Friday, June 10, 2011

Reading Luhmann to understand Twitter and this changing world

Twitter, an important "actor" in the social system today, led me to a very interesting paper:

Structural Coupling and Translation - Twitter observed as
Communication Medium and Non-human Actor

By Jesper Takke
Associate Professor, PhD
Information and Media Studies
Aarhus University

Available at:

This makes a very good reading for those who are interested in Luhmann's theory (like me), but the following passage may convince the general reader with no such interest of the relevance of this paper to understanding of this changing world. (The original paragraph is divided into blocks for more comfortable reading.)

First on the interaction level Twitter opens for a network like form of near synchronous communication without the heavy framework of other social media like Facebook.

This medium is also freed from forced reciprocal relations. You only have 140 characters in a tweet, but it is possible to send links to other places on the Internet, like to a weblog, pictures on Flickr or other sources.

If we say that this is the possibility space of the medium the interesting thing is how it is actualized.

First of all it looks like Twitter is used by people who publishes or produces materials which can be linked to, for instance, a newspaper article written by you, about you, or just about a topic or a person you think is important.

Also we see many questions and answers, invitations, proclamations, and information, for instance, about new software or election results.

Persons can contribute to the communication on Twitter using a computer, a smart phone and even a cell phone via SMS. This means that you can stay in contact with the Twitter community wherever you are whenever you want.

Also Twitter has a special cyberspaceical configuration because you through the hashtag ‘#’ can participate in the communication of a topic with everybody else on Twitter following the same hashtag. Together with the possibility for retweeting (sending another person’s tweet to them who follows you) this makes the communication space of this medium, on the one hand one big arena, on the other, a very complex arena to navigate in.

Another interesting thing on the interaction level is that Twitter’s possibility space is actualized to form a parallel interaction system on conferences, for instance, making it possible for the public attending a lecture or a keynote, to communicate about the topic and it’s points, finding sources about it on the Internet, sharing it with the others in real time. This also opens for the possibility for the audience to confront the speaker with general questions, which are already consolidated through negotiations on Twitter.

This is a new coupling between the psychic and social systems. It allows people not physical present to participate in the discussion and demands that psychic systems present can oscillate their concentration between the spoken and written discourse. This means that Twitter communication, between people who at same time are also in physical based social contexts, selects persons who can and are willing to extent their psychic level of complexity (oscillating their concentration between the two co‐existing interaction systems). As long this is possible the social level of systems formation can extent its complexity because not only one contributes to the social at a time. The social system can use (select) every body’s contributions, everybody’s links to sources, the notes from everybody even input from participants who are not physical present, but who participate via the chosen hashtag and the live reporting from them who are present (or from a streaming)
(pp. 11-12)

Below are excerpts from the paper. They highlight some of the essence of Luhmann's theory (and also Latour's, of which I knew nothing). I thank the author of this paper, Professor Takke (sorry, I can't put the right alphabet) and Evgeny Morozov whose tweet let me know of this paper.

In systems theory media can be seen as the mechanisms of structural couplings between psychic and social system (p. 1)

Translation is “displacement, drift, invention, mediation, the creation of a link that did not exist before and that to some degree modifies two elements or agents” (p. 1)

the element is constituted as a unity only by the system that enlists it as an element to use it in relations” (Luhmann 1995, 22). (p. 3)

"communication only works through consciousness, using consciousness, but never operationally as consciousness" (Luhmann 2002, 274). (p. 4)

Communication and consciousness systems evolve in a co‐evolution, since the language makes it possible for them to differentiated themselves out (Luhmann 2002, 278) (p. 5)

Language is the structural coupling, that is its task, its function” (Luhmann 2002, 279) (p. 5)

Luhmann (1990, 26) defines meaning as a distinction between actuality and potentiality. (p. 6)

Selection of information, for instance, in communication is an announcement of what is not selected, but which could have been selected. (p. 6)

“Only when a system, in its autopoietic reproduction, adapts itself to the field in which it operates can it determine itself through its own structures” (Luhmann 2002b, 172). (p. 6)

The autopoiesis of social systems is nothing more than this constant process of reduction and creation of opportunities for linking. (p. 7)

Language and writing, as well as later developed media, thus guaranteeing that communication retains the ability to reorganize itself through its constant accommodation to the mind. (p. 7)

Consciousness can work without communication, but only if it has experienced communication and has socialized itself. (p. 7)

the actor concept includes everything that can be ascribed an action no matter if it is human, artifact, institution or for instance a god (p. 8)

Latour (2008, 133) defines translation as a connection that transports transformations and makes two mediators coexist. (p. 9)

Luhmann (1999, 358, 1990, 91) sees writing, printing and symbolically generalised communication media as generating the functional differentiation of society. (p. 11)

Language opened for the separating out of the psychic and social systems from the total biological control by enabling the structural coupling between them. (p. 17)

The structural coupling enabled the translation, or is the process of translation. (p. 17)

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