Contact, Cyberculture, and Samuel Delany

I talk to people from time to time about working in cyberspace and successful new media participation. If I were a hipster, I might even say, "I do SEO," but I'm not, and I don't, really. The truth is that I don't have a good, simple, answer to the question, "How do I succeed on-line with social media." I do have a lot of ideas on the subject, as you might expect (many of which I've already written about here before.) The core of my approach revolves around a conviction that word of mouth--like offline--is the most effective way to promote events and products in cyber-space, with the corollary that "meatspace" connections are among the most powerful and valuable "cyberspace" resources.

During college I spent a long time reading and rereading an essay by Samuel R. Delany, called Times Square Red, Times Square Blue about the process of gentrification in Times Square and it's affect on cross-class/cross-race social/sexual contact. The argument was that environments and geographies that promoted situations were individuals would come into contact (randomly, casually) promoted opportunity, satisfying social interaction, and interesting conversations in a way that "networking" opportunities (conferences, workshops, cocktail parties, etc.) couldn't. In illustration of this, Delany describes situations from talking about philosophy in the pornographic theatres of the old Time Square to finding a vacuum cleaner repair service in the checkout line of the grocery store. Furthermore, "contact" between people of different classes (as was present in the pornographic theaters of the old time square,) promotes the destabilization of class-based injustices. [1]

Contact has been an incredibly powerful and useful concept for me in a number of different contexts, because it provides an method for affecting social change in "every day life" and in creates a notion of "politics" that's closer to "people interacting" and further from something tied to institutions of power ("government," etc.,) which suits my disposition. I think, largely the internet is most powerful when it promotes something closer to "contact" and further from something that resembles "networking." And by powerful, I mean a number of things: most likely to positively affect people's work, provide meaningful opportunities for commerce and social relationships, to develop unique cultural environments.

While there are opportunities for contact on contemporary social networking websites, they mostly specialize at helping you find people who are actually quite like you, like people you know in real life, people who are interested in the same things you're interested in, and people who are friends with people you know in real life. That's not contact, in the sense provided by Delany. [2]

There is still, I think, contact. I think microblogging (twitter/identi.ca) particularly with "track" features, [3] represents (or did) a move away from "networking" to contact. The communities that form around open source projects, promote contact, as they are often interest specific, and contain members with disparate skills and backgrounds. Once upon a time, general population/topic (ie. non-project specific) IRC channels (chat rooms) were an immense source of contact for their users. [4]


I'm not sure what this means. I remain convinced that contact is a useful and important way of looking at social interactions. I also think it says a lot about my interests in open source. I also think that as technologies and memes in cyberspace (eg. blogs, social networking, microblogging) develop in ways that promote "contact," and eventually become "networking" opportunities not that the latter is bad, but it is an important conceptual shift. It's also quite likely that we'd be able to see what ideas are going to be the next big thing based on the degree to which they promote contact. There are other implications I'm sure, but I'll leave those for another time.

[1]I suppose this isn't a wholly radical concept, but in any case, I think the "we need to talk to each other," and live in integrated/diverse situations is definitely a step in the right direction. Delany's articulation is quite useful and complete.
[2]Indeed I've strayed from Delany in a couple of key directions. First his essay(s) described contact as being a uniquely urban phenomena (which I've totally abandoned), and secondly something that resonates with sub-cultural groups (queers, poor, etc.) In the case of the Internet, I think this works but I recognize that it's a stretch.
[3]Once upon a time, you could receive (via IM) twitter updates for any keyword, even if you didn't follow the people who sent the tweets. This means that all of a microblogging can have a conversation with each other, and circumvent the isolating aspects of "social networking" constructs.
[4]By general population/topic I mean non-technical (largely) channels, such as rooms for fandom (fans of science fiction; and pop culture) rather than "working" or customer support channels. Though people would be drawn for a host of reasons, discussions seemed fairly random, and my sense is that (if my experience can be generalized from) that some pretty powerful friendships/connections were developed in these contexts.
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