18.27, Tuesday 19 Nov 2002

The idea of a social rhetoric has been bubbling round my head. I'll outline my thinking first, and defend it next.

  • Groups act in a way that is more than the sum of the individuals.
  • There is communication going on at a group level, a social language.
  • Given the paths of spoken language are hardwired into the brain, maybe social language is too.
  • We need to develop a social rhetoric to harness and direct this social language.

Groups act in a way that is more than the sum of the individuals. Now you can invoke emergence and say that the behaviour of the group is nothing more than the interactions of individual behaviour, aggregated and displaying properties we couldn't have predicted. Firstly, that's indistinguishable from true group behaviour. But more importantly, second, that's too reductionist for my taste -- groups need to work well together, there's evolutionary pressure for this, and nature will make use of anything that's around. Watching a group making a seemingly logical decision is massively different to a single person or even two people. Anyway, if groups were simple enough to study as the addition of individuals we'd still need to look at individual-to-group communication, we'd still need to make abstractions because the number of one-to-one relationships increases massively as the group expands, and we'de still be exploring a new area. Groups are different.

There is communication going on at a group level, a social language. We know there's non-verbal communication going on, and from there it's the same argument as above: non-verbal communication with a number of people is different enough from one-to-one that we can label it "social language" and move on. But ultimately, it feels right that there's something special going on here. It's a whole other ballgame speaking in a group where pheromones, many-to-many gestures, body language, feedback loops, group think, social pressures come into play.

Humanity is social. We're socialised in the first few years of our life. We respond to pressure and correspond to trends and fashion without realising it. Social language is all the various verbal and non-verbal languages mixed up and with elements of public/private and mystery ingredient X thrown in. Social language slips underneath the cognitive conscious. Social guilt is called shame. Maybe mild autism is social dyslexia.

Given the paths of spoken language are hardwired into the brain, maybe social language is too. Spoken language is hard-wired. There's a universal grammar in your brain that all languages conform to -- a baby growing up around adults who speak only a poor second language with no form of grammar will spontaneously create its own grammar, coherant with the universal grammar intrinsic in all of us.

The language instinct is important. It hardcodes certain rules about sentences that make otherwise irreducibly complex parsing problems solvable in an infant's brain. It defines parse-rules and buffers, and these are things that can be measured, with clocks. Why is it in there? Because there's an evolutionary advantage in a spoken language that can grow recursively (like ours; it's not limited to certain stock patterns), and an advantage in the rapid learning of it. And so ditto social language. Perhaps there's a social grammar right there, paths along which neurons always grow.

We need to develop a social rhetoric to harness and direct this social language. I choose the word "rhetoric" carefully. We don't need to understand social language or social grammar, and we don't need to study it that hard. We just need to know rules of thumb about what works and what doesn't.

The Greeks developed rhetoric as a system of rules for speaking and putting across an point orally, something that's very difficult without writing (yet, rhetoric was only developed once writing had given the Greeks the power of introspection of oral culture). What rhetoric gave people - everybody! - was a way of constructing arguments and communicating them. It abstracted the gut instinct away, and based on existing grammar-of-persuasion it made a set of rules people could follow to do something. It codified the uncodifiable by simplifying it and using it for a single purpose.

The thing to note about rhetoric is it's efficient at what it does. Convincing, memorable (the point, maybe not the words exactly), to the point. This is entirely the opposite from undirected speech: conversation, which although it's prone to twists, turns and great ideas, isn't so good as following through a logical path.

This is where social rhetoric comes in. We're not thinking about undirected communities or groups here, we're thinking about software to aid directed team activity. And so there are three branches:

  • Some people are really good at working with teams of ~150 people, but most aren't. They're not so good at speaking the social language.
  • Once we move out of the real world and online, most of the social language routes have been removed and have to be reconstructed.
  • Directed or telic group behaviour doesn't allow the full spectrum of social language because it's constrained.

Just as rhetoric presents a methodology for telic conversation (conversation abstracted to be directed), social rhetoric can present a methodology for telic community or teams (a group abstracted to be directed).

Social rhetoric has the properties of being available for anyone to use; able to operate within a restricted environment; of being able to handle ambiguities, exceptions, and what happens when individuals operate in a way that isn't immediately handled by the rules (so instead of rules it's a network of incentive fields).

Now deriving social rhetoric is the hard part. I have three suggestions.

Look at successful teams. The rules of thumb have to come from somewhere, and the best way is to look at how the people skilled in operating in restricted social environments and getting things done work. How are social pressures set up? How are goals advertised? Can an exhaustive list of communication methods be collated?

Operate in a way coherant with the hardwired social grammar. If an individual acts without knowing how to act, this shouldn't be rejected by the social rhetoric. Ideally, to a first order approximation social rhetoric should just be how telic communities normally operate. But less ideally if somebody comes up against the abstraction strata they should be steered back on course.

A shared terminology. Anthropology, sociology, rhetoric itself -- all this ground has been covered, but has never had to look in this exact direction. If we need words to exchange these concepts between ourselves (I think we do), then we could do worse than listen to specialists from these fields and learn, learn, learn.

If this sounds to you like the secret properties of social software, you'd be right. What makes the www successful isn't the url at the bottom of every advert; what makes IM isn't just its ubiquity. There's View Source and addressibility, there are Away messages. We can look at technologies that were successful without meaning to be, look at social environments that give results with being forced, and investigate what factors in the substrate made this possible. And then, hopefully, build some ourselves.