On the Communication Capacity of Online Networking Sites

The notion that World of Warcraft players are anti-social is not a new one (Snodgrass et al, 2011).  The notion that online social media has reduced millennials’ communication skills is not a new one (Sinek, 2016; Conover, 2016).  The idea that people have lost the ability to connect with others due to progressive reliance of online interaction is not a new one (Valkenburg & Jochen, 2007). Each instance has been arguably falsified in academics (Conover, 2016; Mirzeoff 2015; Castells, 2010), but for many years still these arguments have illustrated a growing concern for how digital media negatively impacts the way we communicate (Mirzeoff, 2015). Many myths surrounding the online world’s inability to facilitate good conversations have propagated. Today I would like to counter this notion of online communication being poor. I invite you to look at online communication and the structures of online mediated spaces in a new way.  Sites of communication online are complex structured mediums where the site’s capabilities set the tone and level of conversation in the same way a political conversation in 7/11 is different from one at an academic institution.

In this blog will be two positive examples of online communication sites whose wealth of tools offered to users produce excellent communication environments.  My argument is in combination with better understanding of what our sites’ structures do to discourse, and a vested awareness in how communication online works, we can make great communities that transcend the limited social media capacities of common platforms today, and improve the level of discourse on and offline.

Communication in the early days of the internet – BBS Boards
To make my point strong we go back to the beginnings of the internet with rudimentary HTML (Hyperlink Text Markup Language) topic boards put up before social media was a pipe dream in the mind of programmers (Castells, 2010).  For those not familiar with internet history, the military created a rudimentary web called ARPA NET in the 1980s which was used for scientists in military and universities to collaborate online through BBSs or “Bulletin Board Systems” (Castells P. 36-82). BBSs allowed researchers to connect with and discuss complex topics with each other; BBSs supported rich conversation.  It has stuck around in modern forms as well.  It is popularly seen to have “rudimentary” functions as it’s not all that pretty, but most systems involve link, video, images, gifs, and HTML modification support when arranging assets.  Put short, BBSs are highly expressive.  Take BudgetLightForum.com.  Below is an image of a close friend of mine enacting an entire Identity through avatars, signatures, and descriptive text (Fig. 1).  She directly quoted someone else and she and others on the BBS have created identity, community, and expressions all over the world, bleeding in to offline economic interactions with flash light sales and expos.  With proper understanding of HTML, and other BBS supported languages, the system is a veritable canvas of expressive tones, literary tools, and visuals supporting discourse.

Figure 1: ToyKeeper uses image manipulation, html, Quoting, and text editing to expressively make her point. From BudgetLightForums.com; Comment 5221; Feb. 4th 2016. Retrieved May 4th, 2017. http://budgetlightforum.com/comment/893001#comment-893001
Figure 1: ToyKeeper uses image manipulation, html, Quoting, and text editing to expressively make her point. From BudgetLightForums.com; Comment 5221; Feb. 4th 2016. Retrieved May 4th, 2017. http://budgetlightforum.com/comment/893001#comment-893001

While BBSs are highly expressive, there is something to be said for their exclusivity.  BBSs require back-end upkeep from board administrators, a consistent community, knowledge of the code languages the board supports, and a good deal of time. This may suggest why the BBS format has been phased out in favor of a more simple, curated, and limited social experience in the modern social media we deem as the problem.


A Modern Approach:  Ello

When people think of millennials glued to their devices they are normally thinking of modern social media such as Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter (Mirzeoff, P. 150).  Putting aside the arguments that millennials don’t exist (Conover, 2016), these platforms have integrated reality into them, and screen time is increasing across generations all over the world (Mirzeoff, p.154), I invite you to compare the structure of twitter who only provides 140 characters per post and one image, to an up-and-coming social site – Ello.co (Fig. 2).

Unlike Twitter’s highly accessible if tremendously limited discourse environment, Ello is a highly visual artistic and pseudo-exclusive social platform without ads.  It is a visual blogging platform that is commonly used to find artists and social media specialists (Traphagen, 2014). Ello came about as a response to the structural restrictions of Facebook who controls what goes in to each user’s feed, restricts user content to balance it with ads, and overall poorly structures conversation.  Ello allows users to use a language like HTML on BBSs, but has a UI similar to a modern social media site (Traphagen).  Posting on Ello can be remarkably simple, or complex with a drag-and-drop interface and support for videos, images, GIFs, and links.  Ello’s focus on visual structure of communication is highly refined allowing for a great amount of expressiveness, but it is far more accessible (Fig. 2).

ello image
Fig 2:  An example post on Ello shows a simple drag/drop UI. Sept. 28 from Mark Traphagen.  Setp. 28th 2014. Retrieved May 3rd, 2017.

Ello’s “stream” or interactions with others is also separated between two streams where you have full control over what you see, and a stream of ads from businesses or people you follow.  These features of Ello combine with a very aesthetic focus and create a small-community online feel that fosters complex and rich communication when compared to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.




Facebook and Twitter among the other more popular sites have seemingly eclipsed BBS boards and Ello is having trouble maintaining a foothold in popular domains, but they are hardly the only formats that have a range of highly expressive and powerful communication structures online.  Joining them are sites such as DeviantArt, Weebly, gaming platforms such as Curse or Discord, video streaming sites such as YouTube, Twitch, and Skype.  Online games and virtual reality enterprises are spending more time thinking about how to integrate the virtual world in to real life.  These platforms and their communities put this growing misconception that communication online is poor, to bed.  So, when interacting with someone online, consider whether the platform’s design, the medium you speak through, and the capabilities you are missing, are arbitrarily limiting your ability to communicate your ideas to your fullest.  If the answer to that question is yes, consider switching to a more expressive platform.

Work Cited: read more

Castells, Manuel. The information age: economy, society and culture. 2nd ed. Oxford, England: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Print.

Conover, Adam. YouTube. YouTube, 19 Mar. 2016. Web. 06 May 2017. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-HFwok9SlQQ&gt;.

Mirzoeff, Nicholas. How to see the world. Harmondsworth: Penguin , 2015. Print.

Sinek, Simon, and David Crossman. “Simon Sinek on Millennials in the Workplace.” YouTube. YouTube, 29 Oct. 2016. Web. 06 May 2017. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hER0Qp6QJNU&gt;.

Snodgrass, Jeffrey G., Michael G. Lacy, H.j. Francois Dengah, and Jesse Fagan. “Enhancing one life rather than living two: Playing MMOs with offline friends.” Computers in Human Behavior 27.3 (2011): 1211-222. Web. 7 May 2017. <http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563211000057&gt;.

Toykeeper. “BudgetLightForum.com.” BLF Kronos X6/X5 GB – Group Buy now closed. | BudgetLightForum.com. Budget Light Forums, 02 Apr. 2016. Web. 06 May 2017.

Traphagen, Mark. “Ello: The Complete Guide to the Ad Free Social Network.” Stone Temple: Ello: the Complete Guide to the Ad Free Social Network. Stone Temple, 28 Sept. 2014. Web. 06 May 2017. <https://www.stonetemple.com/ello-the-complete-guide-to-the-ad-free-social-network/&gt;.

Valkenburg, Patti M., and Jochen Peter. “Preadolescents’ and adolescents’ online communication and their closeness to friends.” Developmental Psychology 43.2 (2007): 267-77. Web. 7 May 2017. <http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/dev/43/2/267/&gt;.

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