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.