SOCIAL SEMANTICS IN A NETWORKED SPACE
NEW PERSPECTIVES FOR SOCIAL SCIENCES
LaRiCA - Faculty of Sociology – University of Urbino “Carlo Bo”
Via Saffi 15, 61029 Urbino (PU) Italy
During the last few years the Internet has been increasingly used by people as a read-write
medium. Thanks to the dropped prices and skills necessary to afford and use technologies
aimed to create digital contents, a large amount of people in the world is now able to produce
persistent digital information. A large share of this information is today exposed to a mass
audience on the Internet. The aim of this paper is to present a vision and few examples of how
this large amount of data might be used for sociological research. From the theoretical point
of view this kind of researches drawn on the concept of social semantics developed by Niklas
Luhmann. Social semantics, once crystallized in books is today also available in online
conversations. The networks of interpersonal communications, when computer mediated,
becomes observable and, as a consequence, social scientists have access to invaluable new
data. Today, the online data have four characteristics that tend to increase even more the
sociological value of this conversations. As a matter of fact, the online network of
communications is in fact persistent, searchable, replicable and addressed to an invisible
audience. Due to these properties online conversations may be analyzed with standard content
analysis qualitative or quantitative techniques. The paper will present the theoretical
framework for researches based upon the analysis of online conversations.
Keywords: social semantics, web 2.0, Luhmann, user generated content, methodology.
1. The domestication of World Wide Web
In late 2005 Tim O‟Reilly and Dale Dougherty (O'Reilly 2005) introduced the term “Web
2.0” in the public debate creating both a successful marketing buzz word and contributing to
crystallize a theme for societal networks of communication. Due to the wide success of the
term, it is not easy today to offer a clear definition of “Web 2.0”.
Since there is a lack of formal definition it may be useful to start our own analysis from the
numbers that follows the word web in the term: 2.0. As in the field of software development
the numbers placed immediately after the name of a product, identify the version of a
computer program. Two point zero therefore implies the existence of a previous one point
zero version and that this supposedly second upgraded version of the web is somewhat better
then the one before.
From a technical point of view web 2.0 is actually well represented by a new generation of
applications that shift the calculus and information storage requirements from the user
personal computers at home or office toward more powerful computers (servers) permanently
connected to the Internet. This class of applications, often defined as web applications, realize
- at last in part- the not at all new vision of network computersi.
Although, if we observe this brand new phenomenon form this purely technical point of
view, we would fail to grasp the social impact, but also paradoxically the technical impact, of
Web 2.0. As most of the computer scientists discovered, not without initial concerns, few
years ago, computers networks are infrastructures for social interactions. At the same time
social interactions may change the infrastructure itself. There is a circular relationship
between technology and society that makes almost impossible a pure technological approach
to technique. Judging from the developments within the fields of artifacts design, software
interfaces and networked environments, all lead us to think that informatics and computer
science may well be considered as a social science (Pincus 2005). At the same time a deep
understandings of social relations requires a certain amount of technical knowledge to
comprehend the infrastructure where this social interactions takes place and develop.
Not surprisingly one of the last project by Sir Tim Berners Lee (the inventor of World
Wide Web) is exactly to deliver the vision of a new field of interdisciplinary study called Web
Science (Berners-Lee, Hall et al. 2006).
Figure . The web science
Web 2.0 is also sometime defined as the social (or even sometime live) web emphasizing
the shift to a new kind of social understanding of the web in spite than just the release of new
software or class of software. The term is sometime simply used as a device to refer to a
cluster of new applications and related online cultures (Beer and Burrows 2007). The
inextricable feedback loop between the development of communication technologies and the
evolution of social systems, as described by many authors in the past (Flichy 1996; Boccia
Artieri 1998), has never been more evident.
As with all technologies, even with the Internet, domesticating the web means changing
ourselves (Silverstone 2000). Web 2.0, as defined in this paper, can be considered as the place
in the space where technology and society converge.
