Ideas myos Technology

Listening to the Web

Ever since I started seriously studying and working with the web (way back in 2000), I’ve always struggled with the terminology used to describe the way we USE the web and what we DO with the web.

At that time it was all about “interactivity”, a term I have always struggled with and come to loathe. One of my earliest university essays was an attempt to define a taxonomy of different types of interaction in order to extract something meaningful from the word. It was messy and in the end I was never happy with the term nor the ideas I’d had to construct meaning out of it. Interactive did, and still does, grate on my nerves as it’s used so flippantly and with no consistency. Interactive is applied to a “Next” button just as easily as multi person video chat. It’s applied to the navigation of a page, the transactions carried out and the reading of text or watching a video. Interaction became a catch-all’, a terrible term to define or discuss your work.

But I’ve always struggled with an alternative. There needs to be more nuace and clarity – particularly in the area of “consumption” (another term I’d rather not use).

So what do we call the way we use the web?

Despite so much of the web being text, there’s always been an orality attached to it. In many ways text on the web has sort to replicate speech and dialogue rather than print. The immediacy and connected nature allowed text to become more transient and ephemeral within its own context. The shorthand and slang, even emojis, developed as ways of replicating the traditional context of speech – embedding place, culture and emotion.

For the “reader” too, the experience of text on the web never functioned like the printed word. Physically it required a “workstation” far removed from the portability of the book. The low fidelity screen and limited colour palette are really only now starting to disappear as a constraint and limitation on the reading experience. There is a also the fragmented, distracting and infinite possibility of the web. Rather than be a library of closed, sorted and stacked books the web is every page of those books open and on display. Hypermedia created a non-linear, non-sequential labyrinth of information that simply cannot be “read” in the traditional sense. And the text in chat, forums and comments – is that “read” in the same way as a book? Is reading text an interaction on the web?

During one of the recent Future Tense podcasts Tanja Dreher notes the work of Kate Crawford and the role of listening online.

When we think about particularly the social media environment, the online environment, it’s obviously a sort of proliferation of voices, stories, speaking, exclamations. Lots and lots of expression can seem incredibly overwhelming.

But if we take a step back and think about what we actually do, most of us still spend most of our online time listening rather than speaking. We might post a couple of Facebook updates, we might send a couple of tweets, but there’s also an awful lot of paying attention, listening in the background that’s going on.

So there’s a wonderful academic Kate Crawford who has made the argument that listening actually provides a better concept for thinking about our online participation, even though normally we focus on speaking. And she says part of the problem is that we have really undervalued the importance of the listening that we do.

A lightbulb went off at that moment. Listening! Yes!

Reading through some of Kate’s work the issues she highlights are often when the concept of “interaction” falls down or fails to capture what exactly is happening. So instead of a distinct act on the web it’s labelled as something passive like “consume”. But we’re not simply consuming, shovelling it down or burning it up, we are thinking, pondering, questioning, absorbing, agreeing, disagreeing and everything in between. We are not consumers of the web, we are listening. We listen to people tell us about their day on Facebook, not simply read or consume their posts. We listen to the discussion on Twitter, the chatter and dialogue passing us by. We don’t lurk, we listen.

As the introduction for one of her papers suggests.

much online media research has focused on ‘having a voice’, be it in blogs, wikis, social media, or discussion lists. The metaphor of listening can offer a productive way to analyse the forms of online engagement that have previously been overlooked, while also allowing a deeper consideration of the emerging disciplines of online attention.

Listening is participating. It’s not necessarily interaction, but its a conscious act, not a passive one. You choose to read, you choose to listen, it can’t happen by mistake or by accident. It requires effort. Listening is an act that goes to the heart of the web and why it actually works. Not because it gives people a voice, but because it provides a way for more people to listen. That’s a powerful thing.


By Tim Klapdor

Passionate about good design, motivated by the power of media and enchanted by the opportunities of technology.

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