also pick up the idea of the object as a kind of focus for the relation between people in a network, and discuss the design of systems  intended to facilitate object-centred exchanges conceived in this way.

My own reading of the work of Knorr-Cetina , cited by Engstrom, however, is that she was conceptualising object-centred sociality as being about relations between people and objects – where objects include epistemic entities, like theories, models, descriptions of things in the world. In describing these relations as sociality, she ascribes reciprocal agency to the objects themselves - a relation markedly different from our usual view of objects as either instruments or commodities. The way that this kind of socialty 'aggregates' into relations amongst human collectives (networks, communities etc.) is not really addressed.

Knorr-Cetina's kind of thinking seems to me to be quite different from what is going on in the discussions referred to above.  It is much more challenging for a start, and may be able to lead us to quite different ways of conceptualising the objects of our knowledge construction activities online. For example, what is the difference in the 'sociality' of my relation to each of the two 'objects' pictured below?
On the left, the journal where I found Knorr-Cetina's article in the OU library.  On the right,  the same journal on the Internet (sadly not going back to 1997 - hence the library ).

I'm not going to attempt to answer my own question (above) in this post - for the time being it will have to remain rhetorical!  Suffice it to say, that Knorr-Cetina's concept of an epistemic object includes the dimension of textuality – the capacity to be represented via different semiotic systems.  You can see where I  might be going with this....  textuality is also central to concepts of literacy.

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