The Oscilloscope and the Datatext

Repetition is a simple fact of life on social networks and news aggregators like Google Reader. Just a simple fact of life. Repetition is– Okay, I’ll stop.

It is true, though. Whether the latest news about Apple, the most recent viral video or a controversial news story, Twitter, Facebook and RSS readers light up with these links over and over again. Often, you feel as if this is most decidedly a bug and not a feature. Each day, quite literally 20 or 30 times, you read the same story or reaction, and it can occasionally be quite frustrating.

Of course, people are working on fixing this now. Both Summify and the still private Percolate aim to algorithmize (what? totally a word.) that repetition by reading what numerous people are sharing and linking to and then sending you a summary.

It’s a fun idea. After all, it turns that flood of information and repetition into a kind of oscilloscope. Insert your RSS and social feeds here and then read the resultant waves and spikes.

What appeals to me about the idea of this fictional oscilloscope is the numerous ways you could read the results. They’re what you might call a ‘datatext’: half data, half text. Like data, the waves of the ‘information oscilloscope’ lend themselves easily to reconfiguration, weird, oblique readings that catch patterns that others miss.

But like a text, it is a weaving together of narratives. The waves of repetition are a way of understanding symptoms, laying your social graph and choice of feeds upon a cool, firm leather couch and then watching the pulsations of the dreams, hopes and anxieties of your newly created social cyborg.

Repetition is a way of reading social thought and its pregnant psychoanalytic surges.

But if my information oscilloscope is imaginary, it itself betrays a much-repeated thought of mine: the ebb and flow of the social, connected web becomes a way to read the anxieties of the brains you have chosen to plug into.

Thought of this way, there is another response to the flood than consumption, digestion and analysis, a sentence that leaves ‘analysis’ in a rather unfortunate, if somewhat accurate, metaphorical position. It is sympathy. The oscilloscope is a way of reading the social-graph-as-datatext as an expression of hope and fear.

It’s Ernst Bloch plugged into the web. It is weaving human narratives from the faint traces of emotion we leave hovering around the edges of our words – the thump of what makes us shudder and sing laid out in clean green lines.

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