The first day of thesis class, we were asked to prepare a 10 minute presentation, just introducing ourselves and giving the basics of our thesis topic/project. My slides aren’t so telling, in and of themselves, so I’ll write some quick notes on the gist of what I said from the presentation. Not having a specific project yet in mind (in fact, not even feeling sure wether or not this thesis WILL be a project) I basically went through the background of what I am interested in, why I am interested in it, what previous projects have led me to realize my interest, some projects that I felt inspiring or that deal with my topic in some way, and, finally, my plan of attack for the semester, including, my first of many weekly experiments.

The Semiotics of Devices (working title)

What I am insterested in exploring this semester, is the communication that occurs between people, and how the conversations that they have are shaped by the technologies that they use.

Last year, I started a project called the Momblog. It’s simply a blog that I opened up between my mother and I, where we could communicate in a variety of ways and talk about whatever we want to talk about. Over time, it seemed, the fancy whistles and bells I had set up (voice and picture messaging, mainly) weren’t nearly as exciting as the fact that we now I had a venue for storytelling, or “posting.” After a few months, what I came to realize was that the momblog, with all of its characteristics and constraints, had opened up a whole new way for my mother and I to communicate in a way we never really had the opportunity to before. I came to realize how much the technology had enabled this conversation that couldn’t have occurred in any other medium.

Starting to apply this thinking to other media, it quickly became apparent that this simple relationship between form and content in communications media is not always so simple as technological features. Communication, like language, is socially constructed. How we use communication media is largely dependent upon how those people in our inner most social circles use communication media, and what is socially acceptable.

Last semester, I lost my cell phone. The phone company sent me a replacement – an upgrade, actually. Poking around one day, trying to get used to the fancy new interface and features, I found a folder of pre-programmed SMS templates. One of the templates that came with the phone said “I love you.” I was instantly horrified. While it seemed that such a message- a simple three words, plenty short enough to read or type quickly – a simple three words, no less, that many people often complain can be difficult to say out loud – would be perfect for a cell-phone sized screen and a quick “check-in” type interaction, something about it just seemed…wrong. Trying to decipher what it was that was so not okay about this content/context relationship, I started to think about ubiquity, and wether or not the always-on accessibility of this myriad of communications media was dulling the memory or meaning of our messages in any way.

This was about the same time that I started to work on the Telebunny. With this project, I set out to create a communication-enabling object that was intentionally non-ubiquitous, with intentionally strict technological constraints, to see if it didn’t lead to the kind of message that I wanted to hear. Being stationary, connected to a landline, a message transmitter, but not a message storage or retreival device, and a voice activated object, though not enabling any outgoing communication itself, I believed this would only enable the kind of message that carries a special meaning to its owner. I was going for a feeling that I just haven’t seen happening to people since the days of the answering machine or, possibly, ever.

Then, preparing for this presentation, I realized that there was one other time I’d managed to produce a similar feeling. Unlike the telebunny, it didn’t involve programming or wiring, just a hand written-note. Last year I hosted a “Thursday Night Out” for my brithday. The invitation, I felt, shouldn’t only exist on a website. It was my birthday, and I genuinely wanted everyone to know how much I wanted them to be there. Unfortunately, due to time and technical constraints, I couldn’t write a note to every person, like I’d wanted, but I did manage to mass produce a note authentic looking enough that everyone who got one in their locker was pleased, and I got several comments throughout the day about how sweet people thought it was to receive a hand-written, hand-folded note in their locker, asking them, to come to my party. (At this point I should mention that Mushon’s comment following my presentation was about this note, and how disappointed he was to figure out that it was not only him who got one. He said it felt more like a marketing ploy then a special invitation, to which I feel truly deplorable, as this was obviously not my intention. To me, the point was that everyone got one, and, had I had the time, I would have individually addressed them. Originally, I even wanted to personalize them, but, again…)

But, to conclude, this whole idea, again, reinforced what I had been thinking all along without really realizing, that I want to know more about how the context of a message can affect the content, and how this, in turn, can affect not just our interactions, but our relationships with one another as well. I want to know more about why we choose one medium over another, and how much that depends on that media’s characteristics and what it is that we want to say.

After this, the presentation went on, but I’m going to save that for another post. Where I’m wrapping it up here is to describe what it is I’m doing for the rest of the semester on this very broad, but very personally interesting, thesis topic.

To start, I’ve been doing a lot of research – theory, sociology, psychology, personal musings – in the area of communication media. Every week, I’m doing at least one “experiment” in this area, just to exercise my brain a bit and have a chance to play out any ideas I get along the way. By midterms, I’ll have a strong start on a working paper, mostly limited to background, context and research. And shortly after, provided all signs point to yes, the beginnings of a final project. Here goes!