interview with Mafe de Baggis: why do people share? (real life and the narrative self)

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Mafe De Baggis is a very bright social media Italian expert.
She builds communication strategies for companies and private clients, helping them understand how to deal with social media, how to extract knowledge about their products and services perception on the net, and how to work with online communities.
She’s a freelance, a consultant and she holds a very interesting blog.
I constantly try to intercept knowledge from her when we meet, and once I interviewed Mafe asking specific questions about my research topics.
In this post I’ll summarize some important points she picked out, in order to better understand how to use social media data to create meaningful collective images of what happens online, regarding city use and perception.

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“I’m not a user”
A very interesting issue came up before I even started with the first question, just after the first words I used to describe my research.

“…Please, stop: I’ve this obsessions for words, forgive me. But I think that the word “User” in “User generated content” is inappropriate. Technically, an User is a person that literally “uses”, a person that takes a very passive position in the conversation, a person that is the receiver of an experience, a product that has been designed for him.  You have to move the focus, and think in terms of conversations.It could be whatever you want but not User (and this is very related to Don Norman writings).”

(User-generated or user-created content is such a recently coined expression that an agreed definition does not yet exist. The OECD (2007) defines content as «user-generated» if it is produced by non-professional persons (i.e. amateurs), as opposed to professional media producers.)

Focusing on “what kind of story we want to tell”, we came up that even “people generated content” was not properly satisfying.
Mafe continued arguing that such kind of labels put an inevitable distance from the observer (me!) and the stories.
She suggested that first of all I have to feel part of that.

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“an interesting mapping of something half-way between reality and people’s aspirations”
First of all, information has to be understood for the very nature of the data we gather.
Why do people share? which people is sharing? How we have to read them?  Is it really possible to extract knowledge out of that?
There is not an academic bibliography for that, and that where my main questions to Mafe.
Actually social media contributions don’t reflect an 100% of life logging, it’s not a literal transcription of reality and of people’s life. Social media streams of contributions are narratives, are stories. People don’t give a like to something they don’t like, while people experience things they don’t like during their everyday life. “you’re not dealing with a 100% of life-logging; the terrific thing with those contents it’s an interesting mapping of something half-way between reality and people’s aspirations

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an existential ping?
“Sharing. Everything always is a wish to communicate”.
…and this happens for two distinct basic needs.
The first  deals with content (I have something to say, I have something to say to someone).
The need to communicate contents could grow from different purposes, from making a good impression, to the instinct of telling that you like something.
The second need we can identify is what Mafe calls “existential ping”, that is basically the natural born necessity to tell the world that you exist: “hey, world look at me!”.
And Social Media diffusion has made this self-expression-without-content incredibly at hand, and now even more the paradigm shifts from “I am therefore I have to be considered” to “I am here therefore I have to be considered” which is very promising in terms of spatial and urban analysis.

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“with social media everything is done with a narrative purpose in mind, is it conscious or unconscious”
Given these preliminary but interesting remarks, Mafe suggested to always consider social media narratives like stories, which writers are aware or not.
People communicate what they’re interested to be evaluated for from their peers, friends, colleagues or supervisors.
And this reflect personal individualities that come out: there are people that – in real life – love to describe themselves as boring, and those are the ones that checks-in at every metro station, at the supermarket and so on, which comes completely coherent with the story behind their self-telling.
It’s very easy and intuitive: people check-in where they’d like to be seen; expressing a desired relationships with other people.

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“relationship vs content?”
Each communication process has to be considered from both the side of the content and the side of the relationship it aims at building. We can find an easy interpretation in the theory of the “pragmatic of communication“: very often when individuals don’t understand each other during a conversation it’s much more because of the nature of the relationship they’re establishing, rather than because of the content. Tweets, posts and check-ins have to be observed with both these lenses (content and relationship), especially because social media allow people to communicate even when they don’t have actual contents to tell. (check-in is a democratically form of expression)

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“social media has not genetically exchanged our identity”
Then, a big misunderstanding with the common idea of Social Media is the one that describes the online world as people that suddenly begin to write in blogs, to hold interesting twitter profiles…
In fact there’s an inevitable continuity to what people did before going online and to what people wished to do. (it’s much more probable that you have an active blog if you were writing on paper…).
Technology enhance people to do things that they could do even before: “If I am a curious person I’d listen to strangers’ conversation at the cafè… now Twitter allows me to listen to thousand of conversations, and to correlate or analyze them”

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“building indicators of urban well-being in specific places?”
According to the very nature of the data it’s possible to extract insights on how resident, locals, tourists and commuters perceive a specific area, and personally I think it’s very promising.
This inevitably would require a parallel on-field validation process (e.g. measuring for a specific area the “intensity” of tweets compared with the actual density of the place in that moment).
Interpreting those interesting clue Mafe shared, I think thus, that it could be interesting to analyze specific places and compare their relationship with the external environment and the place itself.
Talking about pubs and cafe; there’s areas from where people interact a lot in the digital sphere – (cool young pubs from which tweets / take pictures and cheek-s in a lot) and places from where actually people don’t share (bar that are others dense and crowded but silent as digital presence). What does it mean? Where are people from in those places? Could we find any indicator? What it’s interesting is the eventual coexistence or complete difference from who’s here and who’s far (introducing a new concept of proximity?)

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“…you can intercept interesting projections on people’s dreamed days: If you follow an individual through social media you will get an assembly of moments, building his days with no downtimes. “
As a conclusion, providing a framework for extracting urban knowledge from individual narratives on social network seems particularly bright:

Those contribution have a big narrative characteristic:
How such stories can become data we can work on?

Relational aspect of this personal stories we share is very important as well, a singular contribution means nothing out of its context:
Can we find a way to see the net of relation and meanings behind a singular trace? Can we discover and depict more complex patterns that make collective stories worth?

About giorgia lupi

1981 I am an architect that never built any house (luckily). I work with information, designing, researching and drawing a lot. I am co-founder ad design director at Accurat (www.accurat.it) I am a PhD student at Milan Politecnico (www.densitydesign.org)

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