How social networks work: the puzzle of exhaust data

Network Jerry Michalski and Pip Coburn were recently talking about the puzzle of "exhaust data."   These are data that pass between friends on Facebook and Twitter…as when someone tells me they’re doing their nails, or I tell them I’m entertaining my cat. 

Who on earth cares?  What kind of communication is this?  Can it be that we are using the internet to issue trivial facts about ourselves?   Facts? The "fact" that I am entertaining the cat is so staggeringly unimportant it fails to interest even the cat. 

But there is another, anthropological, point of view.  Exhaust data is, I think, a clear case of "phatic communication."  This is communication with little hard, informational content, but lots of emotional and social content.  Phatic communications doesn’t get much said, but it has social effects so powerful, it gets lots done. 

Today, reading Dino’s Chroma blog, I was surprised to see that the phatic idea has already been taken up by our community and even more surprised to see that it is changing shape. 

In a lovely post, Ian Curry suggested that Twitter is compelling because it has a phatic function, specifically because it is communication "simply to indicate that communication can occur."

The notion was picked up by Leisa Reichelt who used the idea to develop her influential notion of "ambient intimacy," which she defines as the ability,

to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible.

May I weight in?  I’m feeding my cat. Sorry, you wanted something more substantial.  Fine.  I believe that the phatic notion originated with Malinowski, moved to Jakobson and then to Bakhtin.  (Now that’s a double-play dream team: Malinowski to Jakobson to Bakhtin.)  It comes, that is to say, from some of the great pioneers of anthropology, linguistics and post-structuralism. 

Flying without instruments (aka access to my library), I believe that phatic communications sends a series of messages.  What follows is not from the double play dream team, it is my fanciful elaboration on their thinking.  (It’s not in Malinowski, but it’s not not in Malinowski, if you see what I mean.  I do wish I did.) 

The phatic messages "stack" nicely, each message presupposing and building on its predecessor.  These messages are:

1. I exist.
2. I’m ok.
3. You exist.
4. You’re ok.
5. The channel is open. 
6. The network exists.
7. The network is active.
8. The network is flowing.

When I use Twitter or Facebook to say that I am entertaining my cat, no one, I’m pretty, sure gives a good God damn that I am entertaining my cat. But they are reminded that they have someone called Grant McCracken exists in their network. 

This is not nothing.  Facebook sustains social knowledge and networks that begin in conferences and then fade almost immediately until a couple of months later we have a hard time attaching a face to that business card still banging around in our briefcase.  A "newsflash" about my cat helps keep the network node called Grant McCracken from blinking out.

But this is not just news that I am extant, but that I am, as much as this is ever true, emotionally and intellectually active.  You don’t just want the datum: "GM exists."  You want the film makers call "room tone," some sense of my general emotional well being. (Well, of course, I am just hoping this is of interest, and as a Canadian, I understand and accept that you might not have the slightest interest.  And that’s fair.  I mean, really.  We Canadians struggle to be as interesting as possible under the circumstances.) 

I have a friend on Facebook who recently posted in the "Florence is" field: "SUPER, thanks for asking!"  Which I liked because it brings the oldest formula to the newest venue and infuses new networks with the peppiest self presentation possible. 

Naturally, networks, especially really distributed, anti-hierarchical ones of the kind we like, are profoundly reciprocal enterprises.  So it is especially true here that, as George Herbert Mead observed, our knowledge of ourselves depends upon what (and that) others know about us.  Or, to put this another way, we we find ourselves when others find us.  This is messages 3 and 4, above.

So I’m ok and you’re ok.  This means the channel must be ok, and this means that the network must exist, and this means that the network is ok, and this means that the network is active, and this means the network is flowing.  There is a "superorganic" concept of the network at work here, according to which every small moment of phatic communications so reverberates that we are briefly and tinyily reminded of our larger network and social connections. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go play with my cat. 


Curry, Ian.  2007.  Twitter: the Missing Messenger.  Frogblog.  February 26, 2007. here.

Demopoulos, Dino.  2007.  The Presents of Presence.  Chroma.  July 18, 2007. here.

Earls, Mark.  2007.  Phatic is phat.  Herd, the hidden truth of who we are.  March 8, 2007. here.

Michalski, Jerry and Pip Corburn.  2007.  Exhaust Data.  Yi-Tan Weekly Tech Call #143
Monday, July 16, 2007. here

Reichelt, Leisa.  2007.  Ambient Intimacy.  Disambiguity.  March 1, 2007.  here.


Thanks to Charles Frith for letting me know about Mark Earls’ "phatic/phat" observation.

29 thoughts on “How social networks work: the puzzle of exhaust data

  1. Will

    Brilliant post Grant – I shall be using the phrase ‘ambient intimacy’ to describe Twitter. Twitter is like a form of comfort food – it fills a gap, and doesn’t have to be overthought.