When the Internet and World Wide Web started to appear in the offices and houses
everywhere in the world, our ability to understand this new medium was deeply influenced by
the knowledge and experience we had with previous medium (just think about the metaphor
of electronic email). The web has thus been used and taught for a long period of time as a
mass medium. A medium where a small amount of people may create contents to be
distributed to a wide number of consumers. Printing press, television and radio inducted us to
think that not everything that can be published deserves to be. Production and diffusion of
contents through mass media required such strong budgetary commitment (Schiltz, Truyen et
al. 2007), that just contents with special characteristics (what we call now the hits) deserves to
pass the filter and be published (Anderson 2007).
During the last few years the prices and skills necessary to afford and use technologies
(such as video cameras, camera phones and digital cameras) have dropped. Shooting photos
and even recording home movies is nothing new but the shift from analogue to digital
technologies has increased even more the access to this technologies simplifying the use and
lowering in the long terms the price of devices. At the same time the diffusion of personal
computers has created the opportunities to manipulate (copy, remix and modify) in a
relatively easy way this contents. Last but not least, the Internet offers today a worldwide
infrastructure to publish and diffuse this contents to a potentially global audience.
2. On the quantitative state of the social web
According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project during 2005, the 35% of online
American adults and 57% of online teenagers published and shared some kind of contents on
the web (Lenhart and Madden 2005).
Observing the statistics of the most popular Internet services aimed to share texts, photos
and videos can be useful to get an initial idea about the size and grow rate of this
According to the last report published in April 2005 (Sifry 2007) by the specialized blogs
search engine Technorati, 70 millions weblogs were present on the Internet at the time the
report was published with a grow rate of 120.000 a day.
Even if this numbers, according to many analysts, are probably overrated (because of spam
and abandoned weblogs), they still deserve attention especially if considered side by side with
the estimated 1.5 million posts published every day on average in the world.
Figure . Weblog tracked by Technorati between March 2003 and March 2007.
Similar numbers can be observed on photos and video shared on the world wide web. One
of the most popular service aimed to publish and share personal photos online is called Flickr
and has been acquired in 2005 by Yahoo!. According to the data made available by Flickr
executives during a meeting organized in Berlin to launch the localized version of the service
in eleven new languages, in June 2007 Flickr hosted 525 million photos (75% publically
available) with an average grow rate of 1.5 million new photos a day (Dainesi 2007).
Considering that Flickr is just one among the many available services aimed to share photos
online, we can fairly assume that the total amount of photos shared and published on the
Internet is considerably larger than that.
A similar scenario appears if we focus on sharing videos website. YouTube, the most
popular website in this category, has been acquired by Google during 2006 and counts 89
million shared video at the time of writing.
Along with these traditional video and sharing websites, new and emerging social
networking services (such as Friendster, MySpace, Facebook), very popular among teenagers,
must be taken into account in order to better understand how vast the amount of contents
shared today on the Internet is. Social networking websites allow users to create an individual
homepage called profile with text, photos and videos of the owner. Social networking profiles
also contain comments from other members and a public list of people that one identifies as
friends within his or her network. The personal social networks becomes therefore visible and
According to another study carried out by the Pew Internet & American Life Project in
2006 over half of the American teenagers between 12 and 17 create their own profile in one of
3. The social impact of social web
Even if the quantitative size of the phenomenon appears to be far from irrelevant, it is not
possible to avoid a more qualitative analysis of the contents published on the the web by the
users (user generated contents) to better understand the social impact of Web 2.0.
Daily weblogs, photos and videos tell us about millions of personal experiences and
everyday life stories. Personal stories full of references to people, places and facts.
Storing memories of experiences it is not a new social attitude in itself. (just think about
everyday chats with friends, personal secret diaries, family albums, holiday photos).
What is really new here is the availability of the web as a global infrastructure to expose
publically and cheaply these contents to an invisible audience. Simply put, we may state that
for the first time in history masses have access to mass media not only as consumers, but also
It is not the first time in the social media history that a new technology becomes suddenly
available to a wider group of people due to a specific social, economical and historical
context. The last time something similar happened (with the availability and diffusion of
printing press), according to many authors the opportunities to the rise of modern society
emerged (Luhmann and De Giorgi 2000).
We are probably facing a similar new extraordinary change that we can barely describe
today. According to the law of accelerated return identified by Ray Kurzweil (Kurzweil
2005), this change is taking place at a much faster speed than before.
