The Broadcast Machine

Is Twitter a broadcast platform or a place for conversation? Well, both. Yet how any person invokes Twitter will also play a role in how they understand and use the social media’s architecture. (See here)

With digital spaces and social media have come a new intersection of public and private space. The idea behind a social media platform like Twitter probably allows for a variety of ways that public and private spaces can intersect.

One way to understand this relationship is through the metaphor of a person’s front yard or front porch. Twitter is like your front yard, someone might suggest: You generally control your own space and what goes on there. You’re the host, you decorate it and set themes, you lay out the topics of conversations, and you invite or consent to let people into that space. In the intersection of public and private, it is the vertical boundaries (walls of the porch, fences of a yard) that distinguish space. Others need to “dip into” your space in order to access it, because there’s really no “out there” except a bunch of other private spaces. Between these vertical walls people have conversations that are effectively broadcasted.

This yard/porch metaphor fits in well with a broadcast understanding of how a twitter space has evolved and currently runs. The conversational and connective aspects of twitter are part of the grand vision of the platform, but in practice twitter is grounded as a broadcast service. Users tend to recognize their own space as social, outward facing, but not public.

Another way to understand the private and public relationship is with the metaphor of a house’s engawa. An engawa is an external hallway that runs around the perimeter of a Japanese house. It is distinguished by horizontal boundaries not vertical ones.

Twitter is like an engawa, someone might suggest: You control your own space, yet part 9531095739_54dda6cb1e_oof that space allows you to “dip into” the stream of society, and divert the flow of the street (as it is) into a shared space. You don’t control the nature of the water that flows in, yet you adapt around it, finding your place among the people that the current brings in. In the intersection of public and private, it is the horizontal boundaries (overhang and floor) that distinguish space. This architecture recognizes the mass of private spaces out there as a collection of something in and of itself, where the emergence of society is negotiated.

Architecturally, engawas emerged in Eastern societies because of the homogeneity of Japan. Collective cultures seek to harmonize with each other more than to establish their individuality – this makes it easier to open up your walls and allow people in. This type of space even provides a place to reinforce and confirm one’s place among society. In the West, when people open their walls to society, they often don’t like what they see and want to control or hide from it, completely.

In practice, Twitter is a broadcast platform because it grew out of the west. This isn’t to say that there aren’t conversations happening on there, but they’re happening in between vertical walls. The public nature of twitter is often nullified by the expectations that come with traversing on someone else’s turf.

Twitter’s concept contains a strong conversational potential. Yet, as much as this side of twitter is touted (and especially with design features that promote broadcast features and values) any metaphors that focus on its broadcasting values will be more apt. An individual’s own ground, even virtual ground, is often too sacred to allow the compromise.


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