The Social Gravity Well

I am fascinated by a conversation currently unfolding about the counter-intuitive interplay between shorter and longer form content online.  I became aware of it via Anil Dash’s post extolling a principle I personally take for granted, that your primary site of content creation should be exclusively under your own control.  Reading through this discussion reminded me rather strongly of a monologue I produced a bit over a year ago, on The Social Gravity Well.  I’ve been meaning to convert my more interesting audio pieces into text essays for sharing on this site so this seemed like a perfect opportunity.


In many corners, I’ve been hearing a dichotomy proposed between the web as pages and the web as stream. Jeff Jarvis constantly contrasts the two on This Week in Google, mostly when he is talking about Twitter. It stems from Dave Winer’s notion of the river of news. Rather than browsing to specific destinations a push based, approaching real time web flows information past a passive receiver. There is something to the comparison. You communicate differently through social messaging. You certainly receive information differently. New services entering the space have to understand the difference. I don’t think these two distinct points tell the entire story.

This sounds to me a lot like traditional broadcast. Without a DVR you are subject to the whims of network programming. You could talk about dipping your toe into the stream of broadcast news. The biggest difference between the stream and traditional broadcast is the barrier to entry in participation. The nature of programming is rather different, too. In the stream, content is dictated by your social connections. Even more so than broadcast, every person’s experience will be different. The breadth in that potential difference is immense. The unique character of streams then is a function of possible combinations, of social connections who produce information. The basis of my objection, why I make this comparison, is the implication of passivity. Maybe that is a function of a different scale I haven’t reached in my own utilization of social messaging. Dunbar’s number sets a physiologically rooted limit on meaningful connections. Maybe well past that limit the only useful way to approach information is more with passive immersion than active engagement.

I don’t think enough emphasis is placed on the continuum between the two models of information flow on the web. Streams suggest high volume and low interactivity. Pages suggest lesser volume but greater potential interactivity. In contrasting the two, I think Jarvis makes it sound like one excludes the other. Stop and think about that for a moment. What would Twitter or StatusNet be like without anything longer to link to? It is kind of like the suggestion that SMS will replace phone calls. Or that IM will replace email. As a function of their different qualities different media will operate at different volumes. As an example, I have just over twenty-five hundred posts on my blog (as of writing this post). I have well over ten thousand tweets on my Twitter account. My blog is at least twice as old as my Twitter account. As a writer, I would feel utterly stifled if my micro-blog outright replaced my blog.

I think a gravity well is a more nuanced metaphor than flowing water. Social messaging is a high orbit utilizing higher speeds. Blogs and content sites are low orbits with stronger pull. You could chart any number of media on this hyperbolic curve. I think the metaphor is even richer than that. The tag, tl;dr, becomes a case of failing orbital capture.

Think about clawing out of a particular engaging blog post or even sites that have a strong memetic draw. They could be thought of as singularities. Wikipedia inducing a click trance is like a force of gravity so strong it drags event light past its event horizon. Irregularly read sources form eccentric orbits like comets wandering in from the oort cloud.

There is almost infinite space to explore how content fits into this model, not necessarily limited to low gravity or high gravity, or high orbital speed versus low orbital speed. The well can include related strands, stretching content across orbits, like an orbital tether with masses orbiting at different velocities. Capitalizing on the differential the whole moves together in the well as one construct. Such artifacts becomes useful, like a space elevator, for more easily moving, deeper into a gravity well and back again. Bookmarks are an extremely early construct for this. They allow a reader to drop a tag at high orbit that facilitates returning and falling back into content much more easily, like a pre-plotted trajectory or course. A blog post deep in the well, could be redacted into a status update with an embedded link, forming a natural gravity tether. Each end of that pairing moves at the appropriate speed and readers can move between the two according to the changing availability of their attention. A high speed capture could result in someone sinking into the well. Personally, I use the higher orbits to quickly collect links, then when I have time later, I allow myself to be drawn deeper in.

In the infosphere instead of gravity and the attendant energy burned it is attention cost that differentiates orbits. At higher velocity, each item needs to be cheaper. This maps well with more expensive items sitting deeper in the well. It also matches well with the cost of production.

Higher orbital traffic is the link economy. Readers can speed from well to well without necessarily getting trapped. Social messaging services act as gravitationally driven slingshots. They don’t require stopping rather accelerating the reader as they fly by. It is easier for some kinds of content to be spit out as pithy messages, especially in the form of links to pre-existing items optionally with simple comments for context. Such content speeds up discovery of more interesting items. It is harder to develop an editorial character this way, though it is possible. Doing so relies more on how the acts of selection reveals the character of the curator as the volume of short messages accumulates.

Aggregators like Digg, BoingBoing and MetaFilter already act as ground based orbital catapults, shooting readers all over the infosphere. Older model sites like these have a bit more drag. They offer more of a way station than social messaging. They can track orbits that are more complex though in the form of their ability to show a strong editorial character. They exhibit useful idiosyncracies like the flight capabilities of some bespoke orbital escape craft. The different placement of thrusters along vagaries of the mass and size of the central body lead to a very different ride in, out and around.

I follow very few people who create content that exists solely in high orbit. Usually it is highly original and creative. For example @rstevens posts all kinds of quips and non sequiturs. Shit my dad says is an unique example, hinging on posting short quotes based on a single premise, just enough content to deliver a punch. Other content in this rarified realm relies on the accumulated context, to expand and establish voice. Few if any examples would stand up to sustained attention deeper in the well. Shit my dad says would be far harder to turn into a single page blog post. It would have to change substantially, becoming far more traditional narrative. It would have to operate like a space craft needing to be able to withstand different stresses and to provide different amounts of thrust to maintain higher and lower orbits. Otherwise it would be crushed like an astronaut too long in orbit unaccustomed to the stronger pull so deep in the well.

A good creator will consciously consider the full span of the well. We already have many publishers that excel at going beyond the simpler models, acting as better examples of orbital tethers, catapults, sling shots and the like. Many people already naturally are using plugins, to link blog posts with social messages. Others have explored similar but even more involved models. As an example I received several email newsletters. All of these also have blogs which post the same content. The email digest is a medium velocity vehicle. It offers more than a 140 character social message but still relies on links to the full piece. It is nowhere near as quick to review as social messages but offers more detail at a slightly higher attention cost.

The deeper wells become, the more options authors have. Likewise, the better the technology, the easier to explore the full range the social gravity well has to offer. I don’t think there is any limit, really, other than perhaps shearing force. If orbits are paired that requiring attention that is too different in kind or quantity then the reader may experience too much stress. The burden is on content producers to find the most comfortable and hence useful combinations. The more effective ones will see more readers spending more attention, across the full range of the available space.

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