According to David Beer and Roger Burrows (2007), this is a major challenge for
sociology in a world where „internet time‟ now runs a clock speed several orders of
magnitude faster than that of academic research.
Even in, and probably because of, this scenario of accelerated technological and social
changes, it is probably too early – in such a new stage of socio-technical evolution - to sketch
out hypothesis or describe in details the impact we may expect on society in the long run in
order to proof or challenge the popular rhetoric around web 2.0.
What we may do as social scientists is on one side to follow the path shown by the
emergence of new forms of paradoxes and on the other side to start wondering about methods
and techniques to gain new insight on society by exploiting the possibility of this information
4. Privacy and network public
The first form of paradoxical synthesis we face analyzing Web 2.0 is the public/private
one. The definition of the word public in itself, as Danah Boyd argues (Boyd 2007), is
somewhat ambivalent. As an adjective it is commonly used in opposition to private and, when
referring to places, to signal places (as in public space) that are accessible by anyone (or
almost anyone). When used to describe texts or actions it implies that it will not be possible to
know in advance who will access to this text or action. When used as a noun, the word public
refers to a group of people who share access to a specific resource (eg. the view of a
landscape, a performance, a book or a movie). To some extent the meaning of public as a
noun is not dissimilar to the concept of audience as defined by Sonia Livingston (Livingstone
2000). Since the boundary of public is determined by the access to a specific resource or
content, an undetermined number of different publics may exist in any point of time. A useful
distinction, in this sense, may be drown between non mediated publics, where contents is
accessed and consumed in a face to face environment, and mediated public, bound together
through the use of a media.
Even if writing may be well considered the first form of such a kind of mediating
technologies, it‟s only with the development and widely adoption of printing press that the
anonymous and asymmetrical relationship between producers and consumers implied by the
mediation becomes evident (Boccia Artieri 2004).
The special relationship between producers and consumers caused by the mediation of
printing press, may therefore be defined in opposition with interactive oral communication
where speakers and listeners share the same time and space, may perceive each other, may
react in real time to each other feedback (Esposito 2001) and may shift role from listener to
speaker taking advantage of turn taking.
The real nature of mediated mass public may therefore be defined by this radical form or
asymmetry and anonymity between producers and consumers. Not being subject to the
limitations of physical presence, mediated public is structurally and by definition unknown
and it may even be identified with the whole world itself.
The author of a mediated performance should therefore consider as a public not just the
people who actually see the performance, but also the people who may see or will see it in the
In mediated spaces shaped by printing press contents or resources acquired three important
properties: they become permanent, replicable and directed to an invisible audience.
In a networked mediated space those three properties are intensified and a fourth property,
serchability, emerges (Boyd 2007).
Permanence refers to the stability in time and space of a communicative act. When
mediated, communication shift from being an ephemeral event to being persistent in time.
The property of persistence increase, as a side effect, the possibilities to link communication
to other communications (Luhmann and De Giorgi 2000).
Replicability is a typical characteristic of the modern age and can be defined as the
possibility to easily replicate a communicative act in such a way that it is not possible to
distinguish anymore the copy from the original. Printing press make it possible to create an
indefinite number of undistinguishable copies of a book. When the contents become digital
and copy/past technologies become common, replicability is greatly enchained.
The public of a mediated communicative act, as argued before, is therefore invisible. In the
vast majority of cases producer and consumers do not know each other and this reciprocal
form of opacity is exactly the distinctive properties of mediated interactions.
Last but not least, serchability, a specific property of network mediated spaces, consists in
the availability of tools aimed to index and search this persistent, replicable and directed to an
invisible audience contents. Without such a search tool, the extraordinary quantity of
communicative acts available would not be easily accessible (think about books stored in
remote libraries). Searchabiliy, as a yet to be explored side effect, greatly enchains the
possibility to find permanent communications to develop new communication from.
