Constructive Media

Media | Language/Structure

When I started the civilities project over two years ago, my aim was to put forth a cohesive theory of communications media to underlie my software work. I called the theory constructive media. The ensuing research has helped me validate it, which, for the passing time, was more important than selling it. I have not till now revisited the original definition, so I will preserve that on its own, and replace it with the definition here.

Constructive media is an approach to communications that is designed for enhancing the understanding of its participants with the minimum of effort and errors.

If this definition makes it sounds like it was written by a process engineer, that’s because it was. If it sounds like a pedagogical approach, that’s because the name was inspired by Seymour Papert’s Constructionist theory of learning. Constructionism, in short, stresses doing and making over rote learning (Papert’s best known tangible creations are the LOGO/Lego educational tools).

Constructive media is also indebted to the work of John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid: I read their essay “The Social Life of Documents” and subsequent book The Social Life of Information ten years ago. What I learned from this work was that I no longer saw a document as a fixed thing; it had a lifecycle where new knowledge could be brought to it and integrated in. Brown and Duguid drew on insights by social scientists Anselm Strauss and Benedict Anderson, who saw that documents are fundamental as organizing centers societies; Anderson cited the U.S. Constitution as a solid example. Brown and Duguid took this further by looking at more intimate groups like communities of practices.

Communities of practice” has also emerged as a useful term to describe groups which function together, such as businesses, governments, nonprofits. The intermediate goals, on the path towards enhancing understanding, are the development of knowledge artifacts– laws, policies, reports, articles– which are viewed as normative by the community. By contrast, “communities of interest,” such as those common on the Internet, generate documentary material in the form of email, comments, polls, etc; but tend to stop short of producing normative output. Thus there is no constructive effort.

I’ve suggested the term “constructive media” since “the social life” escapes easy conjugation. Also, the social life theories presumed that social motivations were key factors to collaborative efforts. This has evolved towards the concept of social media, or alternatively, social software. With constructive media, that isn’t necessarily the case; the participants’ main focus should be the documents. I go into more depth in the differences between the two in my article The Yin to Social Software’s Yang.

In addition, the term citizen media has blossomed over the last couple of years. It covers similar territory, but is there are key differences. Citizen media is often about giving tools to ordinary “citizens” (non-professionals) to produce and share content. Constructive media, on the other hand, is strictly about process and outcome, and is independent of the players involved. (I am preparing a more detailed comparison)

So let’s have a look at the process.

The constructive media process

Constructive media is built upon the the process of inquiry, which is at the heart of academic, legal, governance, and journalistic proceedings. It follows this general model:

  1. The author constructs a hypothesis or a question, and sets about to answer it, or seek answers to it.

  2. Active readers provide direct feedback, public or private.

  3. Passive readers provide feedback through indirect means (polling, ViewPoints, etc.)

  4. The author/publisher integrates the results within a newer version of the document.

  5. Overall, the author and the audience negotiate meaning and value of the content.

To facilitate these, we use media structures. A “letter to the editor” is such a structure, as is a corrections column. Such structures are applied inconsistently due the the vagaries of each medium, and the whims of each publisher (televised news broadcasts do neither; few publications, like the Atlantic Monthly, go as far as asking the reporters to respond directly to published letters).

With the Internet, these structures can be simply formalized in code. Furthermore, each of these steps are open to a much larger community, quite often anyone on the net. Information is posted at universal addresses, such as URL’s or other unique identifiers. Thus it can be unambiguously referenced– this as much is standard for any document on the web (but not so with email and previous publishing formats). The other steps employ different techniques and standards.

The most vexing challenge is #5 above. Knowledge is published– made available at a unique address– without the accreditation of a secondary party. That is to say, while any fact or article published in a book or periodical (or broadcast on a channel), bears the imprimatur of its publisher, any fact or article on any given website bears no such presumption. This requires an active negotiation between the reader and the writer: is this stuff worth reading? Only some very rough measures have been put forth (traffic and inbound links), and neither adequately testifies to the overall quality of the material.

Constructive media, therefore, relies on media structures to be developed, understood, and enhanced.

The weblog form is partially constructive media: they are bits of information which once would have been released in conversation or on emails; now they each post has a permanent address on the web. The solicitation of comments has been integrated into most blog software. But there’s a lot of work to be done. Input from passive readers is not solicited. Responses from the author are not guaranteed. Whether these will come rests largely on the consideration that blogs have ceased to be a mere technology and are now a powerful cultural current. The self-identification of people who write blogs– the bloggers– is quite strong, but this may make it more difficult to shift the technology to constructive media aims (compare with automobiles in the U.S.– they are seen as symbols of personal freedom, and thus fuel economy is not a widely-held aim).

Most blog advocates embrace the wiki collaborative-editing paradigm as a way to serve #4. The best known wiki implementation, Wikipedia, is able to also serve #3 by handling anonymous corrections. The problem with the blog-wiki approach is that it requires two separate tools.

Discussion boards and forums are also ripe for integration into constructive media, as they are amenable to question-and-answer exchanges. Still, it is rare that readers turn to discussion boards for normative information.

In summary, all of the tools exist for constructive media today, and some are in fact being used towards those ends. But in the absence of a system necessarily designed for constructive media, many tools are incomplete. And that’s a shame. Publishers are able to score points with media-savvy audiences for being “interactive” or “conversational” and this may serve those audiences. Communities of practice, on the other hand, need to know that they are building information constructively.