Tale the First: At TEDxChCh a few weeks ago, Sebastian Sylwan from Weta Digital (you know, the Lord of the Rings/Avatar/King Kong guys) gave a talk called New Lenses to View Reality: Art, Science and Visual Effects, on how technology is changing the way we tell -- and perceive -- stories. It's incredible, he says, how many thousands of hours go into making the technology so good that you forget it's there.
The effect of that technology is to create a better representation of the "actual" phenomenon: whether that be hair, skin, eyeballs, or a dinosaur dragging the last car of your train off the tracks. And the better that representation gets, the more effective it is at allowing us to lose ourselves in the story.
Tale the Second: The other day, I read a wonderful presentation from Paul Adams on "The Real Life Social Network." In the "real" world, Paul points out, we have many different types of relationships: work colleagues, superiors, staff, customers, friends, family, kids, grownups. What's appropriate for some circles is inappropriate for others. On social networks, however, everyone we know gets lumped into one class of relationship: "friends." Offline, it's easy for us to control what content we share with which groups. In the online representation of the real world, it's a lot more difficult. The digital representation of the actual phenomenon of a relationship is flawed.
Tale the Third: Earlier this evening, I attended a presentation by a guy who did a social network analysis for his company. This doesn't actually have anything to do with an online social network; instead, it's an analysis of how the people in the organization interact with each other. Of each staff member, about every other staff member, they asked, "How often do you interact with this person? How often do you go to this person for help? How much energy do you have after dealing with this person?" The speaker showed us the results of the analysis: some lovely network diagrams showing the connections among employees, color-coded by length of tenure with the organization, or role, or location -- network diagrams that serve as another representation of the reality of the actual relationships in the group.
Three scenarios. Three representations. Three models that work perfectly, until they come up against the limitations in their ability to accurately evoke the reality they are designed to convey.
This is the challenge being tackled by Facebook's new Messages system: to create a better representation of the reality that is human relationships. "People interact by email," is a flawed representation. "People interact with each other," is better. "I don't care if you like to get messages by text, email, or carrier pigeon," Messages is saying. "I just want to send YOU a message. Get it however you want."
Is it perfect? Of course not. It is not real. It is nothing more than shadows on the wall of Plato's Cave. Messages, for example, allows me to declare my friends as my friends, allowing content from them to appear in my priority folder while bills and statements get shunted into a different folder. Reality, on the other hand, means that sometimes I feel like hearing from certain people, and sometimes I don't, even if they're always classified as "friends." There are some messages I want to receive right away, and some I'd rather shut out altogether, and I don't always know which are which until I read them. At first blush, Messages is a better representation. But it is still only a representation.
Do you think Facebook will succeed in suspending your disbelief? Or is the dissonance between the representation and the reality too great? Let me know your thoughts in the comments or via @kcolbin.