Publishing personal contents on the web expose those contents, traditionally considered
private, to a networked public. What is even more interesting, is that this self-exposure habit
is completely spontaneous and freely choose by a wide range of Internet users. A modern
approach usually dismiss self-exposure as a form of narcissism or as the desire to see
ourselves reflected in the mirror of media. According to this modernity rooted point of view
this phenomenon can be read along the desire of some people to appear on TV shows (such
as reality). Within a second order cybernetics perspective, however, narcissism and
egocentrism are considered unavoidable since the world is a construction of an observer that
cannot be therefore other then egocentric (Foerster 1987).
It is pretty clear that a deep understanding of individual motivations to share their private
require a far more complex approaches then just using the same theoretical tools we used to
study modern society.
According to some authors (Jenkins 2006) one of the reasons of self-exposure can be found
in the users lack of knowledge regarding the audience who may access a content published on
the web. A gap of knowledge that should be filled as soon as possible by paying more
attention to new media literacy in education. A generation of teenagers is growing in a social
environment where Internet, computers and mobile technologies are widely available while,
at the same time, no previous generations can teach them the risks and possibilities connected
with those tools. The Internet generation is therefore socializing and acquiring new media
literacy skills by trial and errors and mainly on a peer-to-peer basis.
And even if they are doing it on their own, they are not doing too bad. According to a
recent report by Pew Internet, American teenagers are well aware of privacy settings. The
66% of them restrict access to their profile to friends only, while 46% admitted to share false
information about themselves to protect their privacy online or just for goofing (Lenhart and
Madden 2007). At last half of the sample demonstrate therefore a good understanding of the
tools and a skill useful to strategically move on the boundary between private and public
spaces balancing the need to share experiences with their actual real life friends to the need to
make new friendsii. Networks represent for these users mainly a new space to experiment and
articulate their own identity by playing between public and private. Even in this case, the
habits of the Internet generation appear far from modernity. The idea of a clear distinction
between real and virtual (online digital spaces) seems to be rejected here in spite of the
perspective of a seamless integration between mediated (networked bounded) and non
mediated (geographical bounded) lives. The choice to expose themselves to a public (or to
several different publics) create the possibilities to experience in a mediated digital
environment the construction of our own identity and to increase our impression management
(Goffman 2000) skills by evaluating different social context often impossible to reach without
the Internet. Since the changes in our behavior are based on an informal analysis of the
behaviors of others, in this environments users tend to experiment not only their own identity
but also to observe systematically the identity and behaviors of other users in order to get
useful social clues (according to Danah Boyd a vast majority of MySpace users spend hours
browsing friends profile before setting up its own).
As in the most classic second order cybernetic dynamics, the self (system) is deeply
connected with other selves (environments). In other terms, the closeness of closed systems
somewhat determined an unavoidable form of openness. It must be however stated that,
according to Foucault, the habit to link your own identity to others can also be considered as
an extraordinary example of the post-disciplinary form of control hide behind freedom that
Foucault itself and other authors such as Gilles Deleuze described even before the Internet.
Even in this case, where a modern rooted sensibility would lead us to concentrate on the
implicit risks of external control based on the analysis of personal information of users
available online (the privacy issue), the actual behavior of Internet generation suggest to
watch in a different direction.
Traditional forms of surveillance and control, as applied to user generated content, should
take into deep considerations that this conversations are often exposure of identities of users
who are well aware of the presence of a public. Every mediated experience can be of course
accused to be non authentic as opposed to non mediated one. Traditional critics to mass media
are often based on the claimed distortion of reality that the mediation implies (Luhmann 2000;
Gili 2001). But if mediation implies a distortion we should reconsider the concept of reality
itself since we, as a human being, cannot perceive the reality without our own senses and
therefore the mediation of our body. The problem of authenticity is crucial because it leads us
to reflect on the unavoidable and structural mediated properties of our social life.
A behavior is considered a communication when the actor is aware of the presence of
others (Watzlawick, Beavin et al. 1971) and this happens in a mediated as well as in a non
mediated environment. Should we then dismiss as non authentic all the behaviors that take
place in public or should we instead just accept, as we actually do in our everyday life, to deal
with this form of pseudo-authenticity as an unavoidable characteristic of social relations?
Whoever is thinking about any use of the contents available online to whatever reason
should be aware of the difference between a narrated experience and the experience itself.
What appears to be most interesting here is the habit to create and shape identities in front
of invisible audiences.
How do you relate with an invisible, and sometimes silent audience?
To answer this question we should probably take a look to professionals who everyday do
exactly this for their job. Journalist, movies producers, directors and writers are well aware of
the implications of dealing with an invisible audience. An invisible audience is unknown and
unknowable by definition. At the same time it is impossible to produce a content without an
idea of whom the content is addressed to.
When the public is invisible the only useful strategy is to construct your own image of it, is
by analyzing available information (audience data, sell data, polls) and according to your
goals. This process of building of an imagined audienceiii, once operated just by mass media
producers, is today experienced by millions of people as content producers on the web. In the
vast majority of cases the main goal of these subjects is not to increase their audiences but to
build effectively their own identity for the public they have in mind (even if it is a small group
of friends they meet on a regular basis in non mediated settings).
Even if professional or amateur producers may strongly believe to know their audience,
they just imagine it(just think about teens in a networked spaces where marketers, predators
or even people they know from different social contexts of their life may be actually be part
of their public. Even in those cases teenagers experiment creative defense strategies by
deceiving, creating fake profiles, increasing the privacy settings of their space to restrict to
their friends and so on (Slatalla 2007).
Where this scenario may bring us in the long or even short terms is hard to know. A new
generation is growing experimenting on their identity in networked environments and thus in
front of an invisible audiences. If we analyze this very preliminary phase of “becoming
media” we can be fairly sure that it will deeply affect the behaviors of future generations
when they will become adult.
The individual and anthropological impact of Web 2.0 is anyway just one of the possible
available perspectives. The availability of a networked public space is also changing the
relationship between people and traditional mass media, enterprises and politics.
The broader access to communication with an invisible audience, as popular rhetoric
suggests, is changing hierarchies and social divisions, is creating possibilities and
opportunities, is informing us and reconfiguring our relations with objects, space and each
other since everyone can now create and distribute contents to an invisible (potentially mass
audience) through the Internet.
5. Social systems in a networked mediated space
The theory of social systems, as framed by Niklas Luhmann, defines this type of systems
within a second order cybernetics (Foerster 1987) approach as communicative networks that
are able to observeiv.
Communication, within this framework, is defined as a synthesis of three different
selections: information, message and comprehension of the distinction between information
and message. In extreme synthesis the message is the selection of how to say something.
Information is the selection of what to say. Comprehension creates the possibility to connect
communication to new communications. A communication, by definition, may exist just
within a networks of previous and following communicative events. Talking about one
communication usually means to analytically stop the flow of communications.
Communications constantly flow, this is why it was difficult for oral cultures to talk about
communication itself. It is only with writing that it became possible to observe the flow of
communications through traces leaved on paper or other similar permanent surfaces. At the
same time it became easier to reflect on communication itself and for a social systems to self-
We already described the property of permanence. The impact of writing on social systems
is extraordinary. For the first time in history written texts create the possibility to reproduce
communication even if Alter and Ego (the individuals involved in the communicative process
according to the terminology proposed by Luhmann) were not present in the same space at the
same time. The written text becomes the space where Alter and Ego virtually meet.
Communication becomes therefore a place (Boccia Artieri 2004). A text in itself (a book, a
written conversation and so on) it‟s not in fact a communication according to Luhmann.
Communication takes place just when Alter clearly distinguishes between what (information)
and the how (message). But something has really changed with written communication. As a
matter of fact, the process of communication production takes place thanks to something
external to communication itself (media of diffusion). We may even say that the written text
is the waste product created by this process. It is not thus completely correct to state that
communication becomes permanent. Even with writings, communication still remains an
event (something that happens with comprehension and suddenly disappears). However,
through writing this process starts to leave traces behind it. The analysis of those traces
opened new possibilities for social scientists (and for society itself) to distinguish once again
between information and message in order to run a second order observation of themes
(information) used by communicative networks.
Themes are particularly important for the theory since it explain the role of the
environment to the functioning of social systems. They are fundamental for communication to
take place. Not every theme in the environment becomes object of communication and it is
exactly this selective process that may help social scientist to better understand the system
The broad complex of themes used by communication and made permanent by writings
starts to accumulate and to constitute a new form of social memory deeply different from the
forms of memories typical of oral communities (Esposito 2001).
Even with the diffusion of writing the vast majority of conversations remains oral and do
not leave traces. Since only written communication becomes permanent, it is always useful to
note that the permanent conversations will always be a specific selection of society. These
permanent conversations become therefore part of the self-selected memory of a society.
Making contents easy to reproduce on a large scale, printing press increase even more the
grow potentiality of social systems. Books as well as written texts are not communications in
itself but crystallized themes useful to start new communications from. Together permanence
and replicability determined an extraordinary increase of possibilities to use communication
itself as a theme for communications.
With replicability printing press bringed also another important characteristic. The
separation between Alter and Ego is in fact a distinctive property of printing press and,
generally speaking, of the mass media. The author of a printed book is aware that he or she
will not know and cannot know exactly who will read it. As a consequence, the author tends
to “build” his own image of the public using the available social cues.
At the same time readers and consumers of mass media do not know, in the vast majority
of case, the author of the content they are reading and they are therefore unable to frame the
meaning in the context of what they know about him or her. As a consequence, “what” is
communicated becomes much more important than “who” communicates.The communication
aided by printing press and mass media is thus permanent, replicable and addressed to an
As in the case of writings, even with the availability of printing press not all the
communications processes leave traces. And the traces are not always the same. Replicability
makes these traces much more visible and widely available if compared to written
communication. Of course, as in the case of writing societies, the vast majority of
communications still remains oral and does not leave any trace at all. Even more than in the
case of writing, it is important to reflect about the criteria used to select contents considered
so important to pass the filter of publishing and be therefore remembered.
This ideas lead Luhmann to draw the distinction between two forms of semantics
(Luhmann 1983). The first was selected to be published (remembered) and contains therefore
many interesting hints to study the self-perception of a society. The second is the repository of
themes, sometime permanent (observable as in the case of written texts) sometime not, that
did not not pass the publishing filter. This distinction is therefore typical of modernity as well
as of the era of mass medium.
Even Luhmann described in books like Love as Passion (1987) the way social scientists
may use the circular relationship between the structure of society and the repository of theme
(semantics) used by communicative networks.
What Luhmann could not had imaginedv was the availability of a global searchable
network that make it easy to access, find and analyze these contents from everywhere in the
If Luhmann had the chance to see a website such as Google Book Searchvi he would have
probably changed his mind about computers and informatics reconsidering the balance
between risks and trust. Searching the world “love” on Google Book Search (just in the books
available as full text) returns 284.000 occurrences of the term in books published between
1717 and 2007. An amazing rich quantity of content that becomes today really available
thanks to the property of searchability that networked spaces added to permanence,
replicability and invisible audience.
Self-observation of social systems has never been so quickly and dramatically improved in
the history of society.
However, to fully grasp the impact of networked spaces on semantic we must also consider
that the web is not really a read-only-medium. Its impact is far from being just a new and
improved way to access semantics of society. It is in fact also a way for anyone to contribute
to the development of something similar to this semantics.
How can we define within this framework, the topics of posts and comments in weblogs,
discussion boards, Flickr photos and YouTube videos if not as permanent, replicable,
searchable and addressed to an invisible audience crystallized themes of semantics?
These themes are of course different form the one we may find in books or movies since
they didn‟t pass any filter to be published and to access their permanent state. This distinction
should suggest to deal with this data in a different way than we may do with the data
available in books or newspapers. With digital web contents the filter happens in fact after the
publishing and not before. The filter is in the attention paid to a content. According to the so
called economy of the attention, a content published on the web with a low level of visitors
and links will be so hard to find to be easily considered as not yet published.
At the same time we should also note that even if these contents did not pass the publishing
filter they still maintain a permanent semantic connection with the theme itself.
As it is therefore easy to realize that this is just another paradox of the Internet era
observed with the distinctions rooted in modernity. The epistemological status of this
grassroots conversations and their role for the memory of a society is somewhat unclear and
will require in the future, as a matter of fact, more studies and reflections.
6. Perspectives for social sciences
Even if it is beyond the scope of this paper to solve the epistemological issue described
above, we can try to define the above described phenomenon. We will focus on to the
repository of themes as grassroots semantics.
It is not in fact necessary to solve the epistemological issue here to sketch out the
perspectives that grassroots semantics open for social research.
The quantity of contents available today in order to study networks of interconnected
communications (social systems) has never been so deep and vast.
The analysis of themes and crystallized link between themes is one of the most interesting
and underdeveloped approach within the theory of social systemsvii. Permanence and
searchability of this themes make it possible to run empirical research based upon content
analysis (Krippendorff 2004) and open up new possibilities to use operatively on the field the
theory of social systems (often criticized of being pure theoretical).
As every new path, even the one we are describing, is not without risks. According to our
first experiences with this approachviii we identified at last two different classes of problems.
The first is both epistemological, theoretical and methodological. The approach is
concerned, as it should be clear by now, with the content analysis of public conversations.
The authors of these conversations are aware of the presence of an audience and may act
consequently. It would be a mistake not to consider carefully this aspect while dealing with
these data. However within a framework of observing systems (as in the theory of social
systems) it is not actually possible to deal sociologically with first order data since every
effort to observe this data (even traditional methodologies based on surveys, interviews or
focus group) require the use of communication and will be therefore subject to the pseudo-
The analysis of grassroots social semantics will therefore require the ability to distinguish
between different levels of observation and due to this requirements this approach appears to
be better framed within a second order cybernetic framework.
The second problem is strictly quantitative. The quantity of available data may even
become problematic. Those data are in fact rich of meanings that often require a qualitative
approach to content analysis better then a purely quantitative oneix. The hypothesis to select a
representative sample and qualitative analyze this sample is at often impossible since the
universe of the cases change quickly over time and it is usually very hard to indentify.
A possible answer to this problem rooted in quantity but in fact qualitative, may be the use
the web 2.0 distributed logic against itself. A web 2.0 application may be developed in order
to support the work of social scientists interested in user generated content analysis. The
software should aid researchers in finding, storing, sharing and analyzing this data. The data
analysis layer will features some similarity with the software for content analysis available
today but will support, thanks to the web nature of the application, a wide range of
collaborative work by even a large and internationally distributed group of researchers on the
same project. A large scale international collaboration will be useful both to solve the
problem of quantity described above and to support project that require the analysis of
contents in several different languages.
The development of such a kind of application is a perfect example of the collaboration
between computer science and social science required by Web sciences.
Never more than before a better collaboration between different traditional fields of
science, as highlighted many years ago by the first cybernetician Norbert Wiener, appears to
be the key to further develop the understanding of our fast chancing society.
This is the reason why we believe Web Science should talk the shared language of
cybernetics and theory of general systems.
Since everything in the human machine relationship started there, it is probably there
thatwe should start to look for possible solutions.
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Cheap and small personal computers that work thanks to a permanent Internet connection with more powerful
However, it must be highlighted that a second half of teenagers ignore privacy settings even in a cultural
context like USA where technologies are wide available since longer time then other countries.
See the idea of imagined communities by Benedict Anderson.
The complexity of the theory of social systems is well known. It is not not possible to write in details this
theory within the space and scope of this paper. For a good introduction to the theory Luhmann, N. and R. De
Giorgi (2000). Teoria della società. Milano, FrancoAngeli.
Even if some references to the impact of computers on society in his last works may lead us to think he was
starting to grasp it, as claimed in Baecker, D. (2006). "Niklas Luhmann in the Society of the Computer."
Cybernetics & Human Knowing 13: 25-40.
The well known Google project (http://books.google.com) to scan, index and make searchable the content of
all books available in the libraries. A similar project is carried on by Microsoft.
Luhmann wrote in the first pages of Love as Passion about his intention to follow up with this kind of
Fonio, C., F. Giglietto, et al. (2007). Eyes on You. Narrating pregnancy in a networked space. Toward a social
science of web 2.0. York.; Giglietto, F. and L. Rossi. (2006). "Eyes on Europe." 2007.
Even the most advanced and sophisticated software for automatic content analysis can‟t understand or classify
meanings in a sentence if not in very poor and imprecise way.