  2. Eric Nehrlich

    Thanks for introducing me to the concept of phatic communication. Using LiveJournal feels that way to me – I don’t necessarily read the details of each of my friends’ posts, but I am more aware of what’s going on in their lives without having to explicitly ask them.

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  4. Matt

    When I grew up (and I ain’t that old), my networks were geographically-restricted. I was friends with people from my various schools, or my hometown of Brampton. It branched out at UofT, and then within various agencies, I made various friends. All based on geography. (I have many high school Facebook ‘friends’).

    And at work, we talked about dumb, trivial stuff at the watercooler — well, not really there, more like the coffee pot, in the kitchen. And many times at the Pilot. This was where we told people the stupid shit, but in person we realized the need to edit it down to partially non stupid shit.

    Now, it’s all new. The ability to chit chat is now, like making friends, completely non-restrictive. Even more interesting, these moments where we notice that will not exists for today’s teen. They will have never been restricted in their networks. And, perhaps, they won’t have the built in “this isn’t really interesting” editor that pops up in face-to-face small talk.

  5. olga

    great post, loved your ‘networked’ interpretation (or application?) of the Austin’s speech acts as both constative and prefromative. your example appears to suggest that constative dimension deminishes in importantce (relatively), while a performative one becomes increasingly more important… is it a ‘new medium’ phenomenon? a historical ‘drift’? can’t help but wonder of some wider implications here i.e. not just for hierarchical societies

  6. Scott

    If only phatic communication could have been the intent rather than the accident. A great post.

  7. Zbigniew Lukasiak

    Excellent post (and comments – ‘The message is really the medium’ – that one is sooo dead on).

    In a way blogging works very similarily – you need to post daily – even if you don’t have too much new ideas to spread just to remind people that you are still there, to make the impression on their minds just like the TV commercials do. I know it works for people who do it – but is it really the optimum on the global scale?

  8. Conrad Koch

    Having just picked my nose, I relate. The ‘phatic communication’ concept seems to have a great post-structural thing going on. I am doing an MA Anthro on informal commumication in two banks – the “smoke room” is the offline version of facebook – I just never had a term to describe that type informatively deprived talk.

  9. Emil Sotirov

    me = media = message

    I so love the “phatic” thing… after many years of being fascinated by the kataphatic/apophatic thing – now comes the “phatic” resolution. Perfect.

    On the other hand, I personally feel somewhat “phatically” challenged… or lacking.

  10. Donna Breslin

    Interesting for cyberspace, what about real space? I am wondering if the old fashioned coffee station which is centrally located in a workplace serves the same purpose… oh, you still work here and so do I! Does anyone have any information about the socio/economic value of having a coffee station?

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  13. erica david

    I heart the phatic function! A way huger proportion of what is assumed to be referential dwells in the phatic. Phatic is the excess dimension of reassurance. True, nobody understands you but at least you’re not completely alone. Like when you’re driving at night and an oncoming driver flashes his lights and you go on to find out that there is indeed a cop hiding under the overpass. It’s referential yes (cop!) but the solidarity with a stranger makes it more than that.

  14. Leah Dossey

    I’m okay, you are okay and this blog post is more than okay. I like how it answer the question, “Why do people tweet about their lunch?” So many people will write about having meaningful content and not boring your readers with “I ate the best cheeseburger ever!” But the cheeseburger was good. It IS fun to entertain your cat – and it just goes to prove your point. It’s okay.

  15. Michael Brunner

    Thanks for introducing me to the concept of ‘phatic communication’. I i was frankly at a loss as to why following tweets was so damn compelling- but bow I know 🙂

  16. matt

    this article has touched on what you are going on about:

    New Media, Networking and Phatic Culture
    Vincent Miller
    Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, Vol. 14, No. 4, 387-400 (2008)
    DOI: 10.1177/1354856508094659

  17. estetik cerrahi

    The ability to chit chat is now, like making friends, completely non-restrictive. Even more interesting, these moments where we notice that will not exists for today’s teen.

  18. EphraimJF

    Very interesting concept, which resonates with my experience somewhat.

    But all this phatic communication over electronic channels still doesn’t fill the important need for real, in-person communication.

    Phatic communication with friends, LIVE, seems to have the purpose of creating interaction that nurtures connection. But the ambient phatic communication in the electronic world has a more subtle, less meaningful and nurturing impact.

    Electronic phatic communication is often uni-directional and leaves much room for speculation and imagination. Basically, I get only a tiny piece of information about what you’re doing and I build any other details in my head instead of through a real experience.

    I think this article really argues for the overall value of phatic communication, which happens to be greater in real life than e-life